UCT and transformation part four: the academic staff

| GroundUp Staff
Thousands of people gathered at the University of Cape Town upper campus on 9 April to watch the removal of the statue of Cecil John Rhodes. Photo by Christine Ayela.

The racial composition of lecturers and researchers at UCT is one of the most heated topics of debate when it comes to the university’s transformation. In the fourth article in our series, we report the statistics and arguments concerning transformation of UCT’s academic staff.

Read part one, part two and part three.

“I’ve had two black male lecturers at university since being here. Not being able to see yourself existing in this world is one of the reasons for the high dropout rate [of black students],” says Ru Slayen, an honours (4th year) in Applied Maths student who took part in the Rhodes Must Fall movement’s several week occupation of the UCT administration offices. Slayen described how the occupying students had organised lectures from black academics around the country, and described how empowering the students participating in the occupation found this.

The demands of the Rhodes Must Fall movement explicitly call for a change in the racial composition of UCT’s staff: “Radically change the representation of black lecturers across faculties,” says one. “Revise the limitations on access to senior positions for black academics. This includes interrogating the notion of ‘academic excellence’ which is used to limit black academics and students’ progression within the university,” says another.

The university’s Employment Equity Plan covers the years 2010 to 2015 and states, “UCT seeks to have (i) the full diversity of South Africa represented in its staff and student complement, weighted towards the disadvantaged communities of the Western Cape and (ii) a significant number of students and staff from other countries on our continent and further afield.”


‘Tab 11’ of this spreadsheet from UCT’s Institutional Planning Department describes the age, race and gender composition of UCT’s staff from 2010 to 2012.

As of 2012 more than half of UCT’s 934 academic staff – lecturers, senior lecturers, associate professors and professors – were white South Africans. Only one in five were black South African (i.e. would have been classified black, coloured or Indian by the apartheid government). Another quarter were foreign nationals, many of whom are from sub-Saharan African countries.

Interestingly, the law faculty, which was the most criticised by people we interviewed for this series, had the second-highest proportion of black South African academics (29%) after the Graduate School of Business (35%). Engineering (10%) and Science (15%) had the lowest proportion of black academics. (Although this series doesn’t deal with gender, it is worth noting that 63% of UCT’s academic staff in 2012 was male, with law, health sciences and CHED all having more than 50% female academic staff.)

Over the three year period 2010 to 2012, these statistics have not changed noticeably. However, looking over a longer period, the demography of of the staff has changed: 27% of South African academic staff were black in 2012, up from 20% in 2004. (Likewise there is a steady increase in the proportion of academic staff who are female from 28% in 2002 to 37% in 2012). Perhaps relevant to the racial demography is the fact that 58% of UCT academic staff are older than 45, indicating that there is either a dearth of new academics or that it takes a long time to become an appointed member of the academic staff.

A goal for many scientists is to get a National Research Foundation (NRF) rating. This is an international process. UCT has 467 rated academics, the most of any institution in the country. In the NRF’s 2014 facts and figures report, the CEO writes, “We still need to produce more black and female rated researchers. Black scientists constitute 22%, and females 30% of rated researchers. Annual growth in these key areas currently stands at only 1%.”

There were only six black African (as in former apartheid category black) South African professors at UCT in 2012. Countrywide there were 193 black African professors. By comparison there was a total of 222 professors at UCT alone.

The arguments

In our series on transformation, there is no issue more debated and disputed than what, if anything, should be done to change the racial demography of the student and academic staff body.

Here is a sample of what some of the protagonists say:

Widely cited and debated for anyone wishing to wade into the debate is the 2008 report of the Ministerial Committee on Transformation and Social Cohesion and the Elimination of Discrimination in Public Higher Education Institutions. The committee was chaired by Professor Crain Soudien who, as a deputy vice-chancellor, is currently responsible for transformation at UCT.

Few accuse the people running UCT of consciously preventing the employment of black academics. “It’s structural, not done on purpose,” said Slayen. But the most outspoken academic on the issue of race demographics, Associate Professor Xolela Mangcu, a sociologist at UCT, does imply that ongoing racism explains the current racial demography of UCT.

In an article critical of the university’s admissions policy he wrote, “there is not a single black South African woman who is a full professor at UCT. Not one, in 2013! That statistic is unacceptable in an inclusive democratic society.” Mangcu also wrote, “If UCT is to represent the demographics of the Western Cape, where coloureds are half the population, it has a long, long way to go in this regard.” He said that the “real elephant in the room … is how whiteness continues to be ingrained as a standard of academic potential in South African universities. This shows how far we still are from recognising the full humanity of each of us — an unkind legacy for all of our children.”

