Rotting from the top

2012-02-16 00:00

YET again the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) has demonstrated that teaching and tear gas do not make a happy mix. Police vehicles have been careering around the Westville campus trying to disperse students protesting about financial aid. That at least is the ostensible reason: student unrest is seldom clear-cut.

Learning in its various forms, whether in the lecture hall, library or laboratory, is the lifeblood of all universities. And to flourish, it requires very specific conditions — institutional stability and an atmosphere of calm and orderliness. In general, these are the circumstances under which most intellectual creativity thrives. Clashes between students and police are a particular threat to necessary peace and quiet, but there has been a more fundamental instability in the local university for years.

Since the early nineties, the UKZN and its predecessors have experienced an almost endless process of structural change. There are various reasons for this, none of them edifying. The corporate types at the top of the tree have increasingly divorced themselves from the coalface (not least in terms of salary) and distrust has developed between them and the rest of the staff. One of the ways of keeping the latter in line is the confusion and disorientation of perpetual change and the underlying if unspoken threat of job losses.

Occasionally, a few mavericks have stepped out of line in support of strangely old-fashioned concepts like academic freedom, good governance and consultation based on collegiality. In 2008, the faculty of science and agriculture tried to get the issue of academic freedom discussed at Senate.

The response was the persecution of two highly respected professors by a disciplinary committee heavily populated by conscienceless lawyers earning unconscionable fees. This unsavoury episode was roundly condemned internationally by heavyweigh­t academics, but both professors had to leave and are now at the University of Pretoria. The message was loud, clear and fully understood. The consequent, intended silence is deafening.

Another reason for perpetual change is the short life span of most executive appointments. Incumbents are keen to prove themselves regardless of the consequences before they move on to the next green pasture in this era of the university millionaire. The solid tradition of custodianship is long dead.

The latest upheaval has seen the three-tier structure of colleges, faculties and schools collapsed into two. The middle layer has been removed and there is good reason for this. In the days of academic rule, faculties elected their deans and formed critical masses of staff capable of taking on the executive. Although times changed, faculties remained a potential threat to the managerialism and corporatism that plague universities today. So they have been replaced by two dozen relatively small schools, far more amenable to the top-down control by line managers required by the executive.


A particular casualty has been that unsung group of university staff known as academic administration. Faculty officers were the kingpins (more usually queenpins) of a functioning university. Amid demoralisation and demotivation their staff have been redeployed. Crucial services like student counselling have been disrupted in an attempt to shoehorn them into new, inappropriate structures.

Meanwhile, that long-running sub-plot, the marginalisation of the Pietermaritzburg campus, continues. One deputy vice-chancellor and head of college refuses to travel from Durban to the provincial capital and recently summoned several dozen staff to Westville. Sensibly they arranged for bus transport, which failed to arrive. On investigation it was discovere­d that the necessary deposit had not been paid because basic budgets had not been allocated. Informed of this, the bigwig ordered the academics to get in their cars and drive. It is heartening to know that some of them refused.

Take a look at the palisade fence that encircles the local campus. Much of it is about 20 years old and rotting from the bottom. It is tempting to seek some symbolism in this, except that where the university still does faithfully serve its students this is due to the efforts of long-suffering staff in the lower echelons. The problem, as with most declining institutions, lies at the top.

There is a direct connection between student unrest and constant structural change. Poor students are turned away for lack of funds, but millions have been wasted on the latest organisational fad, often to be upended a few years later. The vice-chancellor is the highest paid in the country. Endless disciplinary hearings and commissions of inquiry have sent law firms smiling all the way to the bank. Unnecessary travel, duplication of offices and inflated packages for the bureaucratic elite have eaten up resources and undermined the real purpose of the university.

Rioting students deserve no sympathy. But there is no doubt that they are victims of a system that has failed to get its priorities right.


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