Is there really a race row “again” at UCT, as one media outlet would have us believe? “Facts are stubborn things,” someone once said, but that is where this raging debate should start and end.
Two accomplished women academics, one black and one white, are finalists in the senior management position of deputy vice-chancellor (DVC): teaching and learning.
The council of UCT, the highest decision-making body of the university on such matters, appoints the white candidate on the recommendation of the selection committee (which is 50% black) chaired by esteemed struggle activist Dr Sipho Pityana.
Some black academics, under the umbrella of a body called the Black Academic Caucus, cry foul. UCT is racist. Why? Several reasons, but the main complaint is that the black candidate is better qualified. Is this so? But first an acknowledgment. UCT, like all former white universities, has a long history of excluding excellent black scholars before and since the disgraceful decision not to appoint renowned anthropologist Archie Mafeje.
Sometimes exclusion happened because of the fear of reprisals from the then apartheid government (as in Mafeje’s case).
At other times it was motivated by that unique brand of English racism at UCT called “cultural fit”.
Yet only the most prejudiced observer would deny that UCT has made considerable progress with transformation over the past decades. It made a public apology to Mafeje’s family at the inauguration of Dr Max Price as vice-chancellor.
It showed great sensitivity to protesting students’ demands (many say too much was given up) under great duress in 2015-16.
Its last two appointments at DVC level (two out of three) are black women and, by all accounts, the next vice-chancellor will also be a black woman, replacing Price later this year.
This would make UCT’s senior team of permanent members an all-women, majority black executive.
No university has ever achieved this feat.
Still, the question lingers: in the case of the third DVC, was the black candidate better?
The truth is, we do not really know because such decisions are based on a range of different inputs, such as confidential referee reports, most of which are and should be available only to the selection committee of council.
Only the selection committee has information on the quality of the candidates as evidenced in their interview performances.
Does the candidate, for example, have experience and competence in managing the complex interface between university programmes, and the demands of accreditation and qualifications authorities?
This, after all, is the senior person heading up the academic portfolio and who literally carries the university’s academic reputation in her hands.
Which is why the argument that the white candidate was an associate professor and the black candidate a full professor is irrelevant.
Professorial titles are academic rankings that signal status in your discipline, not evidence of your capacity for senior leadership in a complex management position such as teaching and learning.
It is certainly not uncommon for top universities around the world to appoint non-academics in senior positions (such as finance, human resources and even the vice-chancellor) based on their expertise in leadership, management and administration, where your knowledge of anthropology or medicine are of little value.
No doubt the selection committee led by Pityana would have taken all these considerations into account and made an appointment in the best interests of the university.
In my many years of university leadership where such critical appointments are made, I know that a university stands or falls by the quality of the senior management team; and no portfolio is as important as the academic leadership of complex policies and politics involving government, external agencies and, of course, the scholarly community itself.
The fact that a senior academic is excellent on, say, transformation or student affairs has very little to do with the expertise required to lead the university with respect to the demands of standards-setting agencies for masters degree or the accreditation standards for engineering specialisations.
As we travel along this rocky road called “transformation”, the guard rails should come up to protect us against two ever-present tendencies in South African society.
The one is a reactive racism that insists that the overriding justification in competitive appointments is the race of the candidate – even if we cover that ugliness in shaky arguments about the merits of the candidate.
The other is racial smugness, that sense of self-satisfaction with “the way things are” when there is still so much to do to achieve deep change in our public institutions.
From the facts available there is no evidence that this particular decision on a senior academic manager merits calling UCT racist.
It is a cheap shot that questions the credibility of a multi-stakeholder selection committee with significant black participation and leadership.
Sloppy and sensationalist reporting in some of the media on this furore at UCT unfortunately fails to inform the broader public of what counts in senior academic appointments at public universities.