UCT: When prejudice pretends to be analysis

Russell Ally replies to Kenneth Hughes and RW Johnson's critiques of the university

When prejudice pretends to be analysis

If you are going to mount an argument that has at least the semblance of intellectual integrity, then the minimum requirement is that it should be factual.

In the past few weeks Daily Maverick and Politicsweb have featured articles, by Ken Hughes and RW Johnson among others, which repeat the calumny that the University of Cape Town is in a state of decline and that it is only a matter of time before it is completely destroyed. According to them, UCT’s research has collapsed, donors are withdrawing funding and alumni are deserting in droves.

Not one fact is advanced to support these spurious claims. Instead, we are subjected to blatant prejudice masquerading as analysis.

Let us just consider some of the facts of UCT’s supposed “decline”:

- UCT is ranked 120 in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, by far the highest ranked African university.

- UCT has just joined the prestigious International Alliance of Research Universities, along with universities like Oxford, Cambridge, Yale, the University of California at Berkeley, ETH Zurich and the University of Tokyo. 

- UCT graduated 142 PhDs in 2015. A significant number of these are international students.

- UCT’s research output continues to feature among the best globally.

- UCT secured record research grants in 2015: close to R1 billion.

- UCT raised more funding in 2015 than any other time before: R442 million.

- Two alumni who are leaders of global institutions each donated R25 million to UCT in 2015.

- A leading African philanthropist made a gift of $5 million.

- The MasterCard Foundation made a donation of $23.5 million for UCT to educate the next generation of professionals for the continent.

Many other similar facts can be cited to demonstrate this “turpitude” that UCT has sunk into and from which there is no return. And all of this while UCT has seen a growth in black students and in black staff, which not only belies these claims but which demonstrates that transformation is integral to continued excellence.

But the articles by Johnson and Hughes are not about the facts: there is a crass ideological agenda at work.

The main purpose of their articles is to ridicule UCT’s commitment to transformation. More cynically, it is to counterpose transformation to excellence; to present transformation as a “lowering of standards” and a “dumbing down” of the academy. And in this way to not only discredit transformation, but to push back the advances that have been made.

Both Hughes and Johnson have an incurable nostalgia for the “UCT before the black man (and woman) came”.

Their language drips with patronising contempt for the changes that have taken place since our transition to democracy. Johnson wants to “privatise” UCT so that it is kept out of the clutches of the marauding natives. Hughes wants to return UCT to the glory days when it was a “whites-only university”.

What this is saying, quintessentially, is that whiteness equates to excellence and blackness means inevitable decline. Not surprising, then, that all the examples they marshal to prove their point are of “black failure”; Zimbabwe being the exemplar.

UCT’s alumni will fortunately see through this ruse and recognise it for what it is: a vainglorious attempt to reverse the tide of history. Transformation is not only an historical imperative propelled by the demands of restorative justice; it is the only guarantee of UCT not only remaining the leading university on the continent but also growing its global excellence.

It is the path advocated by the likes of Johnson and Hughes that would lead to the inevitable destruction of UCT.

UCT’s alumni and friends want to invest in a university that is not afraid to embrace the future. Unlike the Johnsons and Hugheses, they are not clinging to a discredited past which privileged a tiny minority and denied opportunities to the vast majority of people in our country.

Dr Russell Ally is Executive Director: Development and Alumni Department at the University of Cape Town