Max Price on transformation at UCT: Some comments

Sara Gon says the tone of the VC's letter suggests capitulation to an agenda of racial intolerance

The Unbearable Lightness of Sensibility over Sense

Dr. Max Price, Vice-Chancellor of UCT, has issued a letter to colleagues and students, “dealing specifically with our record of transformation in 2015 and marking the anniversary of the start of the #RhodesMustFall (RMF) protests.”

This article can’t canvass every issue - only the most perturbing and bizarre. Excerpts are italicised and bold. The full text can be found here.

Efforts by UCT have been ongoing for many years, but 2015 saw a marked acceleration due to – the RMF campaign, the Black Academic Caucus, the SRC, Faculty Student Councils, Patriarchy Must Fall and LGBTQIA lobbies, the UCT Left Students Forum, staff unions etc.

For those unfamiliar with the term, “LGBTQIA” stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex and Asexual communities. Transgenders do not identify their actual gender as being the same as their biological gender. Queers adopt identities that reject traditional gender identities of male and female, and seek a broader, less conformist, and deliberately ambiguous alternative to the label LGBT.

Intersex people, originally hermaphrodites, suffer from a discrepancy between external genitals and internal genitals. Asexuals lack sexual attraction to anyone, or have low or absent interest in sexual activity.

LGBTIA lobbies campaign against a heteronormative view - one that promotes heterosexuality as the normal or preferred sexual orientation.

Clause 9(3) of the Constitution prohibits unfair discrimination against LGBTIA individuals. If UCT is going to positively accommodate LBGTIA individuals, rather than just try to tackle unfair discrimination, then all minorities must be accommodated. The cost could be overwhelming.

Transformation includes employment equity programmes, creating forums for views not usually voiced, addressing the dominance on campus of the symbols that reflect a particular, white or colonial, heritage, student access, gender and sexual harassment issues, curriculum reform and insourcing.

Successful organisations have fora for consultation with elected and formally recognised entities. Management may with those groups for consideration, but it is not bound by those representations nor are those groupings entitled to equal authority of management. Management has to make the decisions at the end of the day weighing up competing imperatives.

If transformation is to be meaningful those responsible for it must ensure that issues that may have a racial history don’t become confused with racism thereby perpetuating hatred based on skin colour.

This paragraph suggests that the only voices that are going to be heard will be those of black students and staff, and minorities whose identity is defined by their gender or sexuality. Will management seek the views of minorities that may not categorise themselves in terms of colour or gender?

Faculties held “faculty assemblies” intended to open safe spaces, especially for black students, to talk about how they experienced the institution.

In 2014 enrolment comprised 11,597 blacks and 8,093 whites. The rest were 1,993 other (East Asian origin?) and 4,674 internationals.

So of 19,690 black and white students, 59% were black in 2014. Presumably the percentage of black students in 2015 were greater than 2014, and in 2016 greater still. Black students are increasingly in the majority. Do black students need safe spaces? Are black students unsafe? Are they under threat of violence? Or are they under threat from being insulted or offended?

Are there no structures such as disciplinary processes to deal with refer threats? Do white students need “safe spaces”, given the current climate of protest against whiteness? Do Muslim students have safe spaces to go to when accused of being Islamists or Jihadi extremists? Do Jewish students have safe spaces to go to when the they face the anti-Semitism, an inevitable feature of campus life?

After university there are no safe places. University is an ideal opportunity for a student to learn how to handle life in “unsafe” spaces. “Safe spaces” create an impression of a world that doesn’t actually exist. Students may expect university authorities to do all they can to prevent physical harm and to deal with complaints about racism, anti-Semitism or any other expression of hatred. However, everyone has to learn to cope themselves or they will perish in the real world.

A concern that was articulated was the risk of stigmatisation associated with academic development programmes.

UCT is damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t! If a student is fortunate enough to have access to a development program, the opportunity must be grabbed so that the student can move towards full participation.

If students succeed, their degrees will be all the more valuable. If not, they’ve tried. It is not shameful not to get a degree. Life is not only about success; it’s also about failure. There are no guarantees in life.

Only the individual can take responsibility for his or her feelings. If someone is actually being rude or belittling about participation in a development program, the student must deal with it.

Some faculties and departments have decided to advertise positions indicating that the post should “preferably be filled by a black South African”.

If a post can’t be filled by a black applicant, can the university appoint a white applicant? Or does the position stay unfilled? Will a black applicant be appointed when all else is equal or will it be irrespective of ability?

