Race debate: Not so fast ...

2014-08-07 06:45

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UCT vice-chancellor Max Price has his own ideas about growing the black and female professoriate

Xolela Mangcu in “10 steps to develop black professors” (City Press, July 20 2014) makes constructive suggestions on how to grow the number of black and female professors at South African universities, and his recognition that this is ?a national challenge at all universities is welcome.

We are in complete agreement that the situation of only 4% of South African professors being African South Africans is “calamitous” and “needs serious attention”.

Several of the interventions he suggests are in place at the University of Cape Town (UCT) and no doubt at other universities too.

However, I disagree with Mangcu that we should adopt the US tenure track model as a way of shortening the 20-year normal path of becoming a professor after completing a PhD.

While I do not have a fundamental objection to the US model, I think it is actually more problematic for transformation.

One starts on the tenure track shortly after finishing a postdoctoral fellowship (typically four years long) and gets the title of assistant professor.

But everyone in academia knows this is simply the equivalent of our lecturers going on to become senior lecturers.

It is not a badge of achievement or a guarantee of promotion to full professorship. It has no rights of authority, such as the membership of the university senate.

Simply changing the title of our academics is not transformation and does not convey status anyway?–?hence the convention now in the US of referring to “real” professors as “tenured professors”.

The trajectory from postdoctorate to assistant professor to associate professor and finally to tenured full professor still takes roughly the same amount of time as in the European, South African, Australian and other models.

However, on the downside, the system is a funnel that depends on a large number of assistant professors, only a small proportion of whom get tenure as full professors.

There is enormous job insecurity since one only finds out well into one’s career whether one will have a permanent academic job or not.

Those who fail to achieve tenure generally leave academia or move to community colleges or less desirable universities.

In my opinion, this uncertainty will make it even harder to attract black scholars into an academic career, given the security of other choices open to them.

In fact, one of our strategies to recruit black academics has to be to identify them when they are still senior undergraduates and help them map out a career ladder with guarantees of promotion and employment conditional upon their making the grade.

This we have been doing through the “growing our own timber” programmes. The results have been mixed.

However, Mangcu is right that there is nothing magical or immutable about the 20-year path from PhD to professor. At UCT we are certainly trying to accelerate progress up the ladder for black and female academics.

Achieving the necessary research track record is the most significant hurdle to promotion at all stages.

Our Emerging Researcher Programme, which has had more than 500 participants in the past 10 years, includes workshops on research proposal writing, grant writing, special research grants that are dedicated for emerging researchers (since they are usually not yet competitive in finding external grants), more frequent sabbaticals (research leave after, say, three years instead of waiting till the seventh year), privileged access to funding to attend international conferences and gain international exposure and experience, and regular research retreats where working with other emerging scholars provides intellectual and moral support.

There are other obstacles, especially for new academics who do not come from a tradition or dynasty of academics. Very often, we find they just do not know how to work the system.

We address this through a formal, two-year induction programme and through a mentorship programme of paid senior professors (often retired).

Black academics sometimes tell me that the institutional culture is alienating. Perhaps this will change when black academics achieve a critical mass of numbers, but we cannot sit idle until then.

Some of the interventions we have put in place are a formal ombud’s office, where any case of harassment or discrimination can be addressed, maintaining full anonymity; where any concerns can be raised about how the organisation works or how one is treated.

We conduct exit interviews with those who resign to establish whether they are leaving because of their work environment.

We also cannot wait until there are enough black professors to change the demography and diversity of the various committee structures, and especially senate.

So although senate is meant to be mainly professors, we have increased it by co-opting about 35 non-professors, specifically to achieve diversity. Similarly, all committees, including selection committees, are constructed with additional co-optees if they lack diversity.

As Mangcu says of transformation, it requires political will?– with the allocation of the necessary resources.

At UCT, for example, if we have a black applicant for a vacancy who shows great potential but is not quite qualified or experienced enough, we may create an extra post into which we can appoint the candidate, so that they can develop to the expected level.

Finally, our selection committees have employment equity representatives who undergo special training. The requirements for the job are interrogated to see whether a lower-level appointment could be made should black applicants only be eligible at that level. Search committees are routinely appointed to seek out promising candidates.

But ultimately, there is a structural problem of the size of the current candidate pool, which will take years to address.

» Price is vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town

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