The University of Cape Town Executive explains its approach to institutional “decolonization” and why, without it, research excellence at UCT is unsustainable
Emeritus Prof. Tim Crowe
Part 1. Decolonization
Space, truth and being
Law professor, former Black Academic Caucus (BAC) vice-chairperson, NRF C-rated researcher and current DVC for Transformation, Loretta Feris describes decolonization at UCT as a transformation into “a pluri-versal space” “where there is more than one central truth, where there is more than one dominant culture and where there is more than one way of being as a person”.
Weren’t pluralism and pluralistic spaces central pillars of Apartheid?
What is a decolonized “pluriversity”? According to eminent, UCT-invited, decolonist scholars Mahmood Mamdani (this year’s T.B. Davie lecturer) and Achille Mbembe, it is a deconstructed/democratized ‘inclusivized’ entity with reduced pedagogical isolation, hierarchical structure and subject focus. Decolonized curricula should incorporate elements that involve socio-economic experiences and politics of oppressed masses.
With regard to academic staff, Ph.D.-earning scholars who challenge current dogma by publishing their research in peer-reviewed journals and, locally, subject themselves to regular peer-review nationally and institutionally must become (or be replaced by) “organic/public” intellectuals (PIs). PIs focus on societally important “contextual” issues, publish in social media and eschew formal academic evaluation and competition of any kind (in the extreme even course examinations). Rather than viewing the world governed by potentially universal rules and principles, PIs “articulate” with it through qualitative study of contingent, unique, and often cultural or subjective phenomena based on individuals’ “lived experiences”. Truth, from their perspective is contextually dependent on the culture, feelings and experiences of the masses.
What is the current “central truth” at UCT? According to Feris-invited speaker Prof. Chandra Raju, there is not one in mathematics, physics or biology.
Prof. Raju calls for a critical re-examination of ways of doing math, stating that: “We cannot just assume that existing (colonial) math education should persist. Nor even can we continue to justify it merely on unexamined Western myths and dogmas.”
Feris-invited expert panellists at the same lecture and some in the audience did not agree.
What do mathematically-oriented UCT academics think?
With regard to biology (my discipline), there is the perennial ‘nature vs nurture’ truth-debate and, more specifically, there is molecular reductionism and genetic/selective determinism versus Smutsian ecological holism and historical contingency. At UCT, some of these debates go back to Lancelot Hogben in the 1920s and are ongoing.
Let’s hear more on this from other scientists, social/humanitarians, philosophers and medics!
Truth at UCT
Isn’t “Truth” supposed to be the "objective reality" excluding individual, religious, mythological, ideological or political biases. That was UCT VC T.B. Davie’s vision.
In a 1950 speech, Davie ‘nailed’ his and UCT’s academic principles to the ‘mast’. Universities should be populated by “those fitted by ability and training for higher education” … “aiming at the advancement of knowledge by the methods of study and research founded on absolute intellectual integrity and pursued in an atmosphere of academic freedom”. This should allow “real” universities the autonomy to decide:
“who shall teach – determined by fitness and scholarship and experience;
what we teach – the truth and not what it is demanded by others for the purposes of sectional, political, religious or ideological dogmas or beliefs;
how we teach – not subject to interference aimed at standardization at the expense of originality; and [most importantly]
whom we teach – [individuals] intellectually capable and morally worthy to join the great brotherhood which constitutes the wholeness of the university”.
But he was not done. He went on to say that the university community should:
1. “reflect the multi-racial picture of the society it serves;
give a lead to the cultural and spiritual development of the different race groups as part of the developments of the community as a whole;
aid the state by providing training for and maintaining standards in the learned professions and public services; and
serve the community in the true sense of the university, i.e. as a centre for the preservation, the advance, and the dissemination of learning for its own sake and without regard to its usefulness, to all who are academically qualified for admission, irrespective of race, colour, or creed.”
Hence, it is fit and proper that the annual T.B. Davie Memorial Lecture on academic freedom was established by UCT students to commemorate the memory of Davie’s devotion to principles.
