Law faculties must embrace difference to produce great graduates

South Africa’s Constitutional Court embodies values of justice and transformation. How can law schools do the same? GCIS/Flickr

Recently I attended the African Law Deans’ Forum in Livingstone, Zambia, with colleagues from many parts of the continent including Kenya, South Africa, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Zambia, Ghana, Zimbabwe and Uganda. One of the important issues we were asked to address was the major challenges facing individual law faculties in Africa.

My comments focused on the question of racial transformation at South Africa’s historically white universities, particularly in law faculties. Some of the issues that are up for considerable scrutiny at these institutions include staff and students’ racial and gender demographics and the curricula. There’s also discussion around access to higher education resources – particularly for those from previously disadvantaged and usually black African communities. These communities were denied access to such institutions by the apartheid regime.

For law faculties, the transformative vision embodied in South Africa’s constitution provides a potent driver for change. They have to comprehensively prepare and train the next generations of legal professionals with the knowledge, expertise, empathy and skill needed to give effect to the range of political, socioeconomic and cultural rights embedded in the constitution.

So what does a transformed law faculty look like? What could be its defining features? What should the process of transformation entail? What are the possibilities for transformation and what are the obstacles?

Disconnect between ideas and reality

There’s currently a review under way of the South African LLB degree. This has been mandated by the Council of Higher Education, a statutory body.

As part of the process, each law faculty has to write a self-assessment report responding to a series of questions that focus on the impact of the constitution on the entire programme of legal education. This includes elements like curriculum, assessment, experiential education and ethics. The review provides a timely and healthy exercise of self-reflection.

At the University of Cape Town Faculty of Law, where I am the dean, the question of racial and gender transformation looms large. It is a particularly vexed question as – on so many indicators – the faculty has done well. In addition to an impressive alumni base, it regularly rates well on global indicators, including the Shanghai as well as the Times Higher Education annual rankings. But despite these accolades there’s still much to be done to achieve the desired transformation.

There are several issues to be considered in transformation, among them institutional identity, institutional culture and institutional hierarchies. In addition, issues such as the curriculum, faculty research and scholarship, teaching and learning methods, and physical spaces are also ripe for examination.

After five months as dean, I have observed that while there is generally universal support for transformation, there is somewhat of a disconnect between the idea and the reality of transformation. Why is this so?

Generational divides and differences

There are probably several aspects to this question, many nuanced, but I will venture three.

The first has to do with the most essential reason for the educational project: the students, and the relationship of law faculties to those students. Much has been written about recent graduates and the current crop of students now at universities – especially their learning habits, writing styles and embrace of social media, which affects their cognitive style and reasoning.

Each generation of students brings with it learning habits and ways of being peculiar to its context. The impact of technology and specifically social media has transformed many aspects of students’ learning and their cognitive skills and predilections. The teaching of law must incorporate innovative and creative ways of thinking about knowledge delivery and students’ professional development.

The second aspect has to do with the institutional culture and the veneration of an academic tradition mostly steeped in the British and northern European model. Some of this does not resonate with this generation of South African students. This tradition embodies distinct hierarchies, rituals and protocols, and a universal language with semantic shortcuts for those who belong. Sometimes it represents a teaching style that incorporates methods of fear and authority, as well as a cognitive pecking order of merit and achievement. Until recently, this tradition was also steeped in white masculinity.

The third aspect lies in the generational divides within institutions. This is not new in the current South African context. But it has become far more relevant because of the demands of transformation.

In the University of Cape Town Law Faculty there are roughly three generations of people across the staff and student divide. The first is the apartheid/transition generation, many due to retire in the next decade or so. These are people who grew up during apartheid. The second group is the Mandela generation – those who were adolescents and young adults when President Nelson Mandela came out of prison. The third is what is referred to as the “born frees”: those born in the wake of democracy in South Africa. It is the gap between the apartheid and Mandela generation on the one hand, and the born frees on the other that, in my opinion, creates the greatest challenges.

These challenges relate to several factors:

  • different political experiences;

  • different expectations of life;

  • different responses to difference or otherness – whether signified by race, gender, sexuality, or disability;

  • different approaches to technology and globalisation;

  • different attitudes towards expertise and tradition;

  • different (less) commitment and loyalty to institutions resulting from no expectation of lifelong employment; and

  • different approaches to the expression of emotion and more public expression of emotion.

No more delays

As South African law deans collectively endeavour to implement a transformative vision and transformative goals, they must confront these challenges and regularly refer to the reasons for reticence and doubt within their faculties. They should see those reasons as incentives for proceeding, and not to throw in the towel. The work of transformation in law faculties may have stalled, but in the words of Dr Martin Luther King: the urgency is now.

We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.

Found this article useful? A tax-deductible gift of $30/month helps deliver knowledge-based, ethical journalism.