UCT has increased the allocation from the Vice-Chancellors Strategic Fund for “equity posts” - to provide opportunities to make appointments of equity candidates even when there may not be a vacancy.

UCT is facing huge financial constraints. How can it justify spending money on posts that don’t exist and are not needed?

The change in profile of the professoriate remains its toughest challenge apparently.

What will happen if the profile cannot be changed quickly enough? Who will determine whether the time constraints are reasonable or not? Will UCT be understaffed only because quotas cannot be met?

A task team, including student members, was appointed by Council to review the names of buildings. Largely because of the unavailability of student members from the mid-October study break until the start of this semester, this committee has made limited progress. However, the team has completed an audit of building names.

How will the review be carried out and who will make the decisions on name changes? What criteria will be applied to determine what is removed and what remains? How were the student members chosen?

Are Jan Smuts and  Emmeline Fuller amongst the statues and names that may change. What would the justification for that be? (Was it just because of the study break that student members weren’t available for the committee’s work? Just asking.)

Another task team, including … SRC members, was appointed to consider how to manage the universitys portraits, plaques and sculptures in response to the impression being created by the collective works on display that UCT is not inclusive. The task team will consult widely to identify other works of art that are considered offensive.

There may certainly be grounds for removing certain art works and symbols, and replacing them with others. Art is not necessarily “white” just because it is of or by a white person. The same applies to “black” art. If art has merit and/or purpose, it is art.

Being “white” and historic alone is neither justification for it to remain nor be removed. What are the criteria to determine whether a work is offensive and whether the sense of offence is justified or nonsensical?

Can we be assured that works of art will not be removed merely because they were produced by or represent a white person? Our very own Cultural Revolution threatens.

The graduation ceremony of December 2015 was modified as a pilot. The musical items were changed. “Gaudeamus, igitur” and other items were replaced by South African music and a praise singer was included in the programme. Further work will be done on reimagining graduation ceremonies.

There is nothing wrong with changing the graduation program but, given the historical culture of academia, does it mean that all tradition must be replaced? Was the South African music that was played music only “black music”?

Some lecturers have created classroom discussions unrelated to their disciplines to encourage students to talk about how they experience the university and their colleagues.

Are these discussions held outside lecture time or is it during the teaching time for which parents, alumni, sponsors, donors and the government are paying?

Recently, a lecturer asked whether he should place students in workgroups or whether they should form their own. A black student said that the groups must be formed voluntarily otherwise the student may be forced to be in a group with whites the student doesn’t like! This student will leave a multiracial environment neither knowing nor understanding whites. If the environment encourages the attribution of negative views about whites as a group to individual whites, UCT as a university will have failed unutterably.

“As the executive, we have …even accepted disruption at public events and lectures…, in the interests of promoting a constructive engagement with all groups. We will continue to do this provided the engagement is lawful, peaceful and respectful.” (Our underlining).

If UCT has accepted that a person’s right to present a view may be prevented by disruption, then this is the point at which UCT qua university ceases to exist. Price has relinquished the right to hold the most senior position in the administration of the university. Universities are obliged to encourage dissent through debate and discussion; not the physical violence of the streets.

Since when is disruption acceptable? If disruption is tolerated then only the obnoxious, loud and intolerant will be heard? Disruption is guaranteed to ensure that opposing voices are never heard.

If anything, UCT should be holding sacrosanct the right to a disruption-free campus, where anyone guilty of disrupting another person’s right to express his or her views, is met with severe disciplinary action which may lead to expulsion.

Successful universities are liberal institutions at which all views may be expressed, and every opinion may be proved or disproved.

We have in the meantime acknowledged the need to move away from the assumption of binary (female/male) gender classification and we recognise the right of individuals to self-classify their gender. We have implemented a third option for gender identification on student application forms.

What about calling the third category “Other - please elaborate”? How about doing away with statistical data completely except for entirely practical purposes and just accept people as people? Now that would be transformation of a type that we haven’t seen since the imposition of Apartheid.

The HIV/AIDS Inclusivity & Change Unit (HAICU) has facilitated workshops on educating and sensitising new and returning students to issues of gender-based violence, patriarchy, sexual orientation, HIV, human rights and social justice. These workshops allow students an opportunity to critically examine how we speak and the traditions in residences around songs, practices and pub cultures. In this way they help to create an inclusive environment.

