Decolonising South African universities: Here’s how it could work, says Tim Crowe

Emeritus Professor Tim Crowe is nothing if not open-minded, as his latest contribution to the debate on the future of the University of Cape Town (UCT) – and ultimately South Africa’s universities – indicates. Although he has been at odds with the #Fallists who would like to see radical change at UCT, he has applied his considerable mind to what UCT might look like under different forms of decolonisation to assess how it might work. Prof Crowe has taken the time to read up on what the decolonisation experts say about the matter, drawing on their knowledge to produce a picture of UCT as a product of radical decolonisation. He also sets out how the organisation might be refashioned under a more diluted version of decolonisation. Crowe’s views provide food for thought to the #Fallists as well as those wondering how university leaders are going to resolve the impasse with student protesters who want free tuition and a uniquely South African higher education system. – Jackie Cameron

By Emeritus Professor Tim Crowe*

UCT
Emeritus Professor Tim Crowe

The two Fallist movements to date at UCT have addressed colonial symbols and fees. Both of these issues could be solved easily – remove all symbols and charge no fees. Don’t hold your breath on this. People will always have heroes and it’s crazy not to use fees generated from wealthy students to subsidize the poorest-of-the-poor.

The real mammoth in the room at UCT that no one seems to be addressing coherently is “decolonization” in all its guises. Until it is defined and implemented, there will be no peace at UCT.

My goal here is to present two scenarios. First, is one for radical decolonization based on the results of a decolonization-themed assembly for all its students and staff convened by the Faculty of Humanities, bits and pieces I’ve picked up en passant and two recent publications by eminent decolonizer professors.

Between the public intellectual and the scholar: decolonization and some post-independence initiatives in African higher education. – Mamdani, Mahmood, Inter-Asia Cultural Studies. 2016. 17 (1): 68-83

Decolonizing the university: New directions. – Achille Joseph Mbembe, Arts & Humanities in Higher Education. 2016. 15(1) 29–45.

The other is derived from my own thoughts and discussions with UCT academics and students from its “silenced majority”.

I do this under a series of headings.

Radical decolonization

Centralized administration

Reduce its staff dramatically by making it follow UCT’s first registrar’s dictum: “Justify your existence”.  Maximally devolve administrative/academic control to better-staffed faculties.

Faculties/Departments

Take out ‘uni’ and create a “pluriversity”. Deconstruct and democratize both entities as much as possible, reducing their pedagogical isolation, hierarchical structure and subject focus. Reduce powers of the deans and professors. Require departments to ‘democratize’ and ‘inclusivize’ curricula, e.g. by incorporating elements that involve socio-economic experiences and politics of oppressed masses into courses in faculties outside the Humanities.

Appointments and promotion

De-emphasize/remove hierarchical barriers between academic and professional, administrative and support staff (PASS). Review currently employed academics and re-educate or retrench those deemed to be sexist/racists (even acting covertly). Aggressively recruit demographically under-represented academics, especially ‘black’ women. Place high weighting on applicants’ “lived experiences” and cultural sensitivity. With regard to ad hominem promotion, especially to full professor, strong performance with regard to hard-to-measure criteria (e.g. contribution to cultural development, popularity amongst undergraduate students/junior-staff and assessments by self-selected referees) should be allowed to offset relatively poor performance as educators (no Distinguished Teacher Award) and researchers (no or low rating by the National Research Foundation or citation impact index).  In short, “scholars” should be replaced by “organic intellectuals” who conduct significant amounts of politically correct research warranting publication only in the social media and not in peer-reviewed publications.

Teaching and curricula

There should be much more emphasis placed on African language as a medium of communication/instruction in general and subject material in particular. There should be no “extended-degree programme” that forces students to conduct their undergraduate education beyond the requisite three years. It ‘stigmatizes’ black students. Teaching approaches should de-emphasize academic ‘adversarialism‘ by promoting broader epistemic ‘tolerance’ of potentially competing paradigms. Euro-American-biased elements in curricula should be dropped and replaced by Afrocentric alternatives, e.g. those suggested by Mamdani in his proposed social studies foundation course, “Problematizing Africa”, and by offering undergraduate degree programmes in African Studies. More emphasis should be placed on African pre-colonial history (e.g. going back to Pharaonic Egypt) and de-emphasizing current approaches that ‘exceptionalize’ South Africa vis-à-vis Africa north of the Limpopo. 

Evolution-related teaching/research should deal decisively with issues relating evolutionary teleology (goal-directedness) and to the origins and diversity of hominins in general and ‘race’ in particular. Most importantly, curricula should be adapted to allow ALL students the opportunity to complete their undergraduate research within the requisite time, earn high marks and feel fully ‘at home’, even if this requires the designation of “safe spaces” for self-identified groups.