In the first T.B. Davie Lecture honouring Davie in 1959, UCT Chancellor Justice Albert van der Sandt Centlivres emphasized Davies’ “fearlessly fighting for” “absolute intellectual freedom”, “intellectual integrity” and taking the unshakable position that “advancement of knowledge” should involve “the untrammelled pursuit of the truth”.
“He gave his heart and soul to the University.”
Is Davie’s Dream to be abandoned in favour of some Nietzschean vision of choosing among contextually dependent interpretations determined by those who currently have power?
In his pre-T.B. Davie lecture comments this year, UCT VC Max Price gave Davie’s ‘principled-principal’ stance short shrift and opened it to ‘reinterpretation’.
He said that, today, beyond “academic merit”, Academic Freedom “may also entail other criteria”. It is a “live issue not frozen in 1950s” that needs to be “reinvestigated, reinterpreted, reunderstood (sic) and reapplied“ in the light of “other issues” and a changing ‘institutional culture” facilitated by “fierce and robust discussions”.
To my mind, this is a Marxist (Groucho not Karl) position: “If you don’t like my principles, I have others.”
Didn’t Mandela call for an end to “dominant cultures” of any kind? Is the UCT ‘Old Boys’ network to be ‘complemented’ or replaced by a ‘Xhosa Nostra’? Is the BAC a ‘melanised’ blend of the Afrikaner Nasionale Studentebond and Broederbond? Despite searching the internet and multiply asking Price, Feris, and the BAC Chairperson, I have yet to see a copy of the BAC Constitution. May a ‘white’ join it? When and where does it meet? Who is it helping other than lawbreaking Fallists?
With regard to Feris’ call for institutionalized ‘multi-being’, there have always been political parties, cultural societies, the communist/capitalist divide and science vs ‘séance’ debate (at least until 2015) at a ‘diverse’ UCT.
However, with the exception of the current VC, previous incumbents drew a firm line at what the first VC Sir ‘Jock’ Beattie regarded as less than “decent behaviour”. This ‘line’ was first crossed during the 1930s, when the right-wing, racist, anti-Semitic, nationalist Afrikaner Nasionale Studentebond (ASB) attempted to intimidate ‘nie-blanke’ and Jews (especially those who fraternized with ‘blacks’) and advocated ‘white’, nationalistic supremacy.
Beattie threw it off-campus.
During the Price “Afropolitan” regime, there has been a re-emergence of racialist ‘societies’, ‘movements’, associations, chapters and caucuses, this time advocating “dismantling whiteness” and replacing it with nationalistic neo-‘Black Consciousness’. Rather than debating ‘race’-related issues, let alone drawing lines of “acceptable” (let alone decent) behaviour, Price, Feris and others in the Senior Leadership Group (SLG), Rapid Response Task Team (RRTT) and the Strategic Executive Task Team (SETT) supported by Council actively engage with (and capitulate to) these entities and routinely grant amnesty to their lawbreaking members based on the “spirit” (not the letter) of “restorative justice”. Please explain what is being “restored”.
With regard to gender/sexuality issues, VC Stuart Saunders’ strongly supported the formation of UCT’s Gay and Lesbian Association >30 years ago and his successors have staunchly defended LGBTQ rights since then.
What does the UCT Executive actually do?
Feris complains of a UCT “steeped in bureaucracy” and “ruled by committee”. But, it seems that these groups, teams (task or otherwise), committees, associations, movements and caucuses actually cause more destructive ‘decolonization’ than ‘restoration’ or progress. Many students, staff, alumni and donors complain of little or no substantive transformation and an uncaring, ineffectual (indeed obfuscative/cumbersome/repressive/oppressive/commodified) centralized “bureaucracy”.
Given her misgivings and those of the students and staff whom she serves, why hasn’t Feris broken ranks with the Senior Leadership Group and cut through the bureaucratic Gordian Knot?
Feris believes that UCT “needs to interrogate rules and procedures”, but fails to apply them when dealing with lawbreaking Fallists. When they violated the November 2016 Agreement and invaded the Mafeje Room, she chose to “appeal” to them in order to “keep pace with a changing student profile”. In the end, someone within the Executive made a restoratively justified “arrangement” with them to end the invasion. Even non-UCT invaders evaded punishment.
