Dr Pangloss and the best of all actual African universities

David Benatar asks whether UCT can survive any more of Max Price's victories

It is bad enough that UCT, like other South African universities, was subjected to massive disruption in 2016 (and 2015). It is worse still that the costs of this are being glossed over by UCT’s leadership. Both UCT’s Vice-Chancellor, Dr Max Price, and UCT Council member Dianna Yach have suggested that Dr. Price’s strategy of “negotiating” has been vindicated.

Dr Price has claimed that we “successfully concluded the year” and that he and his team “chose the right strategy which optimally served the interests of probably 90% of students and staff”. Ms Yach said that the agreement reached after weeks of discussions was intended in part “to create a quiet space … to allow for the completion of final exams for students in November 2016 (in which it succeeded)”.

The 2016 academic year may have been concluded (for most students so far), but it was concluded in a heavily truncated form in most of the University. One third of the semester was lost and students were, with limited exceptions, examined on only those two-thirds of course material covered before the disruptions and closure.

The costs so far are not merely the loss of a third of a semester. Morale in the institution has taken a massive hit. Staff members have begun to leave. It may be only a trickle so far, but many more are looking for alternative positions. Many of those who remain are withdrawing and no longer willing to contribute to the institution the way they did before. It is hard to know how many prospective students will seek their education at other institutions. The number of students visiting UCT on a Semester Study Abroad has begun to decline, and with it, much needed revenue has been lost.

The University has also incurred massive financial loss on account of the costs of private security, damage to property, and various interventions to compensate for the disruptions.

You would not believe this if you listened to Dr Price. He says that 2016 has been “one of our best years ever”. In support of this he says that UCT “produced more research papers than ever before in our history”, that research contracts “crossed the R1-billion mark and exceeded 2014/5’s level by 30%”, that the “impact of our research reached an all-time high”, “pass rates of our first-year courses went up for all students”, that “we have a vibrant debate going on in all faculties on curriculum change and what coloniality means”, and that “we have retained our position as the best university in Africa and positioned in the top 1% globally”. He says that these “are the criteria by which the performance of UCT management should be measured”.

Here Dr. Price has become positively Panglossian. First, as any academic knows, there is typically a lag between when research is done and when it is published. What this means is that the publication count in 2016 is a reflection of work completed in prior years. It is an open question whether research productivity has been maintained in 2016 or whether the distractions of this annus horribilis have taken their toll.

Similar points can be made, mutatis mutandis, about research contracts and about the impact of research. Research contracts are the products of sustained effort rather than yield from a single year. Breaking records in 2016 is thus not an indication whether morale and research have taken a battering by the disruptions. Research impact, is what happens after research has been done. Impacts in 2016 are typically the consequences of work done in the past.

It is hard to know how Dr Price can claim that “pass rates of our first-year courses went up for all students” when, by his own account, “about 25%” of students have not yet written their final exams for 2016 because they have chosen to defer them to early 2017. Moreover, there is some reason to think that students deferring exams under current circumstances perform less well on average than those who do not. Even if the pass rate were to increase in 2016 over past years, we do not know to what extent this is the result of (a) students being examined on only two-thirds of a regular semester’s work, and (b) the widespread abandonment of Duly Performed requirements in the second semester of 2016, which is a reduced standard.

Nor is there a “vibrant debate going on in all faculties on curriculum change and what coloniality means”. Indeed anybody who dares to question what it means is ostracized. Not knowing what it means is taken as evidence that one is part of the problem. Instead, what we have are vocal ideologues pressing their “decolonizing” agenda, while others either cower or signal their “virtue” by mouthing the orthodoxy in some form or another.

Finally, while UCT may still be the best university in Africa it has dropped in world rankings, something UCT’s Communication and Marketing Department has attempted to explain with a brave face. University rankings should be treated with a great deal of skepticism, but if one is going to boast about one’s rankings as a mark of one’s success, one should not pretend that there has been no decline when there has in fact been a drop.

Perhaps the greatest cost to Dr Price’s strategy of negotiated capitulation is that it will breed more disruptions, which will only fuel UCT’s descent. Dr. Price recognizes that negotiations “may fail – in which case the securitized route will follow”, but this, he says, should be “the last resort, not the first”.

However, one wonders just what Dr Price counts as “failure”. How many weeks of teaching must be lost and how many times must the campus be disrupted before he recognizes that negotiations have failed? Under the guise of “last resort” one can endlessly forestall the rule of law, because one can always try negotiations one more time. Negotiations went on for approximately six or seven weeks in late 2016. They failed to ensure that the final third of the semester be taught. (Exams did take place without disruption but they may well have been able to take place if the law had been upheld from the start, and thus we do not know if the costs of the negotiations actually generated a benefit that would not otherwise have been enjoyed.)

If Dr. Price and his panglossian colleagues have many more of their Pyrrhic victories there will not be much left of UCT.