Hot topic at new workshops

16 May 2005

It's been disputed in corridors and on discussion lists, been the topic of a hotly-debated survey, and is now the nub of a new series of seminars.

The Transformation Office, based in the Office of the Vice-Chancellor, last week launched the first of five seminars to home in on institutional culture, a fault line at UCT that many, however, still find hard to pin down. Which is why the meeting was designed, in part, to give some theoretical direction to discussion on the topic.

"I think we deal with the practical aspects of institutional culture all the time," says Nazeema Mohamed, manager of the Transformation Office. "But if we can sharpen our theoretical understanding through hearing about other people's experiences, through case studies, it would equip us to deal more thoroughly with the practical issues."

First up at the meeting was Lionel Thaver of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of the Western Cape. In his talk, Thaver unpacked the notions of 'home' and 'at home', and the need to feel 'at home' at institutions such as universities.

"The question is never, 'Do you feel at home?'" said Thaver. "But rather, where, and with whom, doing what, to what end, do you feel comfortable enough to be able to say 'I feel at home' or 'in place' in this institution."

In turn, Professor John Higgins of the Department of English Language and Literature gave some insights into the flawed "transposition" of the concept of institutional culture from the dog-eat-dog world of business - sparked by the cultural clashes between American and Japanese corporations - to "cuddly" institutions of higher education. What policymakers and others ignored (or were oblivious to) in adopting the phrase is the built-in notion, as touted by Margaret Thatcher, former prime minister of the United Kingdom, that everything, including universities, should be run like a business, said Higgins. Efficiency then overrides all other concerns.

Finally, Associate Professor Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela touched a nerve by referring to the incident earlier this year in which Dr Steve Tladi attacked Associate Professor Brian Hahn. "What really concerns me," said Gobodo-Madikizela, "is why we are, when we are faced with a violent murder on this campus, not talking about, first of all, what led to this incident, and not talking about why the only reaction that is vocal about this incident is reaction that seems to be condoning this behaviour."

The very scholarly approach of the seminar rankled somewhat, as came out in the post-presentation discussion.

"As a university, we would make no apology for the selection, investigation, analysis and criticism of the concepts that we're using," responded chair Professor Martin West. "However, that must not, as some have said, stand in the way of doing things."

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