Opinionista Jeremy Seekings 28 April 2021

Devastating UCT inferno has exposed the university’s managerial governance shortcomings

So many questions: Did UCT have a fire management plan, and why weren’t the pine trees cleared? Had any kind of fire risk assessment been done? Were there sprinklers on roofs? Had anyone realised palm trees posed an acute fire hazard? Had gutters been cleared? Were the library’s fire doors shut immediately? Were there sprinklers or alternative fire control systems?

The devastating fire at the University of Cape Town on 18 April 2021 raises questions about the character and governance of South African universities. Are our universities collective projects, communities in which scholars, students and support staff work together? Or are they hierarchical businesses run by managers, of employees, for customers? The university’s response to the fire reminds us of the importance of community, the role of the university in society and the limits to managerialism.

Anyone who has written or read the acknowledgements in scholarly publications knows that scholarship is, in part, an intensely collaborative and cumulative activity. Scholars read each other’s work, engage with each other’s ideas, mixing praise and criticism, as they – we – build on the foundation of existing scholarship. As we remind our students, we are all standing on the shoulders of giants. This includes the librarians and archivists who have built the collections on which we rely.

Teaching is also, fundamentally, a collegial project. Each of us builds on the work of our colleagues, helping our students to expand their skills before they progress to other courses taught by other colleagues.

Yes, over the past 20 years, collegiality in South African universities has been battered by creeping managerialism. Deans, once elected by their colleagues, were transformed into appointed “executive deans”. More and more functions of the university were entrusted to “executive directors” with backgrounds in business. The University of Cape Town now issues pronouncements in the name of “the Executive”. Academics are reduced to “human resources”. Some of us become “line managers”, completing endless lists of “performance indicators” on “employees”. Pressure is growing for quick academic publications, pushing time-consuming scholarship to the margins. Appointments are increasingly dictated from higher up the line of command. Collegiality is displaced by adversity, as managers line up against employees and students become customers.

The fire that destroyed UCT’s Jagger Library and Mostert’s Mill and caused damage to several other buildings revealed both the importance of community and the failings of managerial governance.

Faced with fire sparked by wind-born embers, the warden of UCT’s Smuts Hall – world-famous chemist Professor Kelly Chibale – and a team of students used hoses, buckets and fire extinguishers to contain the fire. A video shows students valiantly trying to extinguish fires in trees and ivy and prevent the fires from engulfing the building. One of the final images shows a pile of empty fire extinguishers. Elsewhere, also, students and staff grabbed hoses and buckets to try to contain the fire. Congratulations to the proactive warden and students!

The Jagger Reading Room, Mostert’s Mill and other buildings were not so fortunate. In the HW Pearson Building, where the Plant Conservation Unit was burnt out, individual academics working in the building in the morning used the internal fire hoses and fire extinguishers to put out burning trees and the ivy, but their efforts were hampered by low water pressure (even before the fire brigade arrived). By mid-afternoon – despite the presence of what turned out to be an overwhelmed fire brigade – the roof and precious collections of photographs, plants, pollen and related research were ablaze. The fire that consumed the Jagger Reading Room seems to have been effectively ignored until the fire brigade arrived, by which time it was already a blazing and unstoppable inferno.

These other buildings had few residents – on a Sunday, on a campus still largely locked down because of Covid-19 – ready to spring into action, as a community, to contain fires until the fire brigade arrived. When reports of fire began to circulate, people were instructed to stay away.

Managerialist governance is justified in the name of efficiency. How efficient was the university’s response to the fire bearing down on it? How did the managers perform?

The fire was apparently first reported before 9am, above Philip Kgosana Drive at “Hospital Bend”. At about 11am it reached Rhodes Memorial, where gas cylinders at the restaurant exploded. Over the next two hours it burnt through the pine trees between Rhodes Memorial and UCT. By 1pm it had reached the ring road around UCT’s Upper Campus. Within half an hour palm trees on campus had ignited. It is unclear precisely when the fire took hold, apparently on the library roof, perhaps in gutters that had not been cleared, but it was probably at about 2pm.