William Pitt the younger, the youngest British minister ever said: “Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves.”

The words “educating and sensitising” are not reassuring. They sound soft and fuzzy but are laden with imposition and thought-control. The menacing echo of the Cultural Revolution can be heard.

There is an inherent tyranny in determining how people conduct their social lives and practices. An individual may not expect to feel comfortable at, say, a Rugby Club, Hip Hop Club or Black Management Forum event. But all those clubs are entitled to do whatever they do as long as they do no harm. If a student expects to be uncomfortable, stay home with a good book!

It is simpler and more commonsensical for the individual student to avoid his or her own discomfort; rather than expect the institution to do it for you.

Perhaps one of the most significant transformation interventions in 2015 was the decision to insource the workers and services currently provided by six contracting companies (security, catering, two cleaning services, gardening and the UCT transport service, the Jammie Shuttle). Can we take credit for this? Probably not, in the sense that management and Council had resisted this even up until October in view of the impact of insourcing on our cost structure, among other things. (Our underlining)

UCT had put in place measures with which the contracting employers were required to comply – minimum wages, job security and oversight of employment practices. The moral and social justice case for insourcing and its impact on reducing income inequality was well understood.

The pressure from students and workers when insourcing became part of the national shut-down campaign tilted the balance for us in weighing up the costs and benefits. However, the decision was not just a careful calculation of costs and benefits, it was also a profound and conscious step along the transformation path and a commitment to social justice. (Our underlining)

So, management buckled. Despite the impression of outsourcing as Satan’s work, as the nature of work is changing globally. Globally outsourcing is an ever increasing way of employing people and services. Outsourcing is recognised by the International Labour Organisation and in South African labour law. In a country with unemployment at 30% outsourcing is a necessity not a luxury.

UCT must say what the terms and conditions of employment of the outsourced employees were before they were “insourced"; who their employers were before UCT; what are the current terms and conditions of service as UCT employees; where is the funding for their employment coming from; and, since support services are not core university business, what is the justification for the increased costs?

Outsourced workers are experienced adults with access to trade unions, the Department of Labour, labour lawyers, consultants, the university law clinic and the CCMA. How patronising it is for students, who are barely old enough to be their children, to make demands on their behalf!

Following the removal of the Rhodes statue, UCT created a Transformation Dialogue Forum, including students (SRC, Student Assembly and RMF), academics, deans and heads of department, PASS staff, the Black Academic Caucus, the IF, trade unions and management. The forum has struggled to get going, but is expected to review UCTs new strategic and transformation plan in the next month.

Are white students represented on the TDF? Are organisations that allege they are serving the interests of white students allowed on campus? Are they recognised? Do they exist?

The major focus in the plan is how transformation impacts on teaching and learning, curricula, academic support programmes and the research agendas.

What does this mean?

With regard to LGBTQIA issues, we will increase the number of gender-neutral toilets and relook at our administration systems, public statements and positions, and the possibility of targeted awareness campaigns within residences.

Assuming that the number of transgender students is less than, say, the number of Jewish students (est. 500), can we assume that UCT will start providing kosher meals at the residences? And if so, where is all the money to pay for it going to come from?

We will seek private and public funding to build at least one more residence.

In light of how UCT intends to spend its limited resources, it is possible that private funding will not be forthcoming for another residence. There may well be a backlash from a constituency that has not been consulted in all this - alumni and donors

2015 was a challenging but exciting year in UCTs trajectory of transformation, signalling a decisive break with the past. 2016 will see these transformation programmes gain further momentum in creating a new identity for UCT.

No society can accommodate every interest group or every hurt feeling. It has to create priorities because it literally cannot afford to do otherwise. Society is likely through the creation of unmet expectation to disappoint more people than it will please.

With all the promises Price has made under the rubric of transformation, UCT is going to have to spend more and more on transformation, some of which may be beneficial some of which may not. Less is likely to be spent on a profoundly necessary education. The upward trajectory of transformation is going to intersect the downward trajectory of UCT’s finances.

On 15 March 2016 News24 reported that UCT needs to save R120 million by 2018 and will be taking strict budgetary measures to save R120 million by 2018 to avoid a serious deficit budget scenario”.

Price said that: “Austerity measures will be implemented between now and 2018.”… “The funding of higher education nationally had become a challenge.” Government subsidies have increased below inflation and UCT’s cost increases, which “was largely due to our growing salary budget that amounted to a 20% smaller budget over five years”.

