Opinionista Belinda Bozzoli 13 November 2018

What happens when universities start to decay: The case of Unisa

So troubled has the University of South Africa been by racial and other tensions among its staff that in December last year Vice-Chancellor Professor Mandla Makhanya took the extreme step of calling in the Human Rights Commission to assist. Its report has recently come out, and what it reveals is a sad state of affairs at one of our flagship universities.

Unisa has never been a top-performing university in terms of its research output or international standing. But it is a unique and marvellous creation, the biggest university in the country, training countless numbers of students over the years through correspondence (and more recently, digitally) in every kind of degree imaginable.

It has provided poor students, rural students, working students, homebound students, older students and students attending some of our private colleges a way into the world of post-school education and has done so for decades. It is truly a national treasure and news that it is experiencing serious tensions among its staff is most unwelcome to all who care about universities in South Africa.

The report, admittedly, reveals as much about the sorry state of the Human Rights Commission as it does of Unisa. Judging by the contents of the report, the HRC appears to be a body that specialises in simply listening to and recording grievances. It seems not to seek actual hard evidence to confirm or refute the validity of any of those grievances, and the Unisa report comes across as a poorly written record of multiple subjective experiences, rather than a professional investigation into a fraught situation.

Filled with grammatical errors and stylistic solecisms, and almost entirely without any independent analysis of its own, it lacks the dignity and depth one would expect from one of our Chapter 9 institutions. Its conclusions are shallow and unconvincing, and its recommendations are less than inspiring. Poor Professor Makhanya will not find much comfort or indeed much guidance from this report. And it is clear that at least one of our Chapter 9 Institutions is not up to scratch.

If the report is taken merely as a record of anecdotes, however, it is possible to glean from it some preliminary idea of what ails Unisa. And it is not pretty. Focusing almost entirely on the College of Law, but also the College of Accounting Sciences and one or two others, the report suggests that the university has fallen into the trap of setting rigid race and gender quotas for itself and expecting appointments and promotions to conform.

And it appears to have set about implementing these quotas with a sort of Stalinist zeal. There is, it seems, no room for humanity here. The personal situations of individuals are of no concern to the guardians of the quota, the human resources department and the employment equity office. Quotas are applied at the short-listing stage. This means that an applicant for a job who does not meet the quota requirement stands no chance of being short-listed, let alone interviewed. The HR department complains that there is “resistance” to this in two colleges. This is hardly surprising. This is probably unconstitutional, certainly inhumane and bound to threaten quality.

And, one guesses, the academic situation of the department or school concerned is also ignored. Quotas reign supreme, irrespective of the academic needs of the department. Thus, it all becomes about jobs, and there are many who need and want jobs. It is their needs that appear to prevail, and, if there are excellent incumbents, or non-quota applicants, then the incumbents and applicants will be trampled in the rush to get the jobs.

No, one “coloured” woman employee was told, you can’t get a different job within Unisa because we have enough “coloured” women, indeed we have “too many”. Our quotas will not allow you to be considered elsewhere.

A similar story was told by a white employee who had worked at Unisa for a decade, but could not get a better job within the institution because she was white. In one non-academic department one employee was told that “she has a mandate to get rid of ‘coloured’ managers and that the team was not making it easy for her”. And that’s that.

One is reminded of the brutal system of “quotas” of grain that particular farms had to produce in Stalin’s time, irrespective of the needs, situation or capacity of each. (And should the incumbent prevail, or the “quota” be misapplied for whatever reason, or the employee resist being “got rid of”, then the Human Rights Commission is called in?) Thus is the private tyranny of “transformation” born.

The presence of the quotas, and their seemingly rigid implementation, has given rise to a veritable orgy of quota-based hatreds. Too many whites here, too few blacks there, too many women here, too many coloureds there — these are the grievances recorded in this sorry document. The report is replete with apparent jealousies and resentments, special pleading, race-based lobbying and racial hatred from all directions.

But it gets worse, because the rigid quota-based system is itself badly implemented, and the surrounding institutional mechanisms designed to make it happen are poorly designed and managed.

So, nobody seems to know when it is that the quota is to be applied and when not; how exactly it is supposed to work in relation to the quality of the candidates concerned, and what the respective roles are of the various people in charge — head of department, head of school, HR officer, dean, right up to vice-chancellor.

In the case of the acting dean of law, this ambiguous approach was endorsed and supported by the vice-chancellor himself, who appointed a black acting dean through a controversially ad hoc process, partly because “black staff members had submitted that white leadership was generally insensitive to the plight and marginalisation of black staff members” (that is, it had nothing to do with quotas and everything to do with grievance-promotion).

