Thursday, 8 March 2018

My lived experience

My lived experience   

Early days in the USA
I was the middle child of three born (in 1948) in Boston, Massachusetts, USA , to second-generation Irish-American immigrants.  My grandfather (also Timothy Crowe) was born in 1880 in Tipperary, Ireland, arguably the most anti-English county in Eire, a country viewed by many 19th Century Englishmen as a less-than--civilized  'sh**hole'. He immigrated, virtually penniless, to Boston, pursuing a career as a carpenter in a t-Oilean Ur, “The Fresh Land,”. Although he was an ardent Anglophobe, he disliked 'Boston Brahmans' (the local "more English than the English") even more because of their 'racism', epitomized by shop signs that said: "No dogs, ni**ers, or Irishmen." A half-century before, these bigots were represented openly by the hateful Know Nothings Party, the anti-Catholic Ku Klux Klan of their time.

My father was a veteran of World War II. He was a unionist, Democrat (who disliked the Kennedys), meat-worker. He took on part-time jobs, often spanning six days a week, to feed, cloth, accommodate and educate his children.  When we kids were old enough to fend for ourselves, Mama (a clerical assistant) joined Daddy in the workforce.   

I and my brother (who eventually became a dean at the University of Kansas) were the first of our extended family to attend university. I attended the University of Massachusetts/Boston (UMB) and undertook a Bachelor of Arts programme of study in biology because of my additional interest in history and philosophy. It was only because we both obtained academic scholarships, worked in the evenings/weekends and were allowed to continue to live at home that allowed him and I to successfully complete our undergraduate degrees. 

My parents were immensely proud of us. But, they could fully appreciate only my brother's achievements because he studied to become a university administrator. My professional interests at the time, animal behaviour and evolutionary biology, we're 'Greek' to them. My grandparents never understood how my career warranted full-time employment.

My undergraduate advisor at UMB, Dr François Vuilleumier, was one of Harvard Prof. Ernst Mayr’s last Ph.D. students.  François (an eminent ‘island’ biogeographer) supervised my first research on the behaviour of an introduced population of Africa’s most widespread and characteristic bird, the Helmeted Guineafowl Numida meleagris. [The is a 'toop' that inhabits the area around UCT's Bremner Building.] He introduced me to Mayr (with whom – and Cecil Rhodes – I share a birthday -5 July).  Mayr is regarded as the 20th Century’s foremost avian biologist, and his contributions to the theory and practice of evolutionary biology (in particular at the levels of subspecies – ‘race’- and species) have earned him the title as the 20th Century Darwin.  

Mayr is also, arguably, the ‘father’ of biological philosophy.  François and Ernst were my early mentors vis-à-vis philosophy, biogeography and evolutionary biology.

In 1970, I graduated from UMB (magna cum laude) and was offered postgraduate scholarships by several leading US universities.  I chose the University of Chicago (UC) because, at that time, its Department of Biology was arguably the best in the world.  At UC, I expanded my studies on the Helmeted Guineafowl to include their geographical morphological ('racial') variation.  Simultaneously, I learned of the genetic senselessness of human ‘races’ from Prof. Richard Lewontin, the first molecular geneticist to demonstrate greater within-than-between population genetic variation in Homo sapiens.   

I also learned sociobiology from its first ‘card-carrying’ proponents, African primatologists Profs Stuart and Jeanne Altmann, and had the opportunity to comment (constructively negatively) on Jeanne’s classic 1974 paper on the observational study of behaviour - cited more than 10000 times.  Last, but not least, I conducted project research (Lots of Weeds: Insular Phytogeography of Vacant Urban Lots) with pioneer evolutionary ecologist and conservation biologist, Prof. Dan Janzen.

In the meantime, I served, part-time, in the US Army National Guard, but, luckily, wasn’t posted to Vietnam.
In 1973, I turned down an offer from the Altmanns to study baboon sociobiology in Kenya, and chose to study Helmeted Guineafowl in South Africa.

My 'baboon' replacement was eaten by a lion.


Kimberley - My African ‘experience’ began in 1973 when I won a Ph.D. scholarship at the University of Cape Town (UCT) reserved for overseas students. I was also was ‘hired’ by DeBeers Consolidated Mines Limited at the princely salary of R112 per month (lower than the most poorly paid diamond miner) to study guineafowl (for my Ph.D. in Zoology) on one of their game farms near Kimberley, South Africa.  My palatial home for five days a week during the next 2.8 years was a caravan in the middle of nowhere. My ‘special’ weekly meal was a can of Prima Beef Stew.  I bunked in the Kimberley Museum on weekends.

During my time in Kimberley, I encountered my De Beers sponsor, Nikky Oppenheimer, who hunted guineafowl on the game farm. I also bumped into the 'banned' ‘Prof.’ Robert Sobukwe in the outer offices of his GP who was treating his lung cancer.  I had no idea of his role as an anti-Apartheid liberation leader. We chatted pleasantly about ‘racial’ variation in guineafowl for the best part of an hour. 

