Tim Crowe on Suellen Shay's perspective of UCT's Convocation

18 January 2017 | Story by Newsroom

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Dean Suellen Shay's various articles urging the UCT community to “learn to engage with chaos” are further examples of how socio-educational engineering at UCT can turn it into a mediocrity- and intimidation-driven educational institution.

Nevertheless, she correctly assesses the recent 2016 meeting of UCT's Convocation – the annual gathering of its alumni – as a “microcosm of South African higher education in 2015 and 2016”. A 400+ assemblage of the “silent majority” (mainly old codgers like me) seeking a 'safe place' within which they could get on with university business was invaded by a small group of vulgar, aggressive bullies bearing placards with misspellings, spewing obscenities and featuring public nudity. UCT officers 'in charge' sat/stood by placidly and did nothing to impede the intruders. According to one invader, who grabbed the microphone from past Black Consciousness Movement president and current president of Convocation, Professor Barney Pityana, their goal was to stop the “motion of no confidence” in Vice-Chancellor Dr Max Price. But, as usual, the lawbreakers had not done their 'homework'. The relevant motion (one of several) concerned that consideration be given to undertaking a survey of the 100 000+ alumni to gauge their views on showing no confidence in Dr Price and his executive for negotiating with a non-representative, disparate, renegation-prone lawbreaking coterie of Fallist/Decolonists.

Also, true to form, soon after Professor Pityana acted on a motion from Advocate Geoffrey Budlender (who facilitated Dr Price's appointment) and Dr Lydia Cairncross to allow the invaders to remain if they protested silently, invaders and 'protesters' (including recently amnestied Chumani Maxwele) embedded in the audience started to harass speakers, including Budlender. Contrary to protester-overall-goals outlined by Shay, there was no “dissent and debate”, only disruption and insults / hate speech. Debate requires a willingness to engage.

Nevertheless, Dean Shay was, once again, correct in asserting “academics and other members of university communities [should] step out of their comfort zones”. Those present did just this, reverting from excited potential participants in rational debate and the democratic process into a dichotomous, turbulent mass of angry or fearful humanity. She was also correct in that the audience had to “listen to views with which they bitterly disagree”. Sadly, these related little to the motion in hand. Lastly, she is correct in characterising the situation at UCT as “the chaos that has become [the] new reality”. In doing so, she allies herself with Dr Price, his executive, the Council and the 'do-little' Senate.

Dean Shay attempts to normalise this chaos by stating that “since the 1990s higher education globally has experienced a new wave of student protests ”. Perhaps she could identify some United Kingdom and United States of America universities that have had widespread verbal intimidation of peaceful staff/students, total academic shutdown, professors beaten to death, expensive equipment damaged, serial rape, arson, etc. This is UCT's new “character”.

Then, she subtly shifts to characterise bullies, stone-throwers and arsonists as “scholars” “profoundly disillusioned with current democratic processes” and “angry with neo-liberalism”. When blaming the government for not dealing with the Fees Must Fall movement is not enough, she lays the blame with the “Eurocentric, white, middle-class culture”.

She totally ignores the 'mammoth in the room':

  1. The UCT executive's policy of admitting what she has described as “immensely capable, high-achieving students” (in terms of national matric marks and a UCT-developed series of tests) who are in fact educationally 'disabled' by the post-apartheid Basic Education system
  2. UCT's failure to help to develop most of them into high-quality graduates in the requisite time period.

These frustrated and/or failed students, especially the most socio-economically oppressed, have increasingly become the minions of the tiny malevolent minority of 'protesters' that Dr Price has characterised as implacably dedicated to the destruction of UCT.

Chaos – as inspiration

Dean Shay first tries to make this connection by comparing the attendance of the 2015 and 2016 UCT Convocation AGM – 47 in the former, 400+ in the latter. This ignores the fact that most attendees believed, or had been led to believe, incorrectly, that my motion was calling for Dr Price's departure, and were there to support him.

She goes on to say that: “The meeting also revealed outstanding leadership.”

Given what actually happened at the AGM – by whom?

Professor Pityana's repeated attempts to promote “constructive engagement” were dashed by the invaders' persistent, often vulgar and defamatory, harassment of all speakers (regardless of race/status/gender) except their comrades.

Dean Shay implies that Pityana was not forewarned of possible disruption. This says little for the 'pro-activeness' of the UCT leaders in charge who had forged the momentous Agreement of November 6.

Yes, “his speech was a careful, measured balancing act of critiquing aspects of the student movement on the one hand and strongly endorsing the urgent call for change.” Characterising it as “courageous” seems a bit disingenuous, since the heckling by invaders virtually drowned him out.

Next, Shay describes the Vice-Chancellor's “state of the university” address as “impressive”. The invaders did not share her view since they

  1. loudly and disrespectfully (his words not mine) referred to him as merely “Max”
  2. refused to rearrange themselves around the podium to allow his unobscured view by alumni (the topless invader remained steadfastly by his side)
  3. continuously made mocking facial gestures and assumed deliberately inattentive body stances.

Dean Shay then concludes that

  1. holding Dr Price and/or his executive accountable for what's resulted from his executive's consistent accommodation of (capitulation to?) the Fallists in general and lawbreaking elements in particular, and demonstrable neglect of pleadings from what I call the “silenced majority” is “profoundly naïve”
  2. my motion was “intended to galvanise action by preying on fear”.

I urge her to take note of Ms Gwen Ngwenya's (former UCT SRC president and current COO of the South African Institute of Race Relations) characterisation of the November Agreement as a “negotiation for non-violence”.

Engaging the chaos

Dr Price and Dean Shay correctly stress that interested and affected parties must be “able to listen and engage with others who have different views to our own”. This communication forms the foundation of the principle of academic freedom on which UCT's very being is based. The fundamental problem on this score is Dr Price's choices of communicators on both sides of the table.

Hence my motion. I want Dr Price to stay, but do his job properly.

Should the UCT community be afraid?

No. I think that its various components should be extremely concerned that this continued social engineering geared to appeasing 'protesters' (including lawbreakers) will lead to a widespread collapse of the UCT loved by past and present students, staff, fee-paying parents and past and future donors. This collapse will be welcomed by an uncaring, kleptocratic, incompetent national government and civil service (especially those involved with basic education) that could be threatened by leaders produced by a UCT firing on all cylinders.

This article was written nearly a month ago. For my current thoughts see http://www.politicsweb.co.za/opinion/uct-reborn-really.

Emeritus Professor Tim Crowe


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