Transformation is a shared responsibility

03 November 2003

All in the mix: Students gather on Jammie Steps. The changing population of the student body is one of the measures of transformation at UCT.

UCT is implementing an action guide on transformation looking at issues such as staff diversity, student equity and access, the curriculum, leadership and governance, and attitudes and behaviour. As part of this process, all UCT staff have been asked to complete an Organisational Climate Survey. In this wide-ranging interview with the Monday Paper, Vice-Chancellor Professor Njabulo Ndebele elaborates on some of the issues around transformation and the university, and why it is important for staff to enter this debate.

MP: Transformation means different things to different people. What does it mean at UCT?

NN: In a sense, this is one of the things the climate survey is trying to ascertain. From an institutional perspective, there are several relevant areas.

Firstly, we have increased the participation of staff and students in the governance of the university. This has manifested itself in the devolution of authority to the faculties, where the deans have been given increased executive authority, particularly over faculty budgets. One might call this a structural manifestation of a transformation objective.

Secondly, from a numbers perspective, transformation means meeting the national objective of reflecting the population distribution of the country. In an institution such as UCT, this is not easy to play out, given that the population distribution in terms of the Western Cape is not typical of most provinces in the country. So there is a regional configuration that comes into play, but the overall national objective that institutions reflect the national demographics remains a primary guide.

We have been able to change the demographic composition of students significantly in the past eight to 10 years to a 50/50 distribution. Also, there has been an increase in the number of female students where, again, we are pretty close to a 50/50 distribution (the most recent national census figure is that there are around 2,5 million more women than men).

But we have not been able to change the demographic composition of the academic, professional and support staff. Although there has been some improvement, this is not to the extent that we would desire. So transformation also means meeting those numbers objectives.

Beyond that, transformation must also mean how staff and students experience the institutional environment. This means measuring the responsiveness of our administrative systems, creating an affirming work environment that is sensitive to the feelings of those who are not embedded in the received culture of UCT. It is also whether those who have been beneficiaries of the received culture are sufficiently reflective of their advantage, first to change their own attitudes and, at the same time, to accommodate the needs of others who feel they "don't belong".

Certainly, the attitudinal aspects of the social environment are an inseparable aspect of what transformation is about. We will stop agonizing on this matter at some point once we have achieved a critical mass of black teaching and research staff.

Then there is a fourth element as well. This refers to the academic environment of UCT. Is our curriculum, for example, sufficiently responsive to the new social, political and economic environment? To what extent do students who come into UCT, go out at the end feeling they have a good understanding of the society in which they are going to function? That should be a key objective of a curriculum, both from the perspective of knowledge transmission as well as from the perspective of knowledge generation.

MP: It is said that change is a process, not an event. Is this particularly true in the context of transformation?

NN: I think that is quite correct. Transformation is not an event; it is a process. Even more so for a university, which is not a political entity, even though, as an academic entity, it produces its own politics.

What I'm trying to say here is you cannot change institutional culture by decree. You can't say let us import 3 000 black students tomorrow. If it were as easy as that we would have a student body reflecting the demographics of the country, overnight, if we were to be that technical. That could be a politically desirable event, but a particularly disastrous one from an institutional perspective. Because a university is a particular kind of institution, we have to make sure that the students qualify to be here, that they have a chance of succeeding if they are here. How do we balance between demographic trends that play themselves out over time, and the necessity to intervene, to help along and anticipate a demographic outcome?

Similarly with members of staff, people have got to have competencies in order to maintain certain traditions of excellence that are vital to the survival, not only of the university, but also of our society.

Political environments can be changed by revolution and society reordered the following day. In such situations, sustainability always becomes an issue. In this connection we should remember that our country did not change overnight. Change occurred through a difficult process of negotiation. What more for an institution of learning such as a university?

In a society with strong political goals together with a culture of negotiation, it is understandable why higher education is the target of so many policies intended to bring about change. However problematic some of the policies may be, we should always remember that things could have been far worse. But having avoided a worst-case scenario should never be grounds for complacency. It is possible that many of us, because of the relatively peaceful transition, may be taking things for granted.

On my arrival in 2000, I spoke about transformation. I'm still calling for it in 2003. What has changed in that time?

What has changed is that we have put in place the processes to bring about change and to ensure its sustainability. This is what our action guides are about. We have decided that all the guidelines must be measured against our transformation objectives. We have decided that our institution must have a global profile while also nurturing local interests. We have to balance these two by forging partnerships with, for instance, the city council and schools in the region.

Thirdly, we accept that we are a comprehensive institution, but we cannot be good at everything, so we have to be selective about the things to which we wish to divert scarce resources. So we have to make choices, and hopefully those choices will be determined by our transformation objectives as we define them.

Fourthly, we have decided to consolidate our niche as a medium-sized contact institution, an objective which foregrounds the quality of institutional life. Clearly, this idea - that transformation is not an event but a process - does not free us from the responsibility to plan. We cannot leave things to an evolutionary process. We have to intervene to make it happen.

MP: A view that is often expressed at UCT is that the university's organisational climate is not conducive to keeping black staff. What is your view?

NN: That is precisely what we want to find out through the staff survey.

I have just been talking to a member of staff who is black and leaving UCT, who said: "I have had a wonderful time. I'm leaving not because I'm running away from UCT but I need another career experience." There is a general perception that black people leave because they are unhappy with UCT. That may be so in some cases, but others leave for a host of other reasons. But, it is understandable why some black members of staff may ascribe unhappiness to black staff who leave before the end of their contracts. Because black people are a minority on campus, they may feel exposed and self-conscious, so they react to each departure with an ever-increasing sense of vulnerability, and are therefore likely to interpret every departure as a confirmation of the view that they are unhappy.

I think it is very important for staff to participate in this survey so that we can know what the real situation is. Whatever the views are, whether they are strong or not, whether they are for or against, it is important that they are expressed.

I think addressing these views in an open, frank and robust manner is an index of a transforming environment. That is very important.

MP: In terms of equity proposals, how does UCT aim to proceed?

NN: One of the ways of implementing these proposals is through a performance management model in which the transformation objectives are actually accounted for in plans of action that are agreed to between the manager and those that report to him or her. We have determined that transformation is a line management responsibility.

So, too, we have the objective of succession planning. It is very important for managers who have a diverse staff profile not to be satisfied with having black people and women on the staff, but to actually share with the staff, and to explore career prospects for them so that each and every member of staff works against a scenario of probability. In that way everything is articulated. Succession planning must become a shared activity within a department.

Some people think it is a fallacy to say black people leave academia only because of money. There is the argument that the work environment, recognition, a sense of support, and the affective, emotional, attitudinal issues that I talked about earlier also come into play.

This is why mentoring is important, and why we are creating a project for emerging researchers so that people who are in a position to be mentors are encouraged to do so.

Finally, where people are still attracted to the financial rewards of the private sector, universities like UCT have to enter into creative partnerships with the companies that attract them. It should be possible to have movement between the university and those companies, where people continue to retain a connection with the university that brings them back from time to time. Maybe that is the future for academia - a play of movement between the university and government, between the university and private sector, between the university and civil society in various configurations. We need to be creative.

MP. How do you go about reassuring staff members who might feel threatened by this process?

NN: People who understand the transformation objectives of the university understand that those objectives are complex and that we apply policy in a focused but nuanced way. People who identify with these goals need not be threatened by this process. People who continue to perform well in their jobs, teaching, researching and mentoring students, need not feel threatened by the imperatives of transformation, if they are seen as part of their work, not as additional to their work. Transformation is our work. It is not something that we do to the university. It is our shared responsibility.

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