Dear Dr Price

Thomas Johnson responds to the UCT VC's R1bn fundraising appeal to alumni

Dr Max Price, Mr Royston Pillay, Dr Russel Ally, Ms Dianna Yach

cc Ms Gerda Kruger

By email

Dear Dr Price et al

‘Distinguishing UCT Campaign’: Road to nowhere?

In the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) undated fundraising circular “Distinguishing UCT” received Friday Vice-Chancellor Max Price writes:

“The South African higher education sector is facing unprecedented challenges.  Fundamentally this is about access and affordability.”

The problems facing higher education are not unique to post-1994 South Africa.  It’s primarily the fruit of the ruling party’s discredited and ineffective economic and social policies, which inter alia caused moribund economic growth, high unemployment, inequality and a mediocre basic education system.  Their failure to meet their promise of a “better life for all” resulted in frequent and often violent service delivery protests.

What is “unprecedented” though, including anti-apartheid protests in the 1980s,  were violent protests, destruction of property and intimidation that swept South African universities in 2015 and 2016 costing the taxpayer almost R1 billion in damages (coincidentally, the amount you want to raise).  No one was held accountable or charged.

What is unprecedented is UCT, despite experiencing significant destruction of assets, intimidation of council, management, staff and students and the tarnishing of its credibility and reputation as a result, forgave implicated protestors and agent provocateurs

At the same time, following the executive’s decision, the university community of staff, students and alumni were forced to bow to culprits’ – the leadership of which is untested, unrepresentative and opaque – day-by-day changing demands and agendas, and pressurised to “negotiate” with them despite the deleterious effects their actions had on community and academic life. 

Dr Price, you and your management ignored, or misrepresented, the community’s and public’s pleas to take control of the spiralling situation and take decisive action against protestors.  Instead, you appeased and exonerated them. 

Encouraged, protestors, who lack conception of the principles of scholarship, academic life, freedom of speech and citizen responsibility and have very little credibility and public approbation, outdid (outdo) each other with outrageous, irrational and childish demands and posturing. 

It’s a concern and shame and blight on UCT’s reputation that they were/are supported by university management, its spokespersons, pro-protestor, disaffected academics and media, which rather than rationally respond to criticism of your policy of embracing and appeasing protestors, choose to misdirect by attacking critics, often cheaply accusing them of being racist.  This was done with Dr Price’s tacit approval.

Many South African universities and colleges experienced protests over the past year or so, and some more quickly than others restored control and resumed business.  Others were hardly affected at all. 

But UCT appears to be the only one that by year-end 2016 failed to find a modus operandi for dealing with disruptions and threats and ensure the safe and peaceful continuation of university business. 

I include the uncivil and singular disruption of the convocation AGM on 15 December 2016.  But without introspection or irony university spokesmen and women risibly interpreted this event as an example of a competent vice-chancellor and well-run university where its business could be conducted and freedom of speech protected.  This gathering indicated all that has gone wrong at UCT since 2015.

The reason UCT has had little semblance of normality and for its difficulty regaining control is the executive’s strategy of appeasing and enabling protestors who don’t represent a significant body but are agents of destruction and disorder.

Was it not Dr Price who said of the Rhodes protests and protestors, “If I could, I would have joined the protests” and “I am proud of my son”?  And before the community voted about it, the “statue should be moved”, a fait accompli decision the supine, brow-beaten council endorsed?

By making tendentious and provocative comments in a volatile environment that required calm and rational deliberation and action, Dr Price applauded protestors’ illegal conduct, which set the terms of future engagement with and for protestors who, uncontested, became increasingly demanding and violent. 

I disagree with what Prof. Suellen Shay sycophantically wrote:  “His presence was as impressive as his words.  Dr Max Price remained composed, unshaken, [and] no stranger to these kinds of highly charged events.”  The “chaos” at the meeting, including the presence of a bare-breasted protestor beside him, spoke otherwise.

He hasn’t displayed leadership, courage, calm under pressure and a willingness, if necessary, to go it alone in the face of extreme adversity.  This is the stuff of leaders, not capitulation at the first sign of trouble. 

Instead he appears conflicted and wrought with conflict of interest, pusillanimous, hesitant and flip-flopping from one position to the next to meet protestors’, pro-fallist group’s etc new, on-the-fly demands as he helms a university that’s heading for the rocks. 

The blame for this is not “unprecedented challenges”, but an ideologically confused (socialist, nationalist or liberal?) executive aided and abetted by smarmy, praise-singing academics and staff – including the unofficial Black Academic Caucus, whoever they really are – who all appear to have forgotten what a university means. 

Fallists/protestors have continuously insulted, accosted and disrespected Dr Price, and through him, UCT and all it stands for.  But he continues to engage with them and lets them have their way when in similar circumstances between rational persons, organisations and countries such conduct would be condemned in the strongest terms and communication with offending parties ceased until sanity and civility is restored.  But not so at UCT.

Yet he and management think it’s acceptable to continuously ignore and disrespect the taxpaying public, alumni and donors with the embarrassing circus show the university has become, and insult, chastise and ignore critics (like me) who really are concerned about what’s happening to and at the university. 

I publically stated before Dr Price – and those who support his ideology, for he is not alone in this – is not the leader UCT deserves at this time.