Adaptive transformation

Centralized administration

Reduce its staff complement dramatically by making it follow UCT’s first registrar’s dictum: “Justify your existence”. Maximally devolve administrative/academic control to better-staffed faculties.

Faculties/Departments

Retain existing faculties. Identify core departments designated using internationally recognized pedagogical/epistemological requirements AND national needs (especially relating to the eradication of poverty). Deans must be internationally highly respected educators, administrators and researchers so they can lead by example. Research excellence should be determined by unbiased review by epistemic peers (e.g. NRF-rating and h index). Educational excellence should be based on well-designed student/local-peer evaluation, earning Distinguished Teacher Awards and producing graduates and postgraduates who establish themselves as leaders in the public/academic/private sectors. Reward, in terms of financial and staffing resources, high-performing (measured by quantity/quality of graduates and peer-reviewed research) departments, without emasculating those deemed to be essential to an internationally respected university.  Increase the powers of Deans and HODs, holding them accountable to meeting pre-set academic targets.

Promote synergistic collaboration between willing individuals and educational/research units.  But, no enforced academic ‘collaboration’.

Appointments and promotion

De-emphasize/remove hierarchical barriers between academic and professional, administrative and support staff (PASS).  PASS staff should be encouraged to become co-authors of publications to which they contribute. Eliminate tenure (effective employment for life) for academics, requiring them to undergo rigorous periodic peer review.   

Review currently employed academics and re-educate or retrench those deemed to be sexist/racists. Identify and, if necessary, discipline those who use ad hominem or politically motivated attack and defamation when they fail in rational debate. The other principle that I’d resurrect from the Sir Jock Beattie, UCT’s first VC, is his firm insistence on “decent behaviour” by his students/staff.  What I and others experienced during the recent Annual General Meeting of the UCT Convocation  was anything but “robust critique” by respectful, disciplined protesters. It was vulgar, hate-speech and intimidation by invading  abantu behlanye nebekhanda behlaza”.

Aggressively recruit demographically under-represented academics, especially ‘black’ women. Place and reward (financially) applicants when they apply their “lived experience” and cultural sensitivity to help oppressed students to succeed. With regard to ad hominem promotion, especially to full professor, strong, indisputable performance as BOTH educators and researchers should be non-negotiable.  In short, “scholars” should be remain scholars who are required to publish their research findings responsibly in top international publications and where appropriate in the social media.

Teaching and curricula

There should be much more emphasis placed on African language supporting notes to facilitate communication in general and subject material in particular. There should be no “extended-degree programme” since it ‘stigmatizes’ black students. Rather, academically disabled matriculants (ADM) should be mentored and counselled by BOTH Academic Development and Core academics throughout their undergraduate careers, including involving them as research assistants and, potentially, as co-authors of publications.    

Teaching approaches should contrast potentially ‘adversarial‘ academic paradigms by identifying their comparative strengths and weaknesses and let students to choose amongst them. Euro-American elements in curricula should be stripped of their racially biased components, or dropped and replaced by more persuasive Afrocentric alternatives that place South Africa into a pre-colonial historical context, de-emphasizing current approaches that ‘exceptionalize’ South Africa vis-à-vis Africa north of the Limpopo.  Evolution-related teaching/research should deal decisively with issues relating evolutionary teleology (goal-directedness) and to the origins and diversity of hominins in general and ‘race’ in particular.  Most importantly, curricula (supplemented by requisite mentoring/counselling) should be adapted constructively to allow ALL students the opportunity to complete their undergraduate research within the requisite time, earn high marks and feel fully ‘at home’, in jointly shared space.  Politics should have no place in educator-student interactions.

Now for the hard one.

Academically disabled matriculants (ADM) need (in the light of to 30+ years of Academic Support/Development experience) to have their population filtered further and reduced to admit numbers that can be coped with by the combined forces of Core and ASD academics available. If the current practice of admitting large numbers of ADM is continued, especially under radical decolonization, they and UCT are doomed.

Let’s hear some comments from Fallists, their supporters in the UCT Executive and the Black Academic Caucus and, of course from others in the “Silenced Majority” that I may have miss-represented.

  • Professor Tim Crowe is an alumnus, Elected Fellow and emeritus (40 years’ service) professor at the University of Cape Town. He is a Ph.D.-educated expert on evolutionary biology (covering everything from ‘race’ to deeply rooted evolutionary trees) and conservation biology (especially regarding sustainable and economically viable use of wildlife). He has published nearly 300 peer-reviewed scientific papers/books and is regarded as the world’s leading authority on game birds (chickens, turkeys, guineafowls, etc.). About 70 of his graduated students have published their research and established themselves in their own right, including four professors.
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