Staff transformation at UCT: a response

23 September 2014 | Story by Newsroom
Council member Buyani Zwane facilitating a <a href="/article/-2014-08-14-the-race-to-equity-in-higher-education-institutions">debate on employment equity and affirmative action</a>, hosted by the university's Transformation Services Office in August 2014. (Photo by Je'nine May.)
Council member Buyani Zwane facilitating a debate on employment equity and affirmative action, hosted by the university's Transformation Services Office in August 2014. (Photo by Je'nine May.)

In his article on staff transformation at UCT (published online on 14 July 2014), Vice-Chancellor Dr Max Price offered his perspective on the employment equity challenges at UCT. In response to this article, we, a group of academics at UCT who identify as black, wish to raise a number of concerns that we see as necessary to challenge some of the assumptions made about black academic staff at UCT. Our interest is to contribute to the debate on employment equity and to open a dialogue on a new, more effective and inclusive direction towards transformation in higher education.

Dr Price's article takes a rather defensive view. It is focused on proving that UCT is already tackling the problem of employment equity to a satisfactory degree. While we do not wish to deny UCT's ongoing efforts in that direction, we wish to raise concerns over the argument that UCT is doing all it can toward achieving employment equity. There are two issues we see as particularly problematic:

  1. The comparison of UCT to other South African universities that employ higher numbers of black academics.
  2. The responsibility for the present employment demographics being placed on black academics.

The vice-chancellor's article provides a listing of the number of African and 'coloured' permanent full-time professors currently employed in 19 higher education institutions in the country including UCT. These comparisons to other institutions are then couched within an implicit discourse about academic standards. The article suggests that "quality" is compromised at other universities that have more black professors because at UCT "we are not lowering the standard for appointment or promotion as professor for people of colour".

This is a contentious statement at best as there are no data supporting this view. Furthermore, raising the issue of standards when referring to black academics is a discourse that serves to undermine the competencies of black scholars and one that works to maintain the false notion that white scholarship and white scholars are superior. In many ways, such constructions of blackness and black scholarship are part of a broader discourse of white superiority, a historical legacy we all share and have a responsibility to confront. The discourse of "lower standards", used in response to criticism about practices of hiring and promotion, contributes to a culture that marginalises black academics in various ways, both inside and outside of the university. It creates a climate that alienates people from the university community and subjects black scholars to higher levels of scrutiny than other scholars within our institution. The result is a divisive discourse that recurs persistently in discussions around transformation at institutions of higher education.

We also note that the vice-chancellor's article supports its claim about the "lack" of qualified black scholars by repeating a common assumption that the pool of potential black academics is reduced because many black professionals opt for careers other than academia. It is suggested that such people have the potential to become scholars of "quality" but choose to work in the corporate and public sectors instead. This sentiment is stated with authority but is unsupported. What it does, however, is to shift the shared burden of responsibility for crafting a transformed university community away from the university leadership onto the institution's constituents. It glosses over the factors that contribute to the exclusion of black academics and instead places the blame on black professionals for the internal demographics of UCT. Claims such as these absolve the institution of its responsibility to actively recruit and retain black academic staff.

As active professionals and scholars, we draw on our personal experiences at UCT to reframe the complex matter of transformation. We see that part of the problem is how privilege is maintained at UCT. This issue appears in implicit and explicit ways and is compounded by the vice-chancellor's article. The issue of privilege was raised in the Report of the Ministerial Committee on Transformation and Social Cohesion and the Elimination of Discrimination in Public Higher Education Institutions in 2008. Referring to transformation, the report states: "Above all, it [transformation] is about changing the underlying social, cultural and power relations that continue to define higher education institutions..." and referring specifically to UCT, the report highlighted a "disjunction" between the culture of the institution and its transformation policies, and describes this disjunction as indicative of the "continuing whiteness" of UCT.

In our view, privilege and exclusion go hand in hand and create the context for the current challenges around employment equity at UCT. Hence, it is no longer sufficient to simply recognise the issue of institutional alienation. We also need to start asking the complex and difficult questions about how we begin to tackle the ongoing, conventional, and taken-for-granted operations of whiteness and privilege at UCT. To this end, we propose that the dialogue on employment equity must shift. This shift in the debate on employment equity and transformation is an opportunity to build a stronger intellectual community and raise questions, such as: How do we talk about quality and standards in non-exclusionary ways? How can we improve the ways in which quality and standards are set and measured? In this way, we can move away from a deficit model of transformation that presupposes a lack of quality towards a more positive model of transformation that focuses on enabling the human resources already present and available.

In conclusion, we invite a fresh way of thinking around UCT's strategy of transformation as it relates to employment equity. We urge a reassessment that is informed by the experiences of black academic staff at UCT. We also suggest that the university's achievement in "quality and global excellence", as referred to in Dr Price's article, must make central the contributions that black academics make within the institution, rather than the current practice of placing the worthwhile contributions of black academics in opposition to abstract notions of quality and global excellence.

We therefore urge members of UCT and the scholarly community of South Africa to reframe the debate on transformation in academia by bringing forth effective ideas, perspectives, and approaches that address the complex realities of transformation in higher education.

Authors of the article in alphabetical order are:

Vissého Adjiwanou, Adelene Africa, Floretta Boonzaier, Barbara Boswell, Mbongiseni Buthelezi, Yaliwe Clarke, Victoria Collis-Buthelezi, Reza Daniels, Roshan Galvaan, Shose Kessi, Progress Njomboro, Nkululeko Mabandla, Zethu Matebeni, Daniel Munene, Jay Pather, Elelwani Ramugondo, Vimal Ranchhod, Rael Salley, Kevin Thomas

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