UCT’s disrupted Convocation – a case of failed parenting?

As the profound repercussions of the country-wide #FeesMustFall campus protests continue to be felt, most currently in delayed starts to the academic year, a UCT PhD student in Information Systems draws an engaging comparison with failed parenting. Using the spectacularly disrupted AGM of UCT’s Convocation on December 15th as his example, Mike Monson, (who was present), gives us a relatively objective view of what happened. More to the point, he says the disruptive behaviour and blatant contempt of the cultural norms of the institution by the protesters reminded him of a badly behaved three-year old child. One that that has learnt, through repetitive cycles of pushing the boundaries and assessing the reactions, that it has the power to impose its will on its parents. It seems to sum up the main criticism of Vice Chancellor Max Price; that he is guilty at the very least, of poor parenting – forget about patriarchy, patronage or colonisation – he’s failed to step up to the appropriate adult role of drawing a line. The other possible explanation is darker and more cynical – that Price and the university hierarchy are deliberately letting the disruptions happen to stifle open and proper debate, one they hardly seem to deserve. It’s more likely that in their liberal attempts to do the opposite, they’ve lost the plot. – Chris Bateman

by Mike Monson*

So I attended my first meeting of the UCT Convocation last year (15th December 2016). As a post-graduate student at UCT, I am a member of one of the stakeholder groups who experience exclusion from the discourse concerning the protests and disruptions and the responses of the university administration to these acts of provocation. These are my impressions of the proceedings.

At a well-attended meeting, the president of the convocation, Dr Barney Pityana, presented his report that reflected on the effects of the protests UCT had endured over the past year and the wisdom of the actions, inaction and dubious agreements made between the university’s administration and protesters. The primary question to be addressed, as reflected in the contents of two of the three written motions up for consideration by the meeting concerned the conduct of vice chancellor, Dr Max Price and his administration, in entering into agreements with an unrepresentative protest group on the one hand and the almost total disregard of the voices and opinions of the vast majority of stakeholders in UCT, on the other.

University of Cape Town

Around this time in the proceedings, the gathered members of the convocation were provided with the opportunity to engage directly with the administration’s negotiating partners. Chumani Maxwele and a group of about 8 protestors were allowed to effectively take over and disrupt the convocation meeting, shouting down the speakers and forcefully occupying the stage. To emphasise, I presume, their disdain for the cultural norms of the institution and those present, one of the women in their number stripped down to her waist and proceeded to obstruct the audience’s view of any speaker, with an attitude of contempt that could hardly be missed. Interestingly, aside from the initial feeling of revulsion engendered by this act of contempt, she soon became invisible to the proceedings and her exhibitionism became inconsequential.

Dr Price, in his report, stated that the agreement made with this protest group facilitated the imposition of a truce that enabled the writing of year-end exams to proceed at the university whereas other universities were forced to organise alternative venues. He thus reasoned that the outcomes justified the means but he proffered no view on the future consequences of his actions for the university. The proceedings at the convocation meeting demonstrated clearly that in the face of reluctance by the administration to enforce the imposition of conditions of orderliness that are necessary for conducting discussion, debates and the reaching of consensus, a small, noisy and violent mob, may take control of any meeting. Similarly, with the administrative compliance through inactivity, they could take control of the university through their unopposed power to disrupt normal activities and effectively hold the institution to ransom.

Read also: UCT’s fight for the control of knowledge – who has the upper hand?

Upon reflection, I found that the actions of the protest group were analogous to the behaviour of a badly behaved three year old child that has learnt, through repetitive cycles of pushing the boundaries and assessing the reactions, that it has the power to impose its will on its parents. While the parents have the power and responsibility to correct the child and set it on a path to ensure that the mutually beneficial interests of the child and the family household are met, their failure to exercise their power effectively would be detrimental to both. Just as society expects parents to realise the appropriate balance in exercising their authority in this situation and the consequences for their family if they fail to do so, does society and the UCT community have an expectation that administrative powers are exercised with balance, wisdom and discretion.

UCT Vice-Chancelor Dr Max Price.

