Unisa has decided that the university is merely a place of employment where academics are advanced racially in order to make the campus look like the country. Picture: DUDU ZITHA/SUNDAY TIMES
Unisa has decided that the university is merely a place of employment where academics are advanced racially in order to make the campus look like the country. Picture: DUDU ZITHA/SUNDAY TIMES

Most of the damage to our universities happens in plain sight. Right now, SA’s largest university is single-handedly destroying what is left of the academic project.

But let’s start at the beginning. Why does a society have universities? It is to engage the brightest young minds available through higher learning. It is to set the highest standards for research and teaching so that graduates are competitive in, and contribute to, a global knowledge economy. It is to create intellectual environments where research breaks new ground and merits publication in the world’s leading journals or by reputed scholarly presses.

A university is therefore not a sausage machine for producing automatons for the labour market, or narrow-minded technicians for the workplace. It is, rather, a place where a nation’s best teachers meet the smartest students in a laboratory of ideas to make sense of a complex world and improve the human condition. That is the academic project.

Somebody forgot to tell Unisa. In an effort to boost black appointments and others from “designated groups”, Unisa has decided that the university is merely a place of employment where academics are advanced racially in order to make the campus look like the country.

Every single university in SA works hard to advance black and women academics, given our apartheid history.

Almost all these institutions set the bar high and find ways of empowering young scholars to scale that bar through advanced training, assigned mentorship and all kinds of incentives such as paid leave for overseas placement. Except Unisa took the easier route — it dropped the bar so that the weakest academics can be promoted in the name of employment equity. It is, quite frankly, disgraceful, and the damage inflicted on a once great university incalculable.

As of June 2019, this is how you become an associate professor at Unisa: “PhD, 3 years teaching within Odel (Open distance e-learning), 2 research output in 3 years, 3 research output in 5 years and no supervision as supervision form part of the research output.” Now set aside for the moment the appalling use of language and let this sink in.

This is a racist policy for a different reason – it does not believe that black people can excel like any other group of human beings given the same opportunities.

Almost every other university would require the following of an associate professor (the PhD is obvious): evidence of substantive research over many years — typically, 15-20 articles in top world journals to begin with and, in the social sciences and humanities, at least a solid first academic book (not a Unisa study guide!); a good number of doctoral students and even more master’s students supervised to completion; and a respectable research rating by the National Research Foundation.

Even then, the quality of the published research is weighed by internal and external assessors in the event the applicant has published in lowly ranked journals or the research itself is humdrum. Not at Unisa. If you are black, it’s a walk in the park to the first rank of the professorship.

A black person with any self-respect would not apply. This is a racist policy for a different reason — it does not believe black people can excel like any other group of human beings given the same opportunities. We must enjoy special accommodation. This happened before. Coming out of the devastation of the South African War, Afrikaner nationalists did exactly then what black nationalists are doing now to boost the confidence of the tribe and lend the appearance of ethnic accomplishment.

They dropped the bar for promotions, and generations of white, Afrikaans-speaking men became professors on the flimsiest of academic criteria and loyalty to the Afrikaner establishment. I know. I had to deal with the aftermath of white affirmative action at the University of Pretoria as dean and as vice-chancellor at the University of the Free State.

In both institutions, one of the first things we did was to raise the bar for academic promotions because the (white) standards were so low. The blow-back was intense, legal threats followed, and some colleagues left for Unisa and other lesser universities where they instantly became professors with razor-thin curriculum vitae.

Imagine the professor teaching your child has only taught for three years, only published three articles in five years, and might never have promoted a postgraduate student. In fact, Unisa’s “transformational criteria for promotion of academic employees” requires that a senior lecturer only have a master’s degree and three years’ teaching experience – no doctorate, no supervision and no research output. What is “senior” about that?

Make no mistake, at Unisa, as at some of our more prestigious universities, there is a race activism demanding this kind of dumbing-down of academic appointments and promotions; they include a campus trade union and groupings that call themselves “black” by various names. I cannot think of anything more anti-black and anti-transformation.

This article was first published by Times Select