When Professor Loretta Feris stepped into her new role as deputy vice-chancellor for transformation and student affairs in January this year, she brought with her decades of experience as a top law scholar and an activist in her field.
Feris stepped onto a moving train, if you will, with the university at the end of 2016 in a state of relative upheaval after months of student protests.
Much of her time is divided between chairing the Rapid Response Task Team (RRTT) and the Strategic Executive Task Team (SETT), working to set up the Institutional Reconciliation and Transformation Commission and supporting the Free Education Planning Group, not to mention the day-to-day work required of the transformation and student affairs portfolios.
It’s been an interesting transition for the activist academic, whose teaching and scholarship focused on environmental justice before she made the move to the Bremner building.
“I see it as both an opportunity and a challenge. It gives me the possibility to address transformation from a different perspective, to bring an alternative voice in the room, to persuade role players who make decisions to think differently about how we make those decisions,” says Feris.
Stepping into this role was a reminder of how “steeped in bureaucracy” the university is, she says. And it is often difficult and cumbersome to make decisions.
“It’s certainly given me some clarity with respect to why, sometimes, the pace of transformation is so slow. UCT is a university that is ruled by committee, which is great for transparency and accountability, but it puts the brakes on decision-making.”
She also believes that the university needs to interrogate whether rules and procedures may have been developed for a student body that looks very different from the way it looks now and whether existing processes and procedures are keeping pace with a changing student profile.
Facing up to socio-economic challenges
To illustrate this, she points out that over the past few years the student profile has reflected a greater diversity of students – black students, rural students, students from quintile 1, 2 and 3 schools.
“These days our students do not have the economic, social and cultural capital that students had 10 or 20 years ago. I would be surprised if even 10 years ago UCT had a significant number of students who faced the kind of socio-economic challenges that students are currently facing.
“Now we have students that are hungry, that cannot afford accommodation close to campus or any accommodation at all, that literally sleep under a bridge. And this is important, because students’ social conditions have a profound impact on their ability to function in a learning environment and consequently on academic performance.
“We assume that our decisions on academic progress are neutral, for example, but does it take into account the hardship of the daily grind of many of our students?”
She believes, therefore, that “as a university we need to constantly review our decision-making processes” to take into account social and economic context in a way that will ensure not only fairness, but also consistency. The greatest transformation challenge for UCT, she says, is ensuring an excellent, quality education in an environment where everyone flourishes, regardless of their background.
The review of the Readmission Appeals Committee (RAC) process that took place in March this year, for instance, gave Feris and her colleagues a sense that “there can be historical ways of decision-making in a committee that on the face of it may look neutral, but that may affect students detrimentally based on how they are situated.”
“So when we teach and when we develop rules on assessment, when we develop processes to facilitate throughput, such as the RAC, we cannot summarily discard it when a student tells us, ‘I failed because I have no money.’ It is for this reason also that this year we made major concessions with respect to financial aid. It is for this reason that we are placing major emphasis on the work of the Free Education Planning Group. Finances should not be a barrier to academic success.”
What would a transformed university look like?
Feris questions whether UCT is the kind of university where a student can see themselves, regardless of whether they come from a rural village in Limpopo or from Bishopscourt, regardless of ability, sex or gender. Is it the kind of space that can hold many ways of being and of producing knowledge?
“A transformed university is a pluriversal place – a space where you can have a range of epistemologies, where there is more than one way of producing knowledge, where there is more than one central truth, where there is more than one dominant culture and where there is more than one way of being as a person.”
Talking to students is crucial
If there is one thing Feris wishes she could free up her diary for, it would be for more engagements with students.
“For me, the two aspects of my portfolio – transformation and student affairs – are fundamentally linked, and I need to hear the student voices.
“In fact, I want to use this opportunity to extend an invitation to students and staff to invite me into their spaces. I really appreciate it when departments and faculties invite me. I would love for student council bodies, societies and student formations to invite me to come and speak with them, even in an informal manner – especially in an informal manner.”
Employment equity and austerity
It was an unfair question, perhaps, but an important one: How does Feris see the austerity measures that UCT has had to impose, with the associated freezing of posts and other budget cuts impacting on the university’s employment equity targets?
As expected, the answer is that only time will tell. It poses a particular challenge though, given that money is needed to develop skills and to attract more talent, especially black talent at all levels, to UCT, she says.
“Employment equity is crucial. At the same time, there’s a need to develop people’s skills internally, right? We want to be able to say to people that are already here that you have a career trajectory and that there is possibility for growth. We need to focus on developing people for growth. However, we need to acknowledge that our senior PASS staff and our senior academic profile is abysmal. We need to attract African black staff, in particular women. Who teaches, matters.
“As a black student, I need to walk into a classroom and I need to see myself. In other words, I need to see black professors, female professors and I need to see the excellence we have in this country, and I need to see it at UCT. And I then need to say to myself, this is me in five years, in 10 years. I can be the next generation of black professor. But I will only imagine seeing myself standing in front of a classroom if I have role models,” she says.
“We also need to look at our retention levels. Are we retaining talented staff? If they are leaving, why are they leaving?”
What can an ‘ordinary’ student or staff member do?
“Share your ideas,” says Feris. “Have courageous and honest conversations about racism, ableism, sexism. Ask questions. Think about ways to provide support to your fellow student or member of staff, as a mentor.
“What is important is that transformation is everyone’s project, that it is a grassroots initiative … Obviously as DVC for transformation I need to facilitate and direct the process, but it needs to be from the bottom up.
“As I start speaking to members of staff and to students, I realise that so much is already happening on campus. As much as the protests of the last two years caused much upheaval, it also injected a sense of urgency and the realisation that as a university we need to grapple with transformation, we need to have difficult conversations about the practices and processes that alienate.”
She closes the conversation with a message.
“We cannot ignore that the conflict between work and family firmly establishes a glass ceiling for women. I hope that in appointing me, UCT realises that I come as a full human being into a role, and I happen to be somebody with a young child. And that means that, in this role, I should be able to be a member of the executive but also somebody that needs to be a soccer mom. The struggles continue.”
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