The war being waged behind-the-scenes at the University of Cape Town (UCT) fails to address the elephant in the room, or the ‘mammoth’ as Emeritus Professor Timothy Crowe, and that is that students aren’t what they used to be. UCT has lowered the bar to admit students who in the past would not qualify for university education. Although the intention is to redress past wrongs through social inequality, the university does not have a plan to help these students get up to speed. And, so they struggle, fail and are ultimately let down by the system. Anger, meanwhile, is growing as these individuals become frustrated. This picture is unfolding across South African university campuses as poor education at schools keeps many shackled to poverty. – Jackie Cameron
By Emeritus Professor Timothy Crowe*
The piece that ‘To survive, universities must learn to engage with chaos’, by Dean Suellen Shay, is yet another example of how socio-educational engineering at UCT can turn it into a mediocrity- and intimidation-driven educational institution.
Nevertheless, she correctly assesses the recent 2016 meeting of the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Convocation – the annual gathering of its alumni – as a “microcosm of South African higher education in 2015 and 2016”. A 400+ assemblage of the “silent majority” (mainly old codgers like me) seeking a ‘safe place’ within which they could get on with university business was invaded by a small group of vulgar bullies, bearing placards with misspellings, spewing obscenities and featuring public nudity. UCT officers ‘in charge’ sat/stood by placidly and did nothing to impede the intruders. According to one invader who grabbed the microphone from past BCM president and current president of the Convocation Prof. Barney Pityana, their goal was to stop a motion of no confidence in Vice Chancellor Dr Max Price. But, as usual, they had not done their ‘homework’. The relevant motion (one of several) concerned that consideration be given to undertaking a survey of the 100000+ alumni to gauge their views on showing no confidence in Price and his executive for negotiating with a non-representative, disparate, renegation-prone lawbreaking coterie of Fallist/Decolonists.
Also, true to form, soon after Prof. Pitanya acted on a motion from Adv. Geoffrey Budlender (who facilitated Dr Price’s appointment) and Dr Lydia Cairncross to allow the invaders to remain if they protested silently, they and ‘protesters’ (including recently amnestied Chumani Maxwele) embedded in the audience, started to harass speakers, including Budlender. Contrary to protester-overall-goals outlined by Shay, there was no “dissent and debate”. That requires a willingness to engage.
Nevertheless, Dean Shay was once again correct in asserting “academics and other members of university communities [should] step out of their comfort zones”. Those present did just this, reverting from excited potential participants in rational debate and the democratic process into a dichotomous, turbulent mass of angry or fearful humanity. She was also correct in that the audience had to “listen to views with which they bitterly disagree”. Sadly, these related little to the motion in hand. Lastly, she is correct in characterizing the situation at UCT as ”the chaos that has become [the] new reality”. In doing so, she allies herself Dr Price, his Executive, the Council and the ‘do-little’ Senate.
Dean Shay attempts to normalize this chaos by stating that “since the 1990s higher education globally has experienced a new wave of student protests”. Perhaps she could identify some United Kingdom and United States of America universities that have had widespread verbal intimidation of peaceful staff/students, total academic shutdown, professors beaten to death, expensive equipment damaged, serial rape, arson etc. This is UCT’s new “character”.
Then, she subtly shifts to characterize bullies, stone-throwers and arsonists as “scholars” “profoundly disillusioned with current democratic processes” and “angry with neo-liberalism”. When blaming the government for not dealing with the FeesMustFall movement is not enough, she lays the blame with the “Eurocentric, white, middle class culture”.
She totally ignores the ‘mammoth in the room’:
- the UCT Executive’s policy of admitting what she has described as “immensely capable, high-achieving students” (in terms of national matric marks and a UCT-developed series of tests) who are in fact educationally ‘disabled’ by the post-apartheid Basic Education System; and
- UCT’s failure to help to develop most of them into high-quality graduates in the requisite time period.
These frustrated and/or failed students, especially the most socio-economically oppressed, have increasingly become the minions of the tiny malevolent minority of ‘protesters’ that Dr Price has characterized as implacably dedicated to the destruction of UCT.
Chaos – as inspiration
Dean Shay first tries to make this connection by comparing the attendance of the 2015 and 2016 UCT Convocation AGM: 47 in the former 400+ in the latter. This ignores the fact that most of attendees believed, or had been led to believe, incorrectly that my motion was calling for Dr Price’s departure, and were there to support him.
She goes on to say that: “The meeting also revealed outstanding leadership”.
Given what actually happened at the AGM: by whom?
Prof. Pityana’s repeated attempts to promote “constructive engagement” were dashed by the invaders’ persistent, often vulgar and defamatory, harassment of all speakers (regardless of race/status/gender) except their comrades.
Dean Shay implies that Pitanya was not forewarned of possible disruption. This says little for the ‘pro-activeness’ of the UCT leaders in charge who had forged the momentous Agreement of November 6.
Yes, “his speech was a careful, measured balancing act of critiquing aspects of the student movement on the one hand, and strongly endorsing the urgent call for change”. Characterizing it as “courageous” seems a bit disingenuous, since the heckling by invaders virtually drowned him out.
Next, Shay describes the vice chancellor’s “state of the university” address as “impressive”. The invaders did not share her view since they:
- loudly and disrespectfully (his words not mine) referred to him as merely “Max”,
refused to rearrange themselves around the podium to allow his unobscured view by alumni (the topless invader remained steadfastly by his side), and
- continuously made mocking facial gestures and assumed deliberately inattentive body stances.
Dean Shay then concludes that:
- holding Dr Price and/or his executive accountable for what’s resulted from his Executive’s consistent accommodation of (capitulation to?) the Fallists in general and lawbreaking elements in particular, and demonstrable neglect of pleadings from what I call the “silenced majority” is “profoundly naïve”; and
- my motion was “intended to galvanise action by preying on fear”.
I urge her to take note of Ms Gwen Ngwenya’s (former UCT SRC president and current COO of the South African Institute of Race Relations) characterization of the November Agreement as a “negotiation for non-violence”.
Engaging the chaos
Dr Price and Dean Shay correctly stress that interested and affect parties must be “able to listen and engage with others who have different views to our own”. This communication forms the foundation of the principle of academic freedom on which UCT’s very being is based. The fundamental problem on this score is Dr Price’s choices of communicators on both sides of the table.
Hence my motion. I want him to stay, but do his job properly.
Should the UCT Community be afraid?
No. I think that its various components should be extremely concerned that this continued social engineering geared to appeasing ‘protesters’ (including lawbreakers) will lead to a widespread collapse of the UCT loved by past and present students, staff, fee-paying parents and past and future donors. This collapse will be welcomed by an uncaring, kleptocratic, incompetent national government and civil service (especially those involved with basic education) that could be threatened by leaders produced by a UCT firing on all cylinders.
- Emeritus Prof. Tim Crowe