Dr Max Price must go: Here’s his University of Cape Town ‘report card’ – top academic

UCT_Upper_Campus_landscape_viewWatching the University of Cape Town (UCT) shrink in reputation from its former glory days as a learning institution of global standing to a decaying campus characterised by compromise, racist tensions and protest action is depressing. This is particularly the case when your entire life and reputation has been tied up in it. Emeritus Professor Tim Crowe, who has nurtured many other academics to achieve international success, provides insights into what senior academics and associates attached to UCT make of the way the institution is being managed. Crowe provides his ‘report card’ on the strategies of Dr Max Price, the Vice-Chancellor, awarding him a mere 2 out of 10. While Price has ensured that student enrolments are high, the success of its recent graduates is nothing to write home about, is his overall assessment. Crowe applies his scientific mind to what’s gone wrong within UCT and why Dr Max Price should step down to make way for someone better equipped for the challenges. – Jackie Cameron

By Emeritus Prof. Tim Crowe

The UCT Vice Chancellor’s job is to determine the university’s strategic goals and ensure their effective implementation. These goals include accountability for the university’s overall financial health, academic standing, transformation and social justice interventions. The purpose of this piece is to give a ‘report card’ on Dr Max Price.

Emeritus Professor Tim Crowe highlights some of the ingredients required to ensure a world-class university
Emeritus Professor Tim Crowe highlights some of the ingredients required to ensure a world-class university

With regard to “financial health”, by summarily ‘insourcing’ non-essential support staff without finding a more cost-effective way to compensate them adequately without taking responsibility for their day-to-day management, he is now trying to balance the budget by persuading core academic and support staff to take retrenchment/early-retirement.  My former department, Biological Sciences, is losing two academic and one technical officer posts.

By ‘core’ people I mean those involved with key disciplines (biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics-computer science, geology, medicine, engineering, archaeology-palaeontology, languages, architecture, astronomy, economics, accounting, religious studies, political science, drama/dance/music, education, environment/geography, sociology, history, law, oceanography, philosophy, anthropology) that generate students and innovative thinking/research needed to provide for the country’s needs and maintain UCT as an internationally respected university.

Price’s strategy in this regard is, at best, helter-skelter and, at worst, ‘equal misery’. How many physicists can UCT afford to lose before dumping a deputy VC? Where are the cuts in centralized administration, the non-academic-support sectors of the “faculty-like” Centre for Higher Education Development (CHED) and ‘departments’/academics who produce few employed graduates and peer-reviewed research publications?  Has UCT (e.g. through CHED and/or the Development and Alumni Department) ever assessed departments and academics on the basis of their Darwinian academic fitness (number of graduates who go on to have leadership-level careers)? Cut the relatively unfit ones first.

With regard to “academic standing”, Price has characterized the internationally acclaimed National Research Foundation’s Research Rating System (based on epistemic peer-review) as follows: “the jury is still out”. On that score, rather than insisting that appointments and ad hominem promotions (especially to full professor) be linked to NRF Rating, he supports keeping on retirees who retain their high ratings (provided they keep publishing and supervising numbers of post-grads – regardless of their ‘decoloniality’).

With regard to ‘finding’ professors, he supports a programme that claims to be able to fast-track a mix of extant junior staff who have not met within-faculty criteria. If some decolonialists have their way, professors will be identified by “smell” (I guess by people who ‘know best’), rather than meeting long-employed criteria relating to peer-reviewed excellence in teaching and research. I have even heard that the Faculty of Humanities is considering allowing ‘public intellectual’ articles to count as valid evidence of academic publication! My view is that professors are self-developed products. They can be mentored, even nurtured, but not ‘microwaved”.

UCT Vice-Chancelor of the University of Cape Town Max Price. Photo: Michael Hammond
UCT Vice-Chancelor of the University of Cape Town Max Price. Photo: Michael Hammond

With regard to “transformation”, it is clear (to me anyway) that this was why Price got the VC job over the academically/educationally arguably better qualified/experienced Cheryl de la Rey and (I think) Jonathan Jansen. Well, Price, a former student politician, independent consultant in the fields of public health, health policy, medical education and dean at the University of the Witwatersrand tasked with spearheading a series of transformation initiatives, has had 8 years on the job.

Where are the black woman professors? Why are many core academic departments still allowed to resist ‘buying into’ academic transformation by adapting (not dumbing-down) syllabi and teaching methods? Why are there massive numbers of what the dean of CHED describes as “immensely capable, high-achieving students” educationally ‘disabled’ by the post-apartheid Basic Education System admitted to UCT when:

  • only a small percentage of them meet UCT’s undergraduate exit-standards in the allotted time and graduate;
  • many of those who do so graduate without high marks; and
  • most of those who leave without graduating (and many who succeed) fail to pay outstanding fees or default on loans?

Many of these disgruntled students have become, or been manipulated by, anarchist ‘protesters’ (some of whom have no legitimate association with UCT) to participate in illegal intimidation, violence and destruction.

With regard to “intervening to achieve social justice”, all of Price’s interventions to date have involved capitulating to the demands of law-breaking ‘protesters’ (even supporting their release from jail to ‘negotiate’ on ‘behalf’ of the UCT Community). Concurrent with this, he took no meaningful action relating to pleas and petitions of law-abiding students, staff, parents, alumni, university committees and donors (some of whom were victims of defamation/intimidation/assault) who literally ‘begged’ for action to allow staff/students to get on with their educational and research activities and allow rational debate and academic freedom.

The latest of these ‘interventions’ have “employed restorative justice” to grant conditional amnesty to law-breakers who not only show no remorse for (but take pride in) their illegal actions, and agreeing to the creation of a poorly elucidated “commission” potentially empowered to effect profound systemic, still-to-be-defined ‘decolonization’ of UCT.

Tragically, those who will bear the consequences of a Price-lead march to nowhere will be the masses of kids who have been educationally disabled during their school years. The rich kids will survive, if not flourish, but not at UCT.  Many of the former will continue to fail if university exit standards are upheld, even if pedagogy is ‘Afro-relevantized’. If the Pricist/Fallist/anarchist/decolonialists have their way, exit standards will be “decolonized” to become “relevant/contextualized to lived experience” and these educationally ‘disabled’ students will ‘graduate’ without the skills and critical thinking necessary to achieve at anything beyond sheltered employment.

In sum, my mark for VC Price is 2/10.  He gets marks for building activity and for improving student admission (but not exit) demographics.

  • 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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