“In the past, we compensated for some of this decline through fee increases that were well above inflation. But there remained an annual shortfall, and with fees in the future unlikely to increase at the rates they did in the past, this deficit will grow if we do not tackle it now.”

Price said that because most of the R2,6 billion budget went towards staffing, 80% of savings “need to be made on the staffing bill”.

“We will, wherever possible, rely on natural attrition – retirements, resignations or incentivised retirements, and stopping of non-essential activities.

“This might not always be possible and where it becomes necessary to restructure to achieve efficiency and meaningful savings, we will follow due human resources process in consultation with the unions.”

How on earth is Price going to make such significant savings in staff salaries if UCT offers people posts that don’t exist in order to fill positions that aren’t needed?

Does Price understand that the circle of the need to cut costs, while implementing all these transformational promises, cannot possibly be squared?

“… we need to tackle this challenge as a collective and not allow the austerity interventions to create internal divisions.”

In this one has to wish Price luck. If quality teaching is sacrificed on the altar of promoting employment equity, UCT’s status in the world ranking of universities has to fall.

Have the vanguard of protest considered their demands relative to an interest rate of 7,25%; an exchange rate that has been eviscerated with the assistance of a corrupt president; the real likelihood of ratings agencies’ downgrading South Africa to junk status that will eviscerate investment, a crippling; drought and the millions of people with real problems?

Has UCT demanded of students that they reflect on the reprehensible nature of their own behaviour; and that as a university in a multiracial society, everyone has the right to be treated fairly, not just those making the demands. Is there any introspection and humility?

But be careful what you wish for. The Centre for African Studies Gallery set up an exhibition entitled Echoing Voices from Within to “commemorate” the first anniversary of the formation of RMF “conceptualised primarily as ‘a moment of reflectionand commemoration of a movement that impacted significantly on UCT and potentially other universities forever.”

Well, CAS got a lot more reflection than it bargained for!

“What had originally been conceptualised as a ‘containedcanvas of the four walls and parking area of CAS became a real living, moving and still evolving canvas and platform for contestation and debate with the staging of a protest by the Trans Collective. The collective protested … by walking through the crowd into the gallery to lie down naked during the opening address…. Members of the collective then addressed the crowd about their concerns. CAS staff members engaged with the Trans Collective to allow the space to be used for its ultimate purpose: as a place of debate and contestation of narratives.”

To translate: the movement which perfected disruptive protest had an event disrupted. Trans Gender club members lay naked on the floor whingeing.

CAS Gallery assures us that it will continue to provide a platform for them as a place “of debate and contestation for narratives…To this end CAS will continue to provide a platform where these debates can be promoted and cherished.”

What a relief! Imagine the sight of security officials or police manhandling naked, non-heteronormative people! (Trans Gender’s statement here.) A universitys reputation is derived from its past students. Likewise important funding, both direct and indirect, comes as a result of the reputation and achievements of those past students. (List of alumni here.)

A university needs to nourish diversity, not just of colour but of views and opinions. Conformity will lead to totalitarianism whether it expressed as fascism, communism, anti-racism or transgenderism. The tone of Price’s letter suggests capitulation, not genuine transformation.

Much of what is excellent about UCT is neither white nor black: it is universal. UCT must interrogate whether the demands being made are to remove “whiteness” or universally accepted practices and ideas that have no colour or gender.

South African blacks have suffered grievously in the past but they do not have the monopoly on pain. Black students must also understand and accept that others too have suffered, learn from their experience and genuinely converse with people who are not black or are not South African.

The transformational agenda appears to guarantee one thing: a polarisation between groups and the graduation of black students as arch-racists. The architects of Apartheid would be truly amazed at who the real heirs of their noxious philosophy are.

Professor Jonathan Jansen, rector of the University of the Free State, says in his book We Need to Talk (Bookstorm and Pan Macmillan South Africa 2011 at page 6):

“And that is why I have said over and over again that the only way out of this mess is together; yet the terms of engagement at the moment assume that the moral high ground belongs to the pure, unadulterated black victim laying material and symbolic claim and control over the impure, adulterated white perpetrator. That is a recipe for mutual annihilation of co-habitants of a common space, of mutual burden-bearers of an intertwined trauma.”

Sara Gon is a Policy Fellow at the IRR, a think tank that promotes economic and political liberty. Follow the IRR on Twitter @IRR_SouthAfrica