Academic whitewash

In recent weeks, I have listened to two very painful speeches by senior black women in our academic establishment.

The one was by the chancellor of the University of Cape Town (UCT), Graça Machel, and the other by vice-principal of the University of Pretoria and president of the Convocation of the University of the Witwatersrand, Mamokgethi Setati. I mention their positions because what they say matters – for better and for worse.

Thanking the academic staff at one of our graduation ceremonies, Machel said: “I know we are criticised that we are not transforming enough. This is an issue we are going to deal with, but more important than who is teaching is who you are teaching and how they come out of this institution. When we see the mixture, in race and gender and class, regardless of who teaches, the product is what we are proud to offer to society. We will walk this journey of transformation but, most importantly, transformation is already happening.”

I asked myself whether the chancellor and I face the same reality at UCT, where there is not even one black woman who is a full professor, and only five black full professors out of more than 200. That is 0% and 2.5%, respectively, Madame Chancellor.

When the gathering applauded the chancellor’s remark, I secretly prayed they were not applauding these scandalous statistics.

Our departments of history, politics, philosophy, arts and anthropology do not have full black professors, which raises the question of whose historical, political, philosophical or artistic perspectives are offered, and in whose cultural and linguistic idioms.

It is one thing to have a graduating class that looks diverse, and quite another to make sure that class has had exposure to the full range of experiences and perspectives that comprise our social world.

Since the 1960s, the world has seen an epistemological revolution in fields such as sociology, political philosophy, psychiatry, art and law. Black and female scholars have been at the forefront of these changes.

Harvard legal scholar Duncan Kennedy captured the impact of black scholars on American jurisprudence as follows: “The historical influence of black liberation thought on all other forms of late 20th century American theory about subordination has been enormous?…?wherever groups are in question, whether in corporate law or in family law or in the law of federalism or in local government law, the historic minority debates and their contemporary extension should have an impact on sophisticated mainstream thinking.”

It was not until Harvard University had an influx of black professors – from the lone presence of Martin Kilson in the 1960s – that it had the best African and African-American studies programme in the world.

At UCT, I teach a social theory class in which, in addition to Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, Talcott Parsons, Alvin Gouldner and C Wright Mills, I also include the writings of Tiyo Soga, SEK Mqhayi, Sol Plaatje, RV Selope Thema, Pixley ka Seme, Nontsizi Mgqwetho, Charlotte Maxeke, Neville Alexander, Phyllis Ntantala, ZK Matthews, Robert Sobukwe and Steve Biko.

It is important for all our students to know that Europeans are not the only people who have thought and written about the social world.

The composition of the academic staff matters also because it is important for black students to have role models standing in the classroom. Not only does this signal that they too can be professors, but it dramatically improves their academic performance.

I should know – I see the personal transformation of these students every day in the classroom.

At a debate on transformation at UCT, Setati also questioned the emphasis on the numbers of black professors as follows: “The debate as it has been going on in the newspapers has been about numbers. I am not sure if numbers are useful. I am not sure if numbers tell us everything. Transformation is not just about numbers because counting the number of black or female professors, whilst it is important, is not a sufficient measure of the progress we have made in transformation.

“Counting the number of professors tells us mainly about the promotion policies of various universities.”

But what is the underlying thinking that makes people instinctively raise the spectre of a trade-off between quantity and quality whenever we talk about more black professors?

Ironically, the trade-off is a straw argument that feeds into the racist stereotype that a large black presence would result in the lowering of standards.

Numbers matter also because there should be a critical mass of black professors in the University Senate, which is the highest decision-making body when it comes to academic affairs.

I just find it difficult to imagine that doing away with race-based affirmative action would have been such a high priority for the Senate, or would have passed so easily, if that august body was populated by a large number of black full professors.

Ultimately, this questioning of the relevance of the make-up and numbers of black and female professors at our universities is a distraction from the imperative to build inclusive, diverse institutions.

If the logic prevails that who teaches does not matter – and in what numbers – we might as well call it quits on transformation in all other sectors of our society.

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