Ukzn: how did we get here

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UKZN: how did we get here?

Thu, 23 Feb 2006 , The Witness, (

Students and staff protest during the recent strike at the Durban campus of the University of KwaZulu-Natal. ‘Universities are now micro-managed by the government.’

The current turmoil at UKZN can be traced back to 1990 when the systematic emasculation of senior academics’ influence in the running of the institution began, writes former Professor of Biochemistry CLIVE DENNISON.
After a 43-year association with the local university, I quit at the end of last year, so the current imbroglio does not really concern me. However, I noticed a placard reading, “This is a battle for the soul of the university”, and I thought that I should point out how that battle started to be lost, way back in 1999.

In 1999, the then University of Natal engaged on a restructuring exercise. Ostensibly, the purpose was to save money by forming schools. However, a number of other more far-reaching changes were instituted simultaneously, and almost unnoticed by many academics who had their heads down doing their teaching and research.

Previous to this, professors had substantial influence in the running of the university. Heads of departments were invariably professors and the dean of the faculty was elected, from within their ranks, by the professors in the faculty. All professors, whether heads of department or not, were members of the senate, the highest academic decision-making body in the university.

Elevation to the rank of full professor is dependent upon a substantial record of success in scholarship, measured by teaching, research publications and post-graduate student supervision. By definition, therefore, professors are the senior, experienced and successful academics.

In the 1999 restructuring, the body of professors was largely stripped of power. Thereafter, at the departmental level, power was invested in the head of school, who could be anyone from a senior lecturer level upwards. Moreover, the head of school was not elected within the school, but was selected by a committee, chaired by a member of the executive and including an “equity officer” charged with ensuring that the university abides by the employment equity laws in all of its appointments. This despite the fact that everyone concerned was already employed by the university.

A similar thing happened regarding the appointment of deans — they were no longer elected by the professors, from within their ranks, but were selected by a committee, as for the heads of schools — and they could be selected from ranks lower than that of professor.

The senate was also reconstituted: professors were no longer automatically members, but all heads of schools were. Representation on the senate was also expanded to include “all of the stakeholders” and not only academics, although the senate was an academic decision-making body.

These changes were “sold” to the university community as “freeing-up the academics to pursue scholarship and not be sidetracked by engaging in management”. In retrospect, however, I think that they were calculated to break the power of senior academics, to facilitate “transformation”. If the bar was lowered, more people could jump it and if the senior academics were sidelined, there would be little protest. Junior academics probably wouldn’t even realise what was going on.

And so it came to be. Professors were “cut out of the loop” and junior people and failed academics were appointed as heads of school and as deans.

The question remains: why did the University of Natal do this? Was it an instruction from “above”? Indeed, with the advent of the new government, and the new acts concerning universities, university autonomy is out of the window: universities are now essentially part of the civil service — branches of the Department of Education, if you will. No more, the proud tradition of independence of thought and standing up to the government that was once a hallmark of the University of Natal. Universities are now micro-managed by the government; for example, every course taught now has to be vetted and approved by central government. And — surprise, surprise — the academic voice is silent in national debates.

With the advent of the University of KwaZulu-Natal (a product of the Department of Education reshuffling its “branches”), professors were readmitted to the senate, but almost all of the other changes instituted by the University of Natal were retained. However, this was now five years on. Many of the “old stalwarts” had retired and the new professors were diffident and unsure of how the senate works.

The vice-chancellor of UKZN, Professor Malegapuru Makgoba, was quick to capitalise on this diffidence by prohibiting voting in the senate. He justified this with circumlocution about “the need to be sensitive and to move away from the past”. What he really meant, though, was that the senate was too white and, therefore, could not be trusted.

On one occasion, on being pressed to allow a vote, he famously declared: “no, we cannot have voting because then we’ll get the wrong result”. The “right result”, of course, is one which agrees with his thinking, and especially with his racial “take” on the matter. In the absence of voting, with the support of the vice-chancellor, the student representatives are able to prevail over the entire senate.

I found it amazing how almost every matter can be racialised, if one puts one’s mind to it! My voice was summarily dismissed and I got the feeling that this was because everything I said was said “as a white male”, not as an experienced scholar, not as an internationally active scientist, not as a loyal member of the university community (I never thought of myself as an “employee”), not as a teacher of black students, but as a “white male”. The sort of person who was responsible for apartheid. This despite the fact that, almost to a man, the staff of the university opposed apartheid and welcomed the advent of democracy in South Africa. The “problem” is that these people were and are all liberals, who decide matters on principle, not to benefit any particular group. To liberals, self-interest does not equal moral principle.

Of course, if one has no vote, what is the point of attending senate meetings? To “listen to the quality of the debates” in the vice-chancellor’s words. To what end? If one was swayed by an argument, how could one make this known if one has no vote? So, it is little surprise that attendance at senate has dropped off to the extent that a crisis has arisen in that the senate meetings are not quorate.

Some years ago a debate arose in the senate of the University of Natal in which it was proposed that if a staff member authored a book, the university should claim a proportion of the royalties. Arguing against this, Professor Nattrass made the profound statement that, “a university’s greatest asset is its reputation for scholarship” (and, therefore, we should encourage, not discourage, people from writing books).

This is something that should be chiselled in stone — a university’s greatest asset is its reputation for scholarship. Contributing disproportionately to this reputation are the university’s successful and renowned researchers — it is they who create the university’s reputation in the wider world. Being so important to the university, researchers should be given every encouragement and support. All of the support staff elements, including the finance department, should encourage research, not impede it.