Max Price responded to Mangcu, “It generally takes more than 20 years from getting a PhD to becoming a professor. The pool of South African black academics available for appointment to professorship in 2014 is a proportion of the pool of black PhD graduates in 1994. Given our history, this was a very small pool. Few in that small pool chose academic careers over offers from the new government, civil service and corporates, all desperate to recruit highly skilled black professionals. So this is not a UCT problem – it is a national university sector problem.”

Nineteen black academics responded to Price. They wrote that his article “suggests that ‘quality’ is compromised at other universities that have more black professors because at UCT ‘we are not lowering the standard for appointment or promotion as professor for people of colour’. This is a contentious statement at best as there are no data supporting this view. Furthermore, raising the issue of standards when referring to black academics is a discourse that serves to undermine the competencies of black scholars and one that works to maintain the false notion that white scholarship and white scholars are superior. In many ways, such constructions of blackness and black scholarship are part of a broader discourse of white superiority, a historical legacy we all share and have a responsibility to confront.”

In the wide number of people we spoke to for this series, a word that came up frequently was “pipeline” — as in the UCT student pipeline is not producing enough black academics. So debates about how to transform the staff body, often revert to arguments about UCT’s bottlenecks in the pipeline in the student body starting from the admissions policy.

Price and Mangcu both say they support a race-based admissions policy to the university, though they disagree on the details. Professor David Benatar, on the other hand, is opposed to race-based affirmative action. And Shose Kessi, a lecturer in psychology at UCT, raises interesting questions about the psychological effects of affirmative action and institutional racism in this article.

A debate within the debate is whether in estimating racial transformation of UCT, black academics from outside South Africa should be counted. Mangcu argues against this, writing, “the presence of foreign African academics and students creates a false image of transformation.”

Professor Sakhela Buhlungu, dean of humanities at UCT, says it “is a cop-out where international scholars, who just happen to be black, are counted as equity candidates. It’s the most ­dishonest, most hypocritical and cynical thing you find.”

Associate Professor Caroline Ngcube in the law faculty, who is a foreign national, agrees with him in this article. She writes, “UCT must continue to prioritise the employment of black South Africans. From the statistics that have been published it is clear that UCT has not been successful on this front. Sadly, the retention record of the institution is also poor. It is not helpful to impute the blame for slow transformation on those who have left or choose not to come in the first place. It is critical for UCT to look inwards to examine what in its institutional climate may have contributed to these departures (or non-arrivals) and to seek to be more hospitable for all race groups.”

Professor Mike Morris in Economics has a different view, “Those who articulate identity politics focus on the subliminal shared experience of ‘blackness’, of being ‘African’, and ‘oppressed by race’. Now suddenly being black from Zimbabwe doesn’t matter? And why would black students in South Africa not share or learn from the varied experience of our African brethren?” Morris also said the priority of transformation should be to “produce good young graduates with a deep understanding of knowledge, and a critical vision of the world. Our responsibility to black students who have made it to UCT is to be mindful of this and ensure they emerge with a degree but mostly with the creative capabilities to be successful in our country and the world.”

Proposals for changing UCT’s racial demographics

While a generation ago, a PhD wasn’t necessarily a prerequisite to an academic job, it has become so in most fields (though it is not sufficient for a career in academia; publishing research as well as teaching are considered vital by promotions committees). Max Price told GroundUp that more black students have to be identified to do PhDs. “It’s an uncertain future. For black graduates in hot demand, the PhD option is not immediately attractive. We need to signal to students that if they do a PhD and [do it well], they will get a job. We also need to organise overseas post-doctoral experience for them.”

Both Mangcu and Price have published proposals for how to produce more black South African professors. Their ideas will be debated. An idea proposed by Mangcu — and other academics we spoke to — is that UCT should make a greater effort to bring back successful black South African academics who are working in academia overseas.

Judge Dennis Davis wants to see more mentorship of current students to produce tomorrow’s academics: “Let’s encourage our bright students to see academic life as an important career. … Link [young black academics] to old fogies like me who are committed to a complete handover within the shortest possible time.”

But Davis warns about seeing transformation as only about skin colour. “Transformation is about demography and ideals. It is not about reproducing the conservative shibboleths of the past and present. Not all black academics are committed to such an intellectual and political perspective. Just as it would be wrong to claim that there are not white academics who are deeply committed to such change.”

Editor’s note: There is no meaningful scientific way to divide human beings into races (read this book for an explanation). We have used race terms in this article as they are used in UCT documents that deal with redressing apartheid’s racial discrimination.

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TOPICS:  Education

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