Is the Pluriversity of Cape Town going to have fewer rules and structures that actually deliver on rhetoric?
Facing up to socio-economic challenges by ‘playing decolonial chicken
Feris and other pro-Fallists rightfully complain that “black students, rural students, students from quintile 1, 2 and 3 schools” are lacking in “economic, social and cultural capital”. “Students are hungry and cannot afford accommodation” which has “a profound impact on their ability to function in a learning environment”. But, given the progressively lower support from government and highly unlikely elimination of fees (except perhaps for the poorest and brightest), let alone finding additional support for monthly living expenses, when will she or anyone else in the Executive admit the reality that the Executive’s strategy to fund many subsidy-earning students partially, and not fewer students comprehensively, generates their “profound inability to function”?
[For a particularly insightful commentary on the “Welfare University”, see Chapter 8 of Prof. Jonathan Jansen’s 2016 book: As by Fire: the end of the South African University. See also Prof. Phakeng’s call for full funding for financially strapped students, but only at the post-grad level. With regard to UCT’s hyper-centralized management, see the Moran report on "Managerialism" published in 2007, co-authored by former Dean of Science Cliff Moran and DVC Cheryl de la Rey and acted on by no one. It can be viewed on page 3 of my Blog Site – timguineacrowe.blogspot.co.za]In Africa, this r-selection biological strategy is employed by its most widespread bird, the Helmeted Guineafowl as the Pharaoh’s Chicken), which lays up to 20 eggs, but is rarely capable of rearing more than a handful of the chicks that emerge from them. In sharp contrast, Africa’s most widespread eagle, the Martial Eagle, employs K-selection. It lays just one egg and invests enormously in the resulting chick which almost guarantees its survival. By the way, this bird of prey is also the Helmeted Guineafowl’s most feared predator.
Wouldn’t replacing UCT’s chicken-strategy for students with an eagle-one better “take into account the hardship of the daily grind of many of our students”. Indeed, to what extent might the “psychological problems” so prevalent amongst under-supported students be alleviated if their financial needs were met fully?
From an academic perspective, is it morally defensible to admit (and bureaucratically re-admit) thousands of educationally ‘disabled’ matriculants and undergrads, many of whom fail to cope, despite academic ‘support’ and counselling? More than half of these kids with ‘great expectations’ never obtain a university degree, and >80% take more than four years to do so, often ‘earning’ poor results and incurring massive debt? Why has UCT never published statistics indicating the career success of these ‘long-haul graduates’. Is this good educational practice? Does it liberate the oppressed masses, or just a few? Does it maintain excellence and produce leaders/innovators?
These ‘betrayed’ kids are fodder for radical Fallists bent on destroying UCT.
Why does Feris believe that the “university needs to constantly review our decision-making processes”? Why not become “fair” and “consistent” and choose a broadly ‘eagle’ ones that actually “take into account social and economic context”, rather than focusing on the ‘chicken’ one that sucks in effectively doomed students in order to get government subsidies? Is it because it brings in the most money?
The ‘rich get rich and the poor get children. In the meantime, ain’t we got fun?
Why must “everyone flourish”, regardless of their background? Rich kids (regardless of how they self-identify) will always be better resourced, whether it be at UCT or anywhere else. The UCT Executive’s goal should be to ensure that bright, poor, hard-working kids coming from an education-disabling school system receive adequate, comprehensive, eagle support so THEIR kids can “flourish” and acquire their own wealth.
Re-readmission Appeals Committees (RAC)
Feris views the Executive’s concession to Mafeje-Room-invading Fallists to implement automatic, bureaucratic, centralized re-evaluation of faculty-based RAC decisions as a “historical way of decision-making in a committee” that “corrected actions” [exclusions] initially “detrimental to students”. Perhaps she and other “senior leaders” should accept that their chicken-strategy to fund many students only partially is the root cause of their inability to cope at UCT. Using bureaucratic power to override carefully considered reviews by subject-specialist, faculty-based RA committees that studiously act in a fair, consistent and compassionate manner, helps no one, least of all struggling students and the academic/admin staff who undertake this painful task. The current members of the Science Faculty RAC resigned in protest.