Successful researchers function as largely independent “intrapreneurs”. They work within the university, but largely as free agents. They conceive the questions and the research, they write the proposals to grant-giving bodies, they get the money and decide what to do with it, what students to accept, what equipment to buy, what conferences to attend (and/or to have students attend), in what journal to publish the results etc.

Moreover, the nature of science is such that researchers must operate internationally, which means they must travel abroad, to attend conferences, to meet with collaborators, etc. Only in this way can they stay ahead of the game. In choosing where to travel abroad, scientists also wish to decide how to travel — mostly choosing the most economical travel, from the agent who offers the best deal — so that they can make their hard-won research funds stretch further.

Recently, however, and without consulting the researchers, the University has contracted with a single BEE travel agent and has issued a dictat that only this travel agent must be used. This scores the university BEE brownie points and simplifies the work of the finance division. The researchers are up in arms because the BEE agent is generally more expensive than the competition and offers an inferior service.

Being so far from the major centres of science, travel constitutes a higher proportion of research costs for South African scientists than for European or American scientists, for example. Any increase in travel costs thus affects South African scientists to a greater extent. What the university’s dictat is saying is that it is more important that some black businessman benefits from a monopoly than that the university’s scientists operate at the highest level. That it is better that some black businessman benefits from a monopoly, than that up-and-coming black postgraduate students get international exposure. That simplifying the job of the finance division is more important than supporting the university’s international researchers. That it is worth sacrificing the university’s reputation for scholarship in order to benefit some black businessman with a monopoly.

So, what is the outcome of all these changes? In the past, when professors elected the deans from within their ranks, a climate of collegiality existed. The professors had a mutual respect for one another and a sympathy for the dean: after all, it might be their turn next.

As a result, deans could rely on the support of all of the professors and, in performing their functions, they could draw on the collective knowledge and experience of all of the professors. With the imposition of selected deans, however, this collegiality evaporated, especially if the selected dean was not of professorial rank and thus did not command professional respect.

A similar thing happened at head of school level. Selected heads, who were not among the most senior academics in the school, failed to command respect and therefore received little support. With the evaporation of collegiality, the hapless deans and heads no doubt felt isolated and threatened, and responded in the usual way — by adopting an authoritarian mode.

A further problem with choosing less than the most senior, successful academics to these positions is that junior people do not see the whole picture — they don’t have the view from the mountain top. A dean or a head who has never supervised Ph.D. students, for example, will have no idea of the importance of this and how much effort it takes. They will think that undergraduate teaching is the be-all and end-all of the university.

Similarly, a dean or a head who does not operate internationally in his or her discipline will have no idea of the importance of operating internationally. His or her outlook will be parochial and he or she will tend to support “research with local relevance”. As if any fundamental science is not relevant to South Africa. Newton? Einstein? Nah! Nothing to do with us!

What they are really supporting is second-rate, derivative science — applying the fundamentals discovered elsewhere to South Africa. That is not the way to be first-rate, not the way to win a Nobel prize, for example.

Makgoba has contributed to the collapse of collegiality. He appears to despise the concept, seeing it as an “old boys club”. Secondly, although his was a political appointment, most of the university’s staff were prepared to give him a chance and to give him support. However, he treated staff with disdain — almost always dismissing their arguments out of hand — so he has become more and more isolated.

The infamous “baboon” article has also done a great deal of damage. It gave the impression of a man who is bitter about the past and who is determined to make the university as black as possible, as quickly as possible, regardless of the cost. The staff were perhaps thinking of the university being “the premier university for scholarship in Africa”, but this appears to be different from Makgoba’s vision, leading many to question whether there is a place for “non-Africans” in UKZN.

Compounding Makgoba’s isolation from the staff is his pretentious and expensive behaviour, which is out of step with the mores of academia. Perhaps he sees himself on a par with his contemporaries who have become CEOs of major corporations. He gives the impression of being an aloof, grand and imperious emperor, rather than a leader who is prepared to suffer with the troops in the trenches.

The mega-salary, the mega-bonus (itself greater than a professor’s salary), the numerous, expensive, glossy publications all bearing colour pictures of his Eminence, the inauguration of presidential proportions, etc., all point to ego massage on a grand scale, no doubt to assuage the pain inflicted by the past. While one feels a deep sympathy for the pain, pandering to it in this way simply perpetuates the damage inflicted by apartheid and ensures that the current generation of students also become victims.

Respect for scholarship and for successful scholars was at the heart of the concept of collegiality. As a scholar, one felt valued by one’s peers and by the university leadership. Feeling valued is worth a great deal and is why many academics felt a great love for the university and were prepared to go the extra mile — or as many miles as it took — without other reward.

With the collapse of collegiality and the sense of being valued, how big a salary would be required to compensate? I think this question underlies the recent strike. It was basically about the staff crying out to be valued, not really about the money. It is no coincidence that these strikes by the staff are unprecedented.

For myself, no amount of money could compensate for being treated like dirt, so I quit. I had reached retiring age but under other circumstances I would have fought like a demon to say on. My research had just got to a very interesting stage where a pay-off breakthrough seemed imminent (incidentally, the graduate student involved was a black woman).

Until 1999, the university was the most wonderful place to work and, to quote the first principal of the Inanda Seminary, “every day was pure joy”.

Published: 23 February 2006

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