Addressing the shortage of black and women professors

07 November 2014 | Story by Newsroom
Aerial view of the University of Cape Town. (Photo: UCT).
Aerial view of the University of Cape Town. (Photo: UCT).

It is of great concern that only 4% of South African professors are black African South Africans. This largely reflects the relatively small number of post-graduates from this group who were embarking on academic careers in the 1990s – an obvious legacy of apartheid education. Even now, the number of black South African PhD students is relatively small. Without intervention, the transformation of the professoriate will take an unacceptably long time. This requires national and institutional intervention. UCT already has a number of interventions in place, but we recognise that much more can be done.

The first intervention is not to miss those candidates who are already out there and ready for appointment, whether or not one has a vacancy. We do not use different criteria for appointment or promotion to professorship of people of colour. We would like to think that earning a professorship at UCT has nothing to do with the colour of one's skin. Outstanding achievement in one's discipline as a researcher, and in other aspects of one's work as an academic, such as teaching and supervision, is, in the end, the only thing that counts. To be a professor at UCT, irrespective of one's colour, gender or background, is an indication of having achieved a high level of distinction. It is this equality that ultimately challenges racist stereotypes.

Four sets of interventions

We have a strenuous employment equity policy. At professorial level this may lead to selecting a black applicant who meets the appointment criteria over a stronger white one. At junior levels, this leads to consideration of potential, not just achievement, with a commitment to developing that potential.

But fine policies are not always implemented as planned. Therefore we initiated a review of all professor and associate professor selection processes over the last three years, to see whether any black candidates were overlooked or discriminated against.

We also have a special Vice-Chancellor's fund which is used to make two kinds of equity appointments. If we advertise a post and have a black applicant who shows great potential but is not quite qualified or experienced enough, we may use the fund to create an extra post into which we can appoint the candidate so that they can develop to the expected level. In the mean-time, we may fill the original post with a fully qualified applicant. Secondly, if we learn about a qualified black academic but we don't have a vacant post at the time, we may make a supernumerary appointment so as not to lose the candidate.

A second set of interventions is to accelerate promotion. Typically, progressing up the ranks of post-doctorate, lecturer, senior lecturer, associate professor to professor may take up to five years per stage. At UCT we are trying to accelerate progress up the ladder for black and female academics, so that we can achieve greater numbers in a shorter time.

For example, achieving the necessary research track record is the most significant hurdle to promotion at all stages. Our Emerging Researchers Programme (ERP) helps kick-start their research with training, supervision and mentorship. The programme includes workshops on research proposal writing, grant-writing, special research grants that are dedicated for emerging researchers (since they are usually not yet competitive in finding external grants), more frequent sabbaticals (i.e. research leave after say 3 years instead of having to wait till the 7th year), privileged access to funding to attend international conferences and gain international exposure and experience, and regular research retreats where working with other emerging scholars provides intellectual and moral support. In the last 12 years, over 600 academics have been through the Emerging Researchers Programme (ERP).

There are other obstacles, especially for first generation academics, who, unsurprisingly, may not know how to work the system. We address this through a formal induction programme that goes on for two years (the New Academic Practitioners Programme), and subsequently through a mentorship programme by senior professors (often retired).

A third intervention relates to ensuring that, having recruited black academics, we retain them throughout their careers. So all staff who resign are interviewed to discern if UCT could have done anything to retain them. These anonymised interviews are collated and reported to the University Transformation Advisory Committee.

A fourth, and most difficult set of interventions, relates to changing the institutional climate of UCT. We accept that many black academics find the institutional culture alienating. Exactly what it is that makes people feel they do not belong is hard to put a finger on, but there are many contributing factors. A perception sometimes that one is just not taken seriously – by colleagues and students – because one has a different accent, or because a stereotype precedes one and one has to work so much harder to overcome it. Or because the curricula one teaches and the topics of research do not speak to one's own history and experience. The image and feel of the university – from the names on buildings, to those honoured through statues and portraits, to the neo-classical colonial architecture, to the predominance of whites amongst the academic leadership of departments and faculties – these may signal exclusivity and we are working to change this. This is also associated with varying degrees of mistrust that black academics will be fairly treated in promotion and in getting the necessary support to succeed.

We have clearly not yet reached the point where the university has a sufficiently inclusive feel for a number of black academics. We believe this will change when black academics achieve a critical mass of numbers, but there are things we can try in the short term. Some of the interventions we have put in place are: transparent reviews of selection and promotions processes; an Ombuds office where any concerns about how the institution works can be raised, anonymously if preferred. We are addressing the symbolic Eurocentricism by renaming buildings and providing critical commentary on UCT's iconic landmarks. But we need to do more and will seek the voice of black staff to achieve this.

While it may take longer to change the actual proportions of black academics at senior levels, we can still begin to address representivity and culture within the university's decision making structures, such as the Senate. So although Senate is meant to be mainly professors, we have increased it by co-opting about 35 non-professors specifically to achieve diversity. Similarly, all committees, including selection committees, are constructed with additional co-optees if they lack diversity.

We share the frustrations at the slow progress but foresee a future with a majority of academic staff being black – as is already the case with non-academic staff (72% black).

Max Price
Vice-Chancellor, University of Cape Town

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