Must UCT also now fall?

David Benatar analyses the calls for the rapid "transformation" of the university

Cecil John Rhodes has fallen. Must UCT fall too? Vice-Chancellor Dr. Max Price recently wrote to alumni to assure them that the University of Cape Town has been strengthened, not weakened by recent developments at sub-Saharan Africa’s oldest and the continent’s most prestigious university. He says that there is “no reason for concern that any of the events of the last three months compromise our commitment to academic excellence”. I do not share his optimism. Although UCT currently retains its stature, worrying developments place this in jeopardy in the longer term.

I hold no brief for Mr. Rhodes or for his statue. Indeed, I recommend a healthy cynicism not only concerning statuary, but also regarding eponymous buildings, structures, cities and countries. Rogues are disproportionately represented among those thus honoured and remembered.

My concern is thus not with a fallen Rhodes, but rather where this road leads. Those heading the charge have made it clear that this is only a symbolic beginning and they plan to rapidly “transform” the University of Cape Town. They want to have the university’s staff and student profile reflect the demographics of the country and they want it forthwith. This, I have argued elsewhere constitutes a kind of denialism. The qualified pool of student and staff applicants does not reflect the demographics of the country, and there is thus no way that those chosen from that pool can do so – at least not without compromising quality.

Much of the blame for this unfortunate state of affairs must, of course, be placed at the door of South Africa’s racist past. However, the great tragedy since the demise of Apartheid is that South Africa’s government has done so little to fix the upstream problems – the quality of primary and secondary schooling – that stand in the way of normalizing the demographics of the tertiary education sector.

Indeed, the vast majority of schools in South Africa are dysfunctional. Government is failing at its job, and yet it and its cadres want to flagellate its premier universities for being demographically “untransformed” – or, more accurately, insufficiently “transformed”. (That logical distinction is lost on ideologues.)

With regard to academic staff, the complaint is not merely that there are so few “blacks” among their number, but also that there are even fewer at the senior levels, most notably the professoriate. Dr. Price wants to reassure alumni that “No one, black or white, is arguing that promotion criteria should be different for different members of faculty”. That, as far as I know, is literally true, but it is also misleading.

The University has, in its latest Employment Equity Plan, quite explicitly stated that both the composition of all promotions committees and the criteria for promotion will need to be reviewed – purportedly “to ensure there are no inherent biases with respect to black and women candidates”.

Avoiding bias is entirely appropriate but we need to be clear on what constitutes evidence of bias. It cannot be the outcome per se. If there are fewer “blacks” among the professoriate this need not be because of any inherent bias. It might instead be on account of upstream problems – including the dearth of quality job applicants from this demographic, the pressure to appoint disproportionately large numbers from this smaller pool, resulting in staff somewhat less likely on average – not in every case – to meet promotion criteria once they are appointed. At the very least these possibilities cannot be excluded given the powerful “race”-based affirmative action pressures that are at play.

Of course, there are also many “white” males who do not ascend through all academic ranks – not every academic eventually becomes a professor – but in those instances, there is no institutional hand-wringing.

In practice, the mandate to alter both the constitution of promotion committees and the criteria for promotion has unleashed – and arguably even been pre-empted by – outrageous proposals that seriously threaten the integrity of UCT’s promotion mechanisms. Thus far, the most extreme example is that of the Humanities Faculty.

Contrary to some prejudices about the humanities, the promotion criteria and processes in the Humanities Faculty at UCT have hitherto been appropriately rigorous – indeed more rigorous than a number of (but not all) other faculties at UCT. (This is not to say that no inappropriate promotions have slipped through.) Yet, in a revolutionary fit, drastic changes were devised in a very short space of time – all in the name of “transformation”.

Higher university authorities have not (yet?) accepted all of the Humanities Faculty’s suggestions, referring them back for reconsideration. However, one major change that has been approved is the inclusion of non-professors on the committee that decides on whom to promote to all ranks, including that of professor. Indeed, up to 49% of the committee may now consist of non-professors. Although there are some faculties at UCT where the inclusion of non-professors on the promotion committees is already the practice, there are excellent reasons for thinking it unwise and a threat to standards of excellence.