Who will replace them? If the Fallists shut down UCT again, who will fill the teaching breach to make up for missed lectures?
What would a ‘pluriversity’ look like?
Feris says a pluriversity will allow room for “a range of epistemologies”. But, what and where are they? UCT launched its Centre for African Studies (CAS) more than 40 years ago. Why did it fail to produce or help to foster the development of students, staff and novel epistemologies and curricula necessary to expand this “range”? Why was the CAS’s disestablishment considered seriously in 2011? It’s been five years since the ‘new’ CAS was “re-launched” and it has only introduced undergraduate courses this year. Why take so long to produce so little? CAS director please reply.
What about the Centre for Higher Education Development’s (CHED) Academic Development Programme(ADP) (now with some 60 academic staff) that has been around since the 1980s? Does Feris support pouring more money into this programme that has “marginalized” ‘black’ students, never ‘filled the education gap’, let alone maintained excellence [something Feris never mentions]. CHED dean or Feris please reply.
What has the Black Academic Caucus been up to? The BAC was founded in 2012, with the purpose of “challenging the slow pace of transformation” and claiming to be “well-placed to recognise the obstacles to decolonisation within the institution and work towards overcoming them”. What are its “important gains” vis-à-vis adding to epistemological diversity and overcoming “obstacles [other than demanding blanket amnesty for lawbreaking Fallists]?
Then there is the Curriculum Change Working Group. What has it achieved in the two years since it added to UCT’s committee-diversity?
Nearly 20 years have passed since the “Mamdani Affair”. Two years ago, the Dean of Humanities convened a faculty-wide assembly and asked for input from students vis-à-vis new transformed curricula. All he got were complaints that the UCT’s Academic Development Programme had “marginalized” them, and a suggestion to implement Mamdani’s unchanged, outdated curriculum for “Problematizing Africa” from the 1990s.
The Institutional Reconciliation and Transformation Commission Steering Committee, which absorbs much of Feris’ time, seems to be more focused on defining/justifying ‘violence’ and granting amnesties to Fallists than “unpacking the limits of acceptable protest”. It hasn’t consulted and engaged with various ‘constituencies’ vis-a-vis restructuring curricula. Indeed, the Criteria it has identified for IRT Commissioners are conspicuously lacking in terms of capacity relating to curriculum development. In fact, all that has been released are names of 18 potential commissioners sans CVs, résumés and/or vision statements.
My own department, Biological Sciences, is nowhere near consensus on what to do with its curriculum in the face of falling student numbers and high failure rates. Progress to date suggests an intention to continue gearing it towards producing graduates who will pursue postgraduate study, rather than creating pathways for school biology teachers. This is especially worrying, given the Executive’s policy of “freezing posts and other budget cuts impacting on the university’s employment equity targets”. How many biology Ph.D. graduates find jobs and have productive careers? Where are the excellent biology teachers going to come from?
How can UCT grads “have a career trajectory and a possibility for growth” under these circumstances, let alone aspire to excellence and become “retained role models”? Also, will the Executive’s New Strategy to bias staff recruitment in favour of South African ‘blacks’ (or any ‘group’ for that matter) and particular theories (e.g. Critical Theory) irrespective of merit maintain academic excellence?
For example, the currently advertised new Mafeje Chair is restricted to South African ‘blacks’. It is therefore unavailable to eminent ‘decolonist’ Achille Mbembe because he was born in Cameroon and is ‘critical’ of Critical Theory. Indeed, my guess is that hyper-empiricist Archie Mafeje would also be one of CT’s critics!
When does a demographic “African lens” become xenophobic ‘blinkers’ that undermine diversity and “extensive collaboration across Africa and the globe”?
Why should non-South African academics be treated a ‘visitors’ and not potential career colleagues?
This is reminiscent of VC Beattie’s views on women and ‘nie-blanke’ 90 years ago.