As the recriminations and rationalisations for this are rehearsed, the system itself is contaminated, poisoned. The hatreds and resentments and personal pain experienced by people involved in appointments or promotions become exacerbated.

In a large academic institution, comprised of hundreds of people whose extremely high level of skill defines them, things just cannot work that way if a working and effective university is to be maintained while its staff composition is changed.

In a university this is particularly problematic. The staffing of most South African universities, as the Department of Science and Technology pointed out in an excellent study some 20 years ago, is not properly balanced in the first place.

A university department should consist, broadly speaking, of three “tiers” of staff. The upper tier should consist of a small number of very senior professors who have reached the top of their profession, published widely, and are able and willing to take a lead in the intellectual furtherance of their discipline as well as the well-being of their department.

The middle tier — usually the biggest tier — should consist of highly qualified aspirant professors who are well on the way to establishing themselves in their disciplines, and who make a broad and significant contribution to the university as well.

The lowest level should consist of the junior lecturers and lecturers who have just obtained their PhDs and are beginning to publish, learning to teach and being mentored by the two tiers above them. Universities tend to be hierarchical because there is an accretion of knowledge, expertise and experience over time, and these things are the very currency by which they operate.

The Department of Science and Technology study showed that South African academe has for many years been blighted by a serious unevenness, however, in these layers. The upper layer, it showed two decades ago, was rapidly ageing and there was not a sufficiently qualified middle level to take their place smoothly.

We were warned of a crisis to come, when most of the upper level had retired, but there were insufficient qualified people coming up from the middle level to take their place. Numerous strategies entailing flexibility all around were suggested to help the situation. Extending the retirement age was one; intensive development programmes at the middle level another; employing highly qualified non-South Africans in the middle level a third. Most universities have acknowledged the problem for what it is.

However, it seems Unisa may not have acknowledged it for what it is, but has instead allowed it to become matter for a bitter set of race conflicts.

The quota system seems to demand that the gap be filled, but that it be filled according to quotas. But we know that there are insufficient qualified people at the middle level to fill the gap. So, an unseemly race for jobs, based on one’s race and capacity to fulfil the quota, rather than on one’s capacity to do the job, results.

In this context it is not surprising that Unisa holds the record for the highest number of publications in predatory journals. If you can’t make it on your actual record in the desperate search for seniority, then fake it.

The resulting atmosphere seems toxic. From black staff there are reports of harassment and bullying, exclusion from improvement programmes, complaints that mentorship is patronising, and a generalised feeling that those appointed at the lower ranks (mainly black) were the victims of discrimination, were stifled and were treated differently from those at more senior levels (mainly white).

From white staff there are reports that they are openly insulted, ignored and bullied, made to do work that black colleagues failed to do, accused of racism if they comment on black colleagues’ competency, unable to obtain promotion or other jobs in the institution and that they carry the research workload of the university.

It is said that management finds it hard to discipline black staff, and that complaints from all staff members are “not taken seriously and staff are not shown any empathy when lodging complaints or grievances”. There is no clear grievance process, no protection against victimisation, very little dispute resolution and many colleagues appear to be free to continually engage in abusive behaviour without discipline.

Emails fly back and forth. Bitter exchanges occur. It has now become such a toxic atmosphere that it is difficult to tell how much of this is a result of the quota debacle and how much of it is simply ugly racism in both directions. Either way, management is not helping by its inconsistent, but simultaneously rigid, approach.

The HRC’s solutions are simply a repetition of the solutions it offered in an earlier, extremely bland, report on transformation in universities as a whole. In fact the commission barely managed to develop Unisa-specific suggestions. Better systems, a diversity and transformation fund, firm commitments, a sense of ownership, enhanced oversight, more policies, a review of governance models, an effective complaints procedure, and other similar no-brainers are proposed. Its final flourish — it recommends Unisa establish a “Change Management unit” and a “Centre for Human Rights”.

Most of these recommendations are basic management 101. The rest are institutional add-ons which may or may not help.

It is outrageous that a Chapter 9 institution has been called in at all; it is also outrageous that it has spent time and money on this report, only to give the apparently inept management of the institution advice that it could have got from reading a popular management textbook.

Whether Unisa can fix itself is unclear. But it is certain that the university is on the decline and that unless these tensions can be dealt with in a humane and flexible manner, through strength, wisdom and understanding, the decay will not be stopped. DM

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