The fall of a university: How Fort Hare collapsed into dysfunction

What went wrong at the University of Fort Hare?Picture: Argief
What went wrong at the University of Fort Hare?Picture: Argief

What went wrong at the University of Fort Hare?

This is a probing question two seasoned academics, Professors Chris Brink and Louis Molamu, asked stakeholders – students, unions, staff, council and its committees – of the historic university.

The two were appointed as independent assessors to get to the bottom of the institution’s decline.

Their findings lifted a lid on what is happening within the corridors of Fort Hare. They also unravelled a myriad of factors leading to the eventual collapse of the university’s council – whose mandate was to provide oversight and preserve its rich legacy.

The assessors, in their report published last Friday, put this bluntly: “The University of Fort Hare should be a beacon of transcending the inequalities of apartheid as an academic institution of excellence. Indeed, the motto of university is ‘Together in excellence’, and it is a tragedy that this is at present only a vision, not a reality.”

The damning 82-page report revealed for the first time how the university processes had collapsed and triggered the intervention by central government – first the appointment of Professor Loyiso Nongxa as the administrator in April and later the roping in of Brink and Molamu.

The dysfunction in the university’s structures due to factions, poor governance and lack of practising basic managerial duties, were laid bare in the report. It paints a dire state of affairs at Fort Hare, dating back more than a decade and failure to resolve its challenges.

READ: Assessors tackle heavy allegations at Fort Hare University

The assessors also found “disturbing signs of a widespread belief that the university is a kind of a cash cow which everyone is entitled to milk for personal benefit”.

However, they said there was a glimmer of hope, but recommended Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande’s department to dedicate an oversight team to monitor its progress for three years after Nongxa’s departure, warning that failing to do so would pose a risk of Fort Hare collapsing.

Catalyst for the national government intervention

The report’s executive summary sets out how the intervention began. A highly contested council meeting on April 12 this year was the final straw that broke the camel’s back.

“On April 12, there was a meeting of nine members [out of a possible 31] of the university council: four employees, two students, the president of convocation, the chair of the audit and risk committee, and a new external member appointed by one of the local municipalities.

“They declared themselves duly constituted as a meeting of council, elected the new member as ‘interim chairperson of council’, and proceeded to take a number of decisions.”

One of the contested decisions taken was to suspend the vice-chancellor Professor Sakhela Buhlungu. The report also notes that after that meeting, several lawyers gave various conflicting opinions on the legality of the meeting.

“It is not our purpose to adjudicate on this question, since in our view on the question was superseded by the ministerial decision to intervene and suspend council,” the report reads.

Nevertheless, the intervention team identified that:
  • Council became dysfunctional and factionalised after the terms of office of several council members expired last year and were not renewed or replaced;
  • management became embroiled in bitter battles with individuals and ‘stakeholder’ bodies; and
  • it noted the long distances between Alice, East London and Bhisho campuses, which staff travelled to teach.

This, assessors said, was “a time bomb waiting to explode”.

The fuse, assessors said was lit when Buhlungu arrived in 2017. They said Fort Hare celebrated its centenary in 2016 under the outgoing vice-chancellor Dr Mvuyo Tom and it had also experienced the stresses of the #FeesMustFall student campaign.

Buhlungu’s appointment, assessors said, as well as the new national dispensation of fee-free education below a certain income threshold, brought an opportunity to make a new start and address the long standing problems of the university.

“This expectation was conveyed to the incoming vice-chancellor at the time of his appointment. However, his efforts in this regard, and the manner of conducting these efforts, soon led to contestations with ‘stakeholder’ constituencies such as the student political organisations, organised labour and the institutional forum,” the report reads.

Divisions, factions, fears, poor record keeping

In setting out their analysis of how contestations unfolded, the assessors said in their view the main source of the problems was the general disregard of a fundamental principle of governance.

They said the role of a council member, whether internal or external, was to contribute to collective decision-making for the benefit of the university.

“It was the disregard of this principle, whether deliberately or in ignorance, individually or in groups, that led to the necessity for ministerial intervention.”

Besides the high level contestations, the assessors also discovered that there were other abnormalities – systematic administrative weaknesses and an endemic culture of fear.

Their site visit findings

Brink and Molamu said they witnessed poor teaching facilities and inadequate student accommodation.

“We saw student rooms without an outside window, and no ventilation. In an environment known to students as ‘never mind’ we saw a stand-alone dilapidated one-room structure which houses a student with a disability,” the report reads.

The Alice and East London campuses, assessors said, were neglected with broken-down cars standing there for years. The first signs of neglect were also visible at the Bhisho campus.

Recommendations to Nzimande

Assessors recommended that Nzimande should:

  • Consider appointing a new chair of the university council rather than have the chair elected by new council members from among themselves; and
  • liaise with the Council on Higher Education to arrange an institutional quality assurance audit.

An ombuds post, Brink and Molamu recommended, should be created by the new council to safeguard staff and students against possible abuse of power.

They did not recommend disciplinary action against Buhlungu. However, they recommended that some appropriate support structures be put in place for the vice-chancellor “to give those who are aggrieved with him some reassurance that the ‘dictatorship’ of which he has been accused could not become a reality”.

In addition, they recommended a forensic investigation targeting the supply chain management office for contracts awarded or cancelled over the past three years. These include that of security costs related to the vice-chancellor, among others.

Brink and Molamu also called for the research incentive policy to be revised.

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