UCT - When I completed my Ph.D. field research in 1976 (with virtually no savings), I successfully competed for a junior lecturer’s post at the FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology (‘Fitztitute’) at UCT because I had an M.Sc. degree (from UC).  The international reality at the time (including South Africa), was that there were no similarly educated/skilled ‘black’ applicants who would have applied for such a lowly post. The annual salary (R4920 p.a.) made it difficult to find accommodation, so I slept on the floor of my office for the first two months until I found a room for R50 per month within walking distance of UCT. I could not afford to purchase an automobile.

‘Stupidly’, in 1977, I married one of my postgrad students (subsequently lifetime close colleague), Anna 'Ann' Teichert, who ‘came on board’ with student debt. She was raised by a single mother and was a ‘mature’ UCT student, since she had to work for two years post-matric to save enough funds (supported by a hefty loan) to cover university fees. She has her own 'life-experience' story, culminating in an international award-winning Ph.D. on 'standards' in South African National Matriculation Examination.

In 1978, we moved ‘up-market’ (R65 per month) into a flea-ridden flat opposite UCT's Baxter Theatre and used R300 of Ann’s bursary money to buy a 15-year-old Volksie Beetle. A year later, when I was promoted ad hominem to lecturer and became eligible for a housing subsidy, the now heavily pregnant Ann and I went massively into debt to purchase a semi-detached cottage.  This was possible only because the father of one of my close friends was a director of Grahamstown Building Society and house prices had plummeted after the 1976 Soweto Student and other uprisings. We also incurred ‘white tax’ by inviting my mother-in-law to live with us.

With regard to academic ‘coddling’, my Ph.D. supervisor strongly supported my novel approach of submitting the chapters of my dissertation for publication to peer-reviewed journals as I completed them. Otherwise, like virtually all Science Faculty post-grad students, I was left to my own devices to produce a passable dissertation and publishable material. At the end of 1978, when I was capped by UCT Chancellor Harry Oppenheimer, all of my dissertation was published or in press. Perhaps due to prodding by Nikky, Chancellor Oppenheimer also shook my hand, saying: “We enjoyed working with you Dr Crowe”.

‘Fast-tracked’ at UCT - Our lot in life increased ‘significantly’ in the early 1980s.  Ann, because of her broad knowledge of basic biology, was offered an ‘outsourced’, year-to-year contract post as a lecturer in UCT’s newly established Academic Support Programme. Her post was created to help first-year students educationally ‘hamstrung’ by Bantu Education to “bridge the gap” in order to cope with UCT’s highly challenging and competitive socio-academic environment. She also brought in funds by additional consulting jobs involving adjudicating national high school life sciences examinations. Sadly, after eight years of this uncertain employment, she had to leave UCT to take up a permanent teaching post at the expensive, non-racial school attended by our daughter. During this period, I was also promoted to senior lecturer at UCT, outcompeting applicants from Oxford and Princeton.  At that time, worldwide, there were no Ph.D.-educated ‘blacks’ who could have competed for the post as described.

The ‘upside’ of Ann’s reluctant job change, was, because of her increased and stable salary and much-improved house prices, we were able to sell our little cottage for a sizable profit.  Once again, going massively into debt, we were able to purchase a somewhat larger house in up-market Newlands, the last one to sell for less than R100000.

Also during the 1980s, I acted as assistant director of the Fitztitute, helping to transform it from a colonial institute involved with natural history studies on birds into a world leading ‘ivory-tower’ centre for African avian biology, focusing on birds as functional components of ecosystems. This culminated in 1985 when the Fitztitute ‘community’ held an ‘indaba’ to consider a possible change in its Mission. While not abandoning excellent, curiosity-driven, ‘ivory tower’ research, we chose to aggressively pursue the embryonic international science – CONSERVATION BIOLOGY.

I find my professional ‘niche’ - My roles in the innovative transformation of the Fitztitute were to develop a one-year, intensive, Masters-level academic programme in Conservation Biology (the CB Programme) and a Gamebird Research Programme (GBP) based on their evolutionary biology and biologically sustainable and economically viable wingshooting (gamebird hunting).

The history and undisputed success of the CB Programme are outlined in an article in the UCTNEWS: Afrocentric, inclusive, socially relevant academic ‘evolution’ at the University of Cape Town  It was funded by the South African National Research Foundation (NRF) and a smorgasbord of private sector investors, including the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur (‘genius grant’) Foundation. It also attracted interest from a wealthy private investor who solicited and application (drafted by me) to compete for a “chair in environmental science”. That application was successful and eventually resulted in UCT’s Pola Pasvolsky Chair in Conservation Biology.

The GBP was funded largely by the African Gamebird Research, Education and Development Trust (AGRED - Patron: Nikky Oppenheimer) which I helped to establish as a founding trustee. AGRED was also supported financially by other groups of wingshooters, farmers, the NRF and the SA Department of Trade and Industry. The GBP was managed by Dr Rob Little (its first Ph.D. graduate); produced 22 M.Sc., Ph.D. and postdoctoral graduates (more than 90% of whom went on to successful professional careers) and 83 peer-reviewed scientific publications; culminating in the Little & Crowe (2000 & 2011) book: Gamebirds of Southern Africa.   

