2012-06-20 00:00

LOUNGING in the rolling green hills of the Midlands at a prestigious school, sipping wine out of a frosty glass and watching glorious school boys knock themselves senseless during a game of rugby, the conversation switched to university choices for the privileged offspring.

“So where,” one Lacoste-clad father, puffing out cigar smoke somewhat inconsiderately across the languorous group, asked: “are you sending your boys?”

“To the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN), of course,” I replied. It was a mistake. I spent the remainder of my time there defending this choice.

UKZN appears to have become the latest fashionable enemy of choice. We’ve had our fair share of bad press over the past couple of years, and all the institutional restructuring and change have been pretty difficult for a lot of people. But any sort of transformation is frightening. We don’t know what will happen, so we fight furiously to resist. The Witness changes its masthead, and the wrath of Pietermaritzburg envelops the editor in shrouds of distaste and anger, so what can we expect from bigger instances than the change of font colour in a newspaper? Change rips us out of our comfort zones, promises unexplored territory and brings with it animosity and tension.

It is important to remember that UKZN is embedded in the global tertiary-education industry. Overnight, in the mid-2000s, the university became a mega institution on a budget that is minuscule compared to its American and British counterparts, and playing catch up between administrative systems and reconfigured structures is always going to be a challenge under these conditions.

Everywhere, universities are being subjected to structural adjustments. This instrumentalist strategy forgets that universities are interacting and interactive organisms, and when managed thus, they perform best. These are the conditions currently being negotiated by all UKZN academics and administrative staff.

Think of this: when The Witness ran a xenophobia-related picture of a burning man on the front page of its Saturday edition a few years ago, the same edition had a picture of a dead horse inside somewhere. Nearly 400 people, both black and white, phoned in to complain about the squashed horse. Only three were upset about the visual evidence of a seriously screwed-up society.

This same mind-set appears to raise its ugly head when UKZN comes under discussion. And yet, one look out of my tower-office window at the hundreds of students chatting under the enormous jacaranda trees on the lawns, tells me our campus is as good as it ever was.

People need to separate the personality problems of the institution from the staff on the ground. And the staff are, by and large (and if you will pardon my arrogance), brilliant. We’re a research-led institution. This means immense pressure on the lecturing staff, as we’re expected to produce intellectual output constantly, as well as teaching, marking, mentoring, and furthering our own qualifications. But in essence, it also means that UKZN is one of the top three research-led universities in South Africa — and considering we’re in competition with the University of Cape Town, which has nearly double the amount of staff, that’s pretty amazing.

It also means we’re now listed as one of the top 500 universities in the world.

UKZN boasts 11 South African National Research Foundation (NRF) chairs — the fourth highest in the country. These research chairs are awarded by the NRF on a competitive basis.

Last year, we had 213 NRF-rated researchers: four A-rated and 43 B-rated. Graduate students seek us out. At the moment, I have seven PhD students: one (white) American academic who has just graduated, two (black) Johannesburg professionals, one (white) former newspaper editor, one (black) Cape Town online editor, one (white) renowned human rights activist, and one (white) “regular” student who keeps getting international offers in the academic field, but fortunately for us, remains here. Students of excellence at the postgraduate level actively seek us out.

And the benefits of the current reconfiguration are beginning to show. Take the Centre for Communication, Media and Society (CCMS) at Howard College, for example. Located in the new School of Applied Human Sciences, in a well-supported interdisciplinary research environment, they attract top students from all over the world. CCMS’s global strategic partnerships feed huge ­intellectual and financial resources into the centre, and its students get international exposure through intercontinental collaborative networks managed by some of the world’s top scholars.

Also, UKZN, in July, is hosting the International Association for Communication and Media Research conference. The pressure on UKZN to host this massive event is due to the global recognition of UKZN as a site of media, communication and cultural-studies research, led by luminaries, such as Professor Ruth Teer-Tomaselli, two-time SABC board member, holder of a Unesco chair in communication, and a vice-president of the association.

The lesson: where top management provides an efficient operating environment, the university’s effectiveness is best measured by the work of its educational and research staff, the quality of its graduates and the difference they make in the world. CCMS is just one such centre located at UKZN, and many programmes which constitute the bulk of UKZN’s divisions, are rising to the task in their own creative ways.

Space constraints allow me to elaborate only briefly, but take drama and performance studies in Pietermaritzburg. Started in the early seventies, its facilities remain some of the best in the country, including three theatre venues — the Hexagon Theatre, the Studio Theatre and The Dive — as well as recording and dance studios. In the past four years, four of their students have been awarded Fulbright Scholarships to pursue their studies in the United States, and Erin Fourie and Bonwa Mbontsi are both UKZN graduates.

Agriculture in Pietermaritzburg offers the widest range of agricultural disciplines at any one South African institution, and is a leader on the African continent in food security. Geography remains at the top of its field. Our maths is brilliant, and we have many prestigious programmes and centres in science. We are renowned for our medical research, especially in the field of HIV/Aids.

We boast the Centre for Visual Arts — where do you think many of South Africa’s leading artists (and art lecturers) got their degrees? We offer world-renowned ceramics courses, painting, print-making, a gallery, archives, and a leading digital arts programme recently started by Professor Anton van der Hoven. Our media courses offer superb film-making, led by a multiple award-winning instructor and New York Film School graduate, Mike Hatton. Psychology, law, religion and theology are leaders in their fields. Two centres that enjoy international recognition are the Ujamma Centre for Community Development and Research, and the Sinomlando Centre for Oral History and Memory Work.

So let me tell you about the Amazing Eight, my current honours journalism students (http://klinesmith mecs707.wordpress.com).

They range from the dreadlocked wisecracker, to the idealist who wants to change the world.

I’ve encouraged them to write blogs , take photographs, make videos, produce news and feature stories, lay out news pages and feature pages, and write academic pieces and long essays, theorise and practise. They’re growing in confidence, and are ready now to take on the world. They know where their strengths and weaknesses are. They have critical, inquiring minds, a healthy scepticism, skills and an education. And they’re a tight little group, who have respect for each other’s cultures, religions, political views and takes on life. They work together — and socialise together.

They care about a strange human dying. They’re our future. And that’s why I choose not to send my boys to a safe white enclave, but to my university.


• Dr Nicola Jones is academic leader of media and cultural studies, the Centre for Visual Arts, and Drama and Performance Studies (Pietermaritzburg). She writes in her personal capacity.


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