Friday, March 21, 2008

Transformation at South African Universities

After the shocking events at the University of the Free State in which white male students denigrated black cleaning staff by making them to drink alcohol and serving them urine-laced food, an evaluation of tertiary transformation has been ordered by the Minister of Education. What will this exercise bring?

Given my own experience, I feel this is just another commission, another talk shop in the making. Let's be serious. Universities are already at breaking point. Too little resources, too many demands, low motivation and a pervasive lack of leadership.

Too many in the university believe that transformation is a diversion, is divisive and undermines the academic endeavour. It may be the case that such is the consequences of policies and actions pushed through under the label 'transformation'.

Yet transformation only works if the entire university community is behind it. And that requiers dialogue and coalition building. The university leadership which is not only the VC and the DVCs but also other powerful people within the university community, need to sit together, talk things over honestly and decide on a meaningful way forward.

When I was an active student, the entire university leadership did everything to shut down a student-led initiative on transformation. So anxious were they of only discussing the issue, that they felt threatened by students and torpedoed the whole thing in an unceremonious, if not downright pernicious way.

What is lost when transformation comes up, is that the issue is not only black or white or gender or else, but good governance. Transformation is an excellent opportunity to create accountable and democratic university governance systems. Yet this is never a priority. Rather, the focus is on rewarding compliant lecturers, administrators and students, and pretending that something changes. Like in the corporate world, the number one maxim for employment and promotion is to fit in with the dominant culture. So things remain the same - perhaps here and there some individuals get exchanged for others. Fitting into a culture that prefers compliance and the adulation of authority over excellence and frankness, the will to do better and create something new, is neglected.

As Noam Chomsky observed in the United States, the university is the place where consent is manufactured and enforced. However, if tertiary education is to improve, discussion is needed of all the thorny issues. Otherwise, no coalition to advance the institution can be built.

If something is meant to change, a greater will to speak out, to root out mediocrity and to get open and honest talk going, is needed. In this eminent, intellectual task, the South African university fails.

1 comment:

Ijeoma Uche-Okeke said...

Hi Thomas,
Thank you for your comments on my blog. I haven't been to the cotton club by the way, I have no time to dance!! Thank you for your compliment about my picture. I like the new photo on your blog. Very 'Thomas'. What is this shocking news about the University of the Free State? Change is something that will probably take some doing to effect in SA. These divides are so entrenched that people who have the power don't want to relinquish even a tad. The 'newly' powerful on the other hand are even worse. I am really shocked that such an incident can happen in an academic institution. There is no respect for humanity.