First, the idea that junior academics are able to adjudicate applications for promotion to more senior ranks is akin to thinking that (even postgraduate) students are equipped to examine doctoral theses. There are exceptions, but ordinarily those who have not attained the more senior rank are not qualified to decide whether somebody meets the criteria for promotion to such a rank.

Second, when non-professors sit on a promotion committee, they have a conflict of interest. They typically know that their own promotion applications will later come before the committee. Although they will not serve on the committee in the year in which they are applying for promotion, they know, when they are on the committee, that they are setting precedents for their own cases later. Moreover, there is scope for mutual back-scratching – whether conscious or subconscious: “You support my promotion application and I’ll support yours!” The same is not true of professors who have nothing to gain from currying favour with those whose applications they are considering.

Various spurious justifications have been offered for changing the constitution of the promotions committee. One is that the new structure will be more representative. Because great care has long been taken to ensure that the committees included people of both sexes and different “races”, it seems that this argument refers to representation of different academic ranks. While it is true that the new structure is more representative in this sense, it’s also the case that this fact does not override the aforementioned problems with including non-professors on the committee.

Indeed, if greater representation were as powerful an argument as its proponents suggest, we should aim to include not only junior academic staff but also administrative staff and students. A committee thus constituted would be more representative of the university – but it would also be a much less qualified and thus a much worse committee.

Another argument for the new structure is that it will increase “transparency”. It is true that those non-professors serving on the committee will gain a keener sense of its (now altered) workings, but if the confidentiality of the committee is preserved - which is essential for the effective and ethical functioning of promotions committees – there will be no greater transparency than there is now. (Promotions committees do already have external oversight – by representative Deans from other faculties and by Deputy Vice-Chancellors.)

Thus the justifications offered for the changed structure are really excuses rather than (good) reasons. It is absolutely clear that the motivation for changing the structure is a “transformation” agenda. Indeed, in nominating members to serve on the new committee, nominees’ “transformation” credentials were cited. There is good reason to suspect that some promotions will now be made on the basis of this agenda. (One sad by-product of this is that even those who do deserve to be promoted will have a doubt hanging over the merit of their promotion.)

The quality of the institution can survive some inappropriate promotions (as it has in the past), but if a critical mass is reached, the university may well begin a slow descent. By the time it becomes widely perceptible it will be too late.

In his letter to alumni, Dr. Price also hailed the “commitment to reasoned argument” within the university. This is most definitely not my experience. One reason why those without first-hand experience should be skeptical of Dr. Price’s claim is that politically loaded decisions made by groups of people are almost never made on the basis of reasoned argument. Uncritical thinking, logical fallacies, various irrationalities, dogmas, and perceived self-interest typically hold sway.

One might hope that matters would be different in a university, but (with very rare exceptions) they are not. For example, in one recent senior university forum, a careful argument I offered (against the promotion committee changes) was greeted with the response: “I cannot believe that somebody would say that.” The statement was repeated as if its repetition would compensate for the absence of any actual argument to engage mine.

When the “transformation” card is played in university meetings, as it repeatedly is, almost everybody marches in lockstep. People fall over themselves in displays of political correctness, each paying obeisance to the mantras and slogans of contemporary South Africa – just as our conspecifics in other times and places have shamelessly attempted to demonstrate that they are true adherents of the orthodoxies of their respective contexts – true faithful of some or other religion, true revolutionaries, or true fascists, for example.

Dr. Price is deftly handling a very difficult phase in the history of the University of Cape Town. He must balance the demands of disgruntled students and staff, the concerns of other staff, alumni and donors, and the constraints of conscience, among other considerations. This is an unenviable task, but it is his not mine.

My task is to speak plainly about how things are. In some ways UCT is much better than it has ever been. In other ways, it is worryingly worse. After Rhodes it is at a crossroads. Only the future will reveal whether the current political navigations will rescue UCT from the ire of revolutionaries without driving it onto the rocks of inadequacy. This peril would not exist if reasoned argument really did guide enough members of the university community.