While other universities, e.g., Stellenbosch, Rhodes, and belatedly, Wits dealt with trouble and eventually got down to business, UCT is still mired in self-created detritus from 2015 and 2016.  And it appears oblivious to the harm that has been done because its fundraising campaign is called “Distinguishing UCT” (sic). 

The uncertainty and instability is set to continue this year with the ITRC/Shackville TRC, the resumed convocation AGM and dealing with the debris of 2016.  This is what an academic told me: 

I dread going back to UCT in 2017 – if it opens! Price et al are entering into an unholy bargain with the Shackville TRC, which, despite having no official status at UCT, gets to elect members to the TRC Steering Committee, which includes members from the anonymous and unofficial Black Academic Caucus.  If this were done at political level it would be corruption.”

This person also spoke of intimidation of lecturers and students during the year and management’s apparent indifference to the plight of staff and students who wanted to work.

In the fundraising letter Dr Price writes of “a world-class education at UCT”, “advancing excellence, investing in talent and realising transformation”, “advancing strategic objectives” and “strengthen [its] position as the leading university on the continent into the future”.

While at some level the root causes of the current problems are “access and affordability” – economics and income – how does that tie with destruction of university assets, unrealistic and unrealisable demands for “free education”, “decolonised education” and “decolonised science” (sic), intimidation and threats and disruption of the university’s core duties of teaching and learning, scholarship, research and nurturing ideas and freedom of speech? 

Neither Dr Price, university spokespersons, protestors nor their apologists, including media groupies, have cogently explained this.

How would meeting Distinguishing UCT’s R1 billion endowment target meet protestors’ demands and undo the damage to the fabric of the university – its “core values” – caused by the Fallist-inspired crisis? 

How will it reverse the tyrannical conduct of a small, nebulous group that was allowed to develop on campus unchallenged, which shut down lectures and meetings because they did not like what was said or who said it? 

How will it mitigate encroaching limitations on freedom of speech like Dr Price’s and the executive’s removal of art and banning of Flemming Rose’s lecture for illogical, contradictory, unjustified and fearful ( “composed and unshaken”?) reasons, but mainly to appease an amorphous group (some of whose members later objected to Rose’s banning). 

These signature moments are the antithesis of a university, low points in Dr Price’s leadership that’s becoming a trait. 

What does “academic freedom” mean at a place where law-abiding members work and study in fear and uncertainty, unsupported by management, which entered into a “bargain” with the devil? (Compare the University of Chicago’s commitment to academic freedom.)

With the crisis that seemingly will continue into the future, how will UCT meet its strategic objectives and maintain its “leading” status in Africa (a very low bar anyway) and the world when the vice-chancellor, executive and council will not defend members’ immutable rights, but instead pre-emptively rolls over in submission at the first sign of confrontation? 

Arguably, as the executive, your actions and decisions, or lack thereof, have already damaged the university’s reputation and you have taken it on an uncertain road, and in the process raised questions in the public’s mind about your competence and integrity.

Ultimately, you are dishonest for linking the “unprecedented challenges” in higher education nationally with what happened at UCT during 2015 and 2016 and your need to hopefully raise R1 billion: 

What happened at UCT specifically was the result of a reckless and feckless leadership, which displayed an obvious lack of wisdom beyond satisfying protestors’ every whim, and not the lack of money.  The last is a situation all South African (and many international) universities and colleges face but they are not afflicted with UCT’s stroke-like symptoms.

A university is not primarily about the size of its endowment, which is important to further its strategic objectives, but its dedication to the sui generis idea of a university.  UCT sacrificed that in 2015 and especially 2016.  Even if it raises R1 billion, will it matter if its reputation is ruined forever? 

Since the Rhodes event in 2015 I have been writing about my disquiet.  This grew to dismay and alarm when Dr Price banned Flemming Rose’s lecture.  Other events in 2016 confirmed what I had reluctantly come to accept: UCT is irredeemable and I want no part of it. 

In 2016 I publically dissociated myself from UCT.  My article in Politicsweb and letters in Cape Argus stated this.  I didn’t formally contact the alumni department – why should I? 

But I’m surprised that in the media furore surrounding the crisis UCT’s ever watchful alumni director Russell Ally, who intemperately replied to UCT’s critics* (“crass ideological agenda at work”; white critics who allegedly “have an incurable nostalgia for ‘UCT before the black man (and woman) came’”; UCT is “subjected to blatant prejudice masquerading as analysis”here and here), alumni board’s Dianna Yach (ditto) and communications director Gerda Kruger did not read my articles and note my intention. 

(*I replied to Dr Ally’s Daily Maverick article but in his subsequent Politicsweb article on 10 May 2016 responding to Prof. Ken Hughes and RW Johnson he only indirectly referred to me – “I made no claims this is the position of all black alumni [emphasis mine]” – thereby contemptuously disregarding what I as an alumnus had to say.  See my response here.)

But Dr Price et al, if you didn’t understand before, note:

I’m no longer proud of being a UCT graduate.  Please remove my name from the alumni register immediately, and all that implies, and cease all related communication with me.  As far as I’m concerned I’m no longer a member of the convocation.  I have no further business with the university. 

(However, perhaps in the future after the damage has been done or UCT realises the futility of its dead-end strategy and regains a sense of its true purpose, I would be happy to enter into discussions with whoever leads it then – not the incumbents – for my name to be reinstated.)

I’m making this letter public.


Thomas Johnson

8 January 2017

The fundraising email from UCT:

Distinguishing UCT: The campaign to grow our endowment