The following letter is a response by Deputy Vice-Chancellor Prof Crain Soudien to Associate Professor Xolela Mangcu's opinion piece published in Business Day on 3 November 2014 (Black academics are getting a raw deal):
The University of Cape Town (UCT) appreciates the points raised by associate professor Xolela Mangcu on promoting academic excellence in tertiary education.
The discussion he has begun is important. It provides us all with the opportunity to consider afresh the processes universities use to measure the academic value of an individual.
In an institution that has been historically white, it is understandable that some will have suspicions about discrimination in promotion. We also recognise the views of some staff and students that some of these approaches are too Eurocentric. These are clearly issues we need to talk about, and that will help to make us deal with the challenge of inclusion better.
Dr Mangcu correctly points out that institutions such as UCT, which rely on public funding, must be accountable for decisions involving the promotion of academics. Our processes must be transparent, democratic and beneficial to the broad interests of society.
So it is with great concern that we read his call for educational institutions to put aside such processes and instead "smell that talent from a distance". This approach lends itself to caprice. It is unhelpful in a South African environment, especially in a sector that is subject to labour laws. It is even hazardous: without a standard process for measuring academic success, educational institutions would certainly slide into exactly the kind of cronyism and nepotism Dr Mangcu is so critical of, and this would put the whole academic project in jeopardy.
By advocating such an approach across the board, Dr Mangcu appears to be dismissing the consultative processes South African institutions and their staff must follow to develop common agreement on the standards for promotion they wish to use and apply to themselves.
For example, in the Faculty of Humanities at UCT, to which Dr Mangcu belongs, criteria for advancement are spelled out explicitly, with points assigned for teaching, learning, leadership and social responsiveness. A minimum score must be achieved in each of these areas, based on objective factors such as student evaluation forms and feedback from the external exam process.
Specific requirements are laid out regarding an academic's publishing record, such as the number of articles and where they were published. These criteria are discussed freely and frequently in faculty board meetings. The process is self-determined and self-regulated by faculty members: they decide what they will demand of themselves.
The purpose of upholding a rigorous and objective process is to strengthen the university. In turn, a strong university that confers a professorship augments the academic qualifications of the individual who is promoted.
Some academics have claimed that this process is influenced unfairly by institutional climate. We take such a charge seriously. UCT's appointment process is always open to review. If a candidate believes a promotion has been turned down unfairly, there is an open and transparent process in terms of which the decision can be reviewed to ensure that it was both procedurally and substantively fair.
Professor Crain Soudien
Prof Soudien's letter was published in Business Day on Friday 7 November 2014 ( Danger of caprice).
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