Picture: THE TIMES
Picture: THE TIMES

Student protests at our universities over the past year have made for very difficult times for vice-chancellors. Much of the student anger has been directed at them, with threats of violence to them and their families.

Discussion among vice-chancellors now resemble counselling support sessions for traumatised people.

For weeks, I have been awakening every morning with a hollow feeling in my stomach, left there by a real-world/dream-world awareness of our students or staff members badly hurt in violent confrontation.

My heart skips a beat when the telephone rings. Like many vice-chancellors, I feel seriously underprepared for my job because I am making decisions in conditions that would normally require proper training in areas like security strategy and logistics.

At this time a vice-chancellor most strongly feels the aloneness of being the last point of accountability for the decisions and actions in response to protests. At every turn, the correct response is not obvious, but we know we have to ensure a properly functioning and sustainable university — that, after all, is our primary task as vice-chancellors.

But this is all happening at the barricades on our campuses where rubber bullets, stun grenades, court interdicts and petrol bombs carry important meanings.

My sense is that this is only one of the sites of battle in a larger war that is about the soul of the university and its meaning in a democratic society. So I thought to briefly step away from the barricades to reflect on the areas of contestation operating as another layer of meaning in the student protests.

I will try to interpret our shared experiences as vice-chancellors rather than pretend to speak for my colleagues.

The reality is that vice-chancellors come and go, but the university remains. We estimate that, thanks to retirement and end of terms of office, 13 or so universities will have new vice-chancellors by the end of 2017. Of course, some of the current vice-chancellors could serve second terms or have their terms extended.

Any analysis of challenges facing universities that relies on the personality of a particular vice-chancellor is seriously flawed and must arrive at the wrong conclusion.

There is much in the form of the protests and the nature of the engagements between students and outside social formations, on the one hand, and university leadership, on the other, that is about contestation around the fundamental values that we believe universities should stand for.

Our shared position as vice-chancellors is that the "values of universities are valuable" and deserving of being defended. In current protests, we are being asked to reconsider the firmness of our commitment to these values or to radically alter our view of the institutional relationships that we are meant to have with our students and staff. There are many aspects to this contestation, but some are worthy of more careful consideration.

Vice-chancellors believe universities must be ever respectful of the irreducible plurality of human opinion. A loud voice in the protests asks us to acknowledge only one interpretation of history, and calls on the university to genuflect before the singular ideological position – whichever one happens to be in the mind of the particular group in discussion with us at the time.

One of the foundational principles of a university is the idea that all opinions matter. It is one of the most dehumanising forms of social exclusion to say to a group of people their opinions do not matter because of some constructed identity label that they happen to carry.

The protesters ask us to ignore the views of some in our university community because, based on their race or social identities, they should be denied the right to express opinions on matters for which they are not able to demonstrate a lived experience.

Universities take for granted the idea that our students are autonomous learners who can form their individual opinions after careful consideration and reflection.

The protesters ask us to treat our students as coherent and like-minded groups — each group holding diametrically opposing views from the others. This manifests in statements like "the poor wish to protest; the wealthy wish to continue with their classes".

As vice-chancellors, we are unhesitant in our belief that all our students have the capacity and potential to operate at the level of "the best that can be thought and known".

In these protests, we are repeatedly confronted by that most corrosive form of racism that asks us to expect less from black people. We are asked to accept that there are forms of knowledge or ways of knowing that are not accessible to some of our students because of their blackness, poorness, African-ness and so on.

In our worlds of ideas and knowledge development, universities believe that the space between those who wish to teach and those who wish to learn is a near-sacred space. Indeed, apartheid’s most harmful achievement was its ability to interfere in this space in the education of black South Africans.

The protesters are asking us to accept that this space should be open to uninvited noise and grotesque forms of protest that include hurling faeces and burning books.

At a university, ours is to teach — not to captivate. We repeatedly remind our students that the best of science is about finding better wrong answers and that a sceptical attitude to the "common or received wisdom" is a healthy aspect of the critically engaged intellectual.

We are aware that some people have the ability to sway crowds to action through innate or practised styles of public speaking. This is a characteristic that we acknowledge in other people — but not one we admire.

Reasoned and coherent argument is far more valuable to a university. Those who are banging on our doors and our desks in these protests ask us to take them seriously for no other reason than their ability to captivate crowds and sway them into action.

These are important areas of contestation in the war being waged on the future of public higher education. This is potentially an issue with short-term impact, and the questions are very much about the kind of university the younger siblings or cousins of our current students will be attending in three or four years’ time. The call for quality higher education is correct, but "quality higher education" will depend on our collective understanding and social agreements about the values that we believe universities should stand for.

On repeated occasions, protesting students have asked me to understand that their issue is not with me as vice-chancellor. They ask for the vice-chancellor to step aside so that they may shut the university as a national statement in support of their cause.

But to ask me to step aside is to ask me to break trust on a promise that I made to the entire community of the university, including its future students. In good conscience, I cannot do this. I have to stand in defence of the university’s values, and I certainly do not expect to be fighting with our students on this. If the vice-chancellor at any of our universities heeds the call to step aside, the centre will become loose and things will fall apart.

Forms of engagement between students, academic staff and university leadership during the protest actions have been misdirected, have not been fruitful and have done more harm than good.

University leadership have felt it important to be muscular in their defence of the university and students have responded in equally muscular ways.

But in the midst of the smoke and noise, we have to find each other to address our shared concerns about persistent social inequality and the reality that fine young minds are being excluded from universities because they cannot afford the cost of a proper education.

The path to finding each other is clearly through our shared commitment to sustained and improved quality public higher education for future generations.

If we do not engage each other in constructive ways soon, the real victims will be the poor and marginalised of our society. The wealthy will simply continue to buy themselves out of dysfunctional public institutions.

• Ballim is the vice-chancellor of Sol Plaatje University in Kimberley.

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