Dr Price and his administration have, through their reluctance to exercise their authority in relation to this group, given this protesting group a measure of influence which is far beyond what it merits. This group has been led to believe that because they have found in UCT, an institution that represents norms and standards of behaviour and academic endeavour that is both alien and challenging to them, a misguided sense of entitlement, reinforced by the cooperation received from the administration, demands that they attempt to change the institution to one with which they might be more comfortable. They have embraced a notion that doing so represents the “decolonising of the university”. Their disregard of the bigger picture of academia as a collaboration of institutional learning across the world that enables students to access the very best of educations, if only they are willing and capable, prevents them from making decisions that are beneficial to either themselves or the university. They fail to recognise that there was never any instance of indigenous educational institutions being colonised by invading whites. Instead, the establishment of educational institutions in South Africa is one of the many beneficial consequences of colonisation that has subsequently become a valuable and integral part of our country that we would be foolish not to leverage to address our many pressing and urgent needs. Hence UCT is already an African institution and therefore does not require decolonising. The norms and practices adopted by UCT are compliant with those of similar institutions around the world and represent working academia rather than any specific national cultures. The many black African post-graduate students that flock to UCT for the opportunity to access the standard of education on offer, removes any credence from the notion of decolonisation. The unpreparedness of many black South African students for this academic culture, is an indictment on the woeful schooling and social circumstances faced by them prior to their arrival at UCT.

Read also: Top academic on UCT ‘elephant in room’: Students are ‘educationally disabled’

Also evident at the convocation meeting was a faction of academics seeking accelerated career advancement by jumping on the decolonisation bandwagon. This faction took the opportunity to level accusations of racism and prejudice at Dr Price and his administration. Again, the exercising of wisdom and balance between the potentially competing needs of transformation and academic standards, would weigh on the institution’s administration. This faction never made mention that the attainment and maintenance of a world class academic standard at UCT implies that the appointment of academic and research staff would necessitate the application of an assessment system based upon objective meritocracy. Instead they pushed for the prioritising of race and gender representation. They choose to ignore the fact that there is a worldwide struggle for attainment of diversification objectives and that the demand for academically capable candidates who can contribute to diversity, favours wealthier economies than ours. The battle thus becomes one of balancing priorities between the striving for demographic representation and academic excellence. Those of us who want Africa to retain at least one truly world-class academic institution, favour the attainment and retention of academic excellence above all else at UCT. There are many institutions in South Africa that don’t aspire to academic excellence as a first priority and would therefore cater happily for all other agendas.

Photo courtesy of Twitter

At one point in the proceedings, a group of placard carrying people (3 women and a man) entered the auditorium. The placards depicted various slogans including one that indicated something akin to “Kill the bitch”. The reaction from the protesting group on stage included howls of derision, threatening gestures and shouts of “Racists!”. These continued until it became clear that these new protestors were a group of administrative staff who were displaying the placards used against them by protesting students. The irony of the situation seemed to be lost on the protesters occupying the stage. The chaos imposed by the protesting group on the convocation meeting ensured that only one of the three motions to be considered was actually put to a vote following an entirely unsatisfactory and disrupted attempt to conduct debate. It was a stark demonstration of the effect of the authority assumed by the protest group through their ability to coerce an agreement with Dr Price’s administration. In spite of the abject failure of Dr Price and his administration to engage with most of the stakeholders at UCT, the sentiment against the decolonisation movement persuaded those present that, at this stage, Dr Price and his administration represents the lesser threat to the academic standing of UCT.

Upon further reflection, I have speculated to myself that the Dr Price administration has been tactically devious in its legitimising of this protest group inasmuch as they now have an instrument to shut down any attempts at conducting debates that might hold the administration to account and censure. After the meeting, I introduced myself to Dr Price and offered to help UCT apply technology to conduct effective discourses with all relevant stakeholders. He invited me to drop him an email.

  • Mike Monson is a PhD student in Information Systems at the University of Cape Town. His research is focused on the persistent failing of the schooling system in South Africa and the application of technology to circumvent the systemic faults in our basic education.
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