Rob went on to become Director of Conservation at WWF South Africa. He now manages the Fitztitute’s DST/NRF Centre of Excellence and recently (2016) published Terrestrial Gamebirds & Snipes of Africa.

Academic development - Ten years after earning my Ph.D., as a result of demonstrably (merit-award winning) excellent work performance at UCT and consistent progression professionally internationally, I was promoted ad hominem from senior lecturer to associate professor and, eventually (2003) to full professor.  The long gaps between these promotions (10 and 15 years respectively) and several unsuccessful application attempts were consequences of failing to meet the stringent requirements for ad hominem promotion that remain in place within UCT’s Faculty of Science.

Other professional achievements - In 1990, I founded the Evolutionary Discussion Group (EDG) and edited ORIGIN, its newsletter. In 1996, I convened the 15th Willi Hennig International Society for Systematic Biology meeting at UCT; was Associate Editor of Cladistics, the Society’s journal during 1997-2001; served on the society’s council and was twice a candidate for the society’s presidency. During 1999-2003, I was a council member for the Southern Flagship Institution set up to transform and develop Cape Town-based museums funded by the national government. During 1999-2003, I served on the Editorial Board of Systematic Biology, the preeminent journal for systematic biology. I was also a founder of the Southern African Society for Systematic Biology (SASSB - an off-shoot of the EDG), and served as its president of during 2002-2003.

In 2003, I gave the address honouring the retirement of Dr Phillip Clancey, avian systematist and former director of the Durban Museum. Soon after, I helped Dr Clancey to establish a generous financial trust fund for research on the systematics of African birds, managed by the Fitztitute. During 2004-2005, I was elected Chairperson of the South African Biosystematics Initiative, and served on its Steering Committee until 2007. In 2011, the SASSB presented me with a life-time achievement award for his “extraordinary contributions to systematics in southern Africa”.

From an ‘avian’ perspective, I was elected life member of the Committee of the International Ornithological Congress, and Vice-chairperson of its Scientific Programme Committee during 1994-95.

With regard to conservation biology, during 1996-1998, I served as president of the Wildlife Management Association of Southern Africa during 1999-2002.

Excellence - In 2004, I was an author and deputy leader of a successful application to the National Research Foundation and the Department of Science and Technology for the Fitztitute to become a national Centre of Excellence. In 2007, I was elected a Fellow of UCT.

Academic offspring - In total, I supervised 33 M.Sc., 15 Ph.D. and six post-doctoral graduates, published nearly 300 papers in peer-reviewed journals, and presented scientific papers at 82 conferences. I use an additional measure of a scientist (academic Darwinian fitness) as more than just the quantity and quality of empirical publications. Additional criteria are the number of philosophical papers published; communication of research results at conferences; performance and employment success of graduate students; and service to discipline. All of my post-grads have found successful professional careers, seven at the professorial level. Perhaps my highest honour is that many of my former students address me as “dad”.

Personal matters – Throughout my time at UCT, I neither observed (nor was informed of) any overt racist acts. I cannot say the same for sexism and sexual harassment. Having said that, with few exceptions, few of UCT academics with whom I interacted could be described as "nurturing", especially at the post-grad level. At UCT, students are, far too often, allowed to “sink or swim”. 

After our daughter graduated from UCT (thanks to its reduced fees policy for staff offspring), she immigrated to the USA. 

Now Ann was free to resign her secure teaching position at a high school to undertake Ph.D. research at UCT.  Her international prize-winning dissertation (examined by Prof. Jonathan Jansen) was a benchmark study of ‘standards’ as they relate to high school Life Sciences matriculation examinations, covering the period 1990-2012.  Despite the collapsing educational system at the time, all that UCT could offer her initially with regard to employment was, once again, part-time, ‘outsourced’, contract employment within UCT’s School of Education.

After a couple of unsatisfying years, the ‘outsourced’ Academic Support post in biology she had once occupied for nearly a decade during the 1980s was made permanent (as part of the ‘deal’ merging the Departments of Botany and Zoology).  Ann was the unanimous choice.  However, even though it was advertised at the senior-lecture-level and given her formidable qualifications, she was only offered the post at the lecturer level. After unsuccessfully appealing to the UCT Executive against this professional insult, like Archie Mafeje, she declined UCT’s offer.

Soon after this, in 2013, I retired after 40 years of pensionable service.  Despite having a modest life style; following the advice of a highly competent final advisor; having fully paid off our home mortgage and not having continued ‘white tax’ (Granny had died); we can only afford a modest existence (no eating out and only biannual overseas vacations).  This still requires Ann continuing her national educational consulting work.  Moreover, while our neighbours drive brand-new BMWs and Mercedes Benzs, we drive my Ann’s 18-year-old Toyota. I have had to sell my 1968 Mini Traveller because we cannot afford its cost of maintenance.

“And the rich get rich and the poor get children.  In the meantime, in between time, ain’t we got fun?”

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