Black professors stalled by policy

Xolela Mangcu set off a round of lively debates when he wrote a scathing critique of transformation directed at the University of Cape Town (UCT) in July.

UCT’s vice-chancellor, Dr Max Price, offered a reply – carried on the university’s website – which a grouping of black UCT scholars characterised as defensive and problematic in terms of its assumptions about black scholars.

I would like to agree with the more recent views expressed by Mangcu, “Black academics must unite” (City Press, October 19 2014).

UCT’s racial statistics are appalling.

But Simphiwe Sesanti is correct when he says this has got to be more than just a numbers game, “Black academics must move the centre” (City Press, October 26 2014).

Sesanti argues that black scholars’ ideological orientation is vital to addressing the obstacles to transformation. But even here, I hear the argument by the 19 black UCT scholars who responded to Price’s reply to Mangcu: surely transformation is not the responsibility of black scholars alone?

While most of us agree that universities should become more inclusive and representative of national demographics, the devil is in the detail – especially when it comes to addressing institutional culture and university funding.

Too often, transformation is reduced to head counts. Statistics are vital, but we really need to address institutional culture and the department of higher education and training’s cuts in budget allocations to universities.

You can’t expect meaningful transformation if universities are expected to do more with less.

At present, institutions like UCT are only able to make new academic appointments off retirements and resignations.

But a resignation or retirement in a department does not automatically mean a new post will be allocated to that department. And that is how departments are pitted against each other in the battle for posts, especially when staff-to-student ratios vary from department to department.

Not only does this make the appointment and retention of talented black staff difficult, it limits scholars’ abilities to make bold curriculum changes that might actually assist transformation. If departments become more concerned with holding the fort, it is difficult to innovate.

That said, the problems of racism and sexism cannot merely be reduced to economics, but are still linked to it. Class disparities in South Africa are racialised and gendered, and it is research from the humanities that is best equipped to address race and gender inequalities and prejudices. Poor funding to the humanities undermines this.

Universities don’t just create workers for workplaces. They help build careers and, more importantly, they play a key role in developing critical literacies vital to becoming citizens in a functional democracy. Thus, attitudes to funding the humanities need to change if universities (and the country) are going to transform meaningfully.

In the absence of measures to address funding and institutional culture, many universities play the numbers game by “head-hunting” black scholars. It’s all good and well to “poach” black scholars from the competition and to recruit the best PhD students, but poor institutional culture alienates both black staff and black postgraduate students.

I’ve heard too many anecdotes about postgraduate students at a number of universities in Cape Town and Joburg having to negotiate poor administration and poor communication about funding and accommodation.

When postgraduates are able to secure contracts tutoring or lecturing, they contend with delays in payments or even getting their contracts finalised.

I have heard many complaints about human resources and finance staff at one tertiary institution in particular (not UCT, thank goodness) not paying contract staff for months due to bungles and poor oversight of administrative staff.

Many of the contract staff members in question have rent to pay and families to feed.

Add to this the varying quality of postgraduate supervision and mentorship in a context where academic departments are under pressure to enrol more undergraduates while also being pushed to recruit more master’s and PhD students on a shrinking budget. If black postgraduates and emerging black scholars abandon universities, can we blame them?

It’s true that in general neoliberal economics makes public spending a low priority, but South Africa has been better in terms of spending (such as on education and healthcare) than most of its counterparts. But this does not get UCT off the hook. The criticisms raised by Mangcu and the 19 scholars who responded to Price still stand.

If a global university ranking system measured universities by their ability to empower poor black students/scholars, where would UCT stand?

Haupt is an associate professor at UCT’s Centre for Film and Media Studies, and chairs the transformation committee at UCT’s humanities faculty

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