But the university has failed us. The outstanding jewel in the crown of the university’s intellectual treasury went up in smoke, in a fire that surely could have been prevented or contained with the right planning and implementation.

What did UCT’s managers do during this time, when the fire was encroaching, to stop it? The answer appears to be “little or nothing”. Were fire marshalls deployed to vulnerable buildings, to contain fires prior to the arrival of fire engines? Was anyone monitoring where fires were breaking out? The initiative shown by wardens and students appears not to have been matched by any decisive action by the university’s managers.

Did the university have a fire or disaster management plan for how to respond to imminent fire on the mountain? If not, why not, given the ever-present risk of fire and a long history of calls for the pine trees to be cleared and an effective fire break established?

If the university did have a plan, was it implemented? If not, why not? Was UCT’s Properties and Services department missing in action?

Had any kind of fire risk assessment been conducted? Were there sprinklers on roofs to prevent fire? Had anyone realised that palm trees posed an acute fire hazard? Had roof gutters been cleared of inflammable material during the fire season? Is it true that the university had ignored warnings to improve its water infrastructure to ensure that there was adequate pressure for fire hoses?

What system was in place within the library to contain fire? Were fire doors shut immediately? When? Were there sprinklers or alternative fire control systems?

On Sunday afternoon, the university’s managers seem to have organised an impressive evacuation of students – “customers” – from residences shrouded in smoke.

Tragically, there had been no equivalently efficient operation to prevent the fire reaching or burning buildings with irreplaceable scholarly collections.

Generations of students and scholars, from UCT and across the world, have relied on the African collections. Scholars, artists, photographers, civil society organisations and others have donated materials, entrusting them to the care of the university on behalf of the wider society. Generations of librarians and archivists have dedicated their lives to building these collections. All of us have trusted the university to keep these treasures safe.

But the university has failed us. The outstanding jewel in the crown of the university’s intellectual treasury went up in smoke, in a fire that surely could have been prevented or contained with the right planning and implementation.

In today’s universities, massive power has been centralised in the hands of managers and the so-called “Executive”. With power comes responsibility. The “Executive” that claims to “manage” the university owes all of us an explanation of what went wrong, of how a fire on the mountain could consume world-famous collections in the library and the Plant Conservation Unit, of how the university failed to fulfil its custodial responsibilities to staff, donors and scholars, here and across the world, in the past and the future.

The university has committed itself to “building back better”. This requires a full and frank analysis of what went wrong and managers should be held accountable for any failings. The first step is to initiate a fully transparent and public inquiry. DM

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All Comments 7

  • Well said. Society and business has overcomplicated itself with titled higharchy and self importance instead of sticking to the basics, doing it properly and working as a team. The extent of the UCT & Rhodes Mem fires could definitely have been reduced or avoided by not having the stone pine trees.

  • Managerial governance creates an environment where people don’t (don’t have to) take responsibility for their actions. This is obvious in all tiers at UCT, as anyone who has needed an urgent file from their admin department will know. That the fire extinguishers were last serviced in 2015 is .. 1/2

    • absolutely the least surprising thing I’ve read this week. Of course the gutters were filled with dry material and of course no-one was pro-active. No-one will take responsibility for these massive, glaring, shortcomings either. 2/2

  • Brilliant article. This campus fire reflects the deep dysfunctionality of UCT today. Why no fire management plan involving the UCT community. After all, the university has as an emeritus professor arguably the world’s leading fire ecologist

  • An excellent article on the dumbing down of a once illustrious institution. That “management” there seemingly did not have a fire management plan in a well-known fire region is amazing, particularly with all the fires in recent years.

  • The loss of irreplaceable books, papers and films from the African Studies Collection and plants from the Bolus Herbarium are tragedies of the first order. ‘Executive’ and ‘management’ have no place in a good university. As a former UCT staff member, I am sad it has adopted this governance type.

  • Sacked by the then University of Natal, for “insubordination” to the Dean, I know that ‘managerialism’ undermines the collective solidarity of ‘collegiality’ and academic freedom.

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