Universities must rethink how they retain and nurture young academics

Producing brilliant graduates is one thing – developing and nurturing those who want to remain in academia is quite another. Jason Reed/Reuters

In the years after South Africa became a democracy, the country’s universities began a tough process of change. They worked to improve access for students across the board of race and gender. They introduced a number of “accelerated development” programs designed to diversify their staff bodies. It was correctly deemed important that universities did not remain almost exclusively the domain of white South Africans.

These “accelerated development” programs had names like “Growing our own timber” to emphasise their focus on attracting and retaining young black African, Coloured and Indian academics. Similar programs are run – not just in academia – and discussions are still taking place around the world.

On the face of it, South African universities’ programs included all of the classic and essential support structures for developing a new generation of academics. Participants were offered mentoring and support for their teaching and research.

So, did they succeed? If we look quite literally on the face of it – by examining staff demographics – it seems not. University staff bodies, particularly at the country’s wealthier and better resourced institutions, remain mainly white 21 years into South Africa’s democracy. Why have these programs failed – and what can be done to improve them in future?

Stumbling blocks to success

There are several reasons that talent retention programs have not worked. One is that many young academics leave universities after completing a Master’s or PhD because they can earn significantly more in government or the private sector. The other is a lack of effective mechanisms within universities for identifying and mentoring young black students.

Then there’s the more challenging issue of alienating institutional cultures. Some young academics don’t feel valued by their university. In some cases, participants on these programs and their assigned mentors come from different cultural backgrounds and have divergent world views. They have little in common with their mentors, so may struggle to develop their academic identities without giving up their own views and values in order to “fit in”.

Another problem is that many participants are recruited into these programs at the same universities where they studied. This requires a shift of their identity and mindset from student to staff member.

Associated with this is the challenge of interacting with new “colleagues” who, just a few years earlier, were their lecturers. These power dynamics may significantly influence the retention of staff on these accelerated development programs.

Change can’t happen in a vacuum

The first rush of “grow our own timber” programs has passed. New programs are emerging. But the question of staff transformation – ensuring that a university’s staff are representative of varied genders and races – remains a burning issue in South Africa.

Some universities, my own among them, responded to this renewed focus on transformation by attempting to facilitate dialogue sessions in so-called “safe spaces”. Here they tried to uncover the difficulties faced by Black and Coloured academics on the one hand, and Indian and white academics on the other.

Such spaces for open discussion are vital, but I believe it’s time to shift beyond our fears and explore these difficult and sensitive issues together rather than in individual racial groups.

An integrated approach is key in more than one way. Accelerated development programs have a much greater chance of success if these are integrated into broader institutional work towards transformation, rather than occurring in vacuums in different parts of universities.

Ideally, these programs should include the transformation of staff bodies, the curriculum and institutional governing bodies like senates and councils. This broader, systemic approach will also ensure that such changes become embedded in the academic project.

It might also positively influence the academic pipeline. Black students might identify more strongly with black role models who share the same cultural backgrounds, beliefs and values, which could inspire students to further their studies. This means the pool of qualified black postgraduates who could be recruited into the academy would be widened, and genuine long-term change can be achieved.

Hard conversations

Regardless of the institutional approach taken to address transformation, what is critical for success is deep mutual respect and a willingness to see other perspectives, and be shaped by them. Only then can institutional culture be shifted and transformation goals achieved. However, meaningful discussions across racial lines in a multi-racial, multi-cultural setting are naturally awkward and difficult. They are also often dominated by the most senior voices.

Such discussions also tend to uncover deep-seated, “below-the-surface” beliefs and personal biases – some which we might not even be consciously aware of or want to acknowledge. But it is for these very reasons that we must engage in open, honest conversations. Doing so will help us all understand ourselves better, and will enable us to widen our perspectives and find common ground.

One of the best environments for finding common ground is in cross-faculty staff development programs and workshops facilitated by academic development staff. These offer academic staff a chance to reflect on issues impacting teaching and learning in environments.

The workshops also tend to be designed to promote learning through shared experiences, and it is often in these moments of sharing that staff realise how common and widespread some of their more hidden challenges actually are.

To promote greater participation and reflection, academic developers should aim to create supportive, caring and ethically safe learning environments. These will facilitate deeper dialogue and the sharing of more contentious issues and challenges as well as promoting the development of valuable networks amongst new staff.

This may lead to a greater sense of belonging and value – arguably the most critical factors in staff retention, irrespective of race group.

The transformation project in higher education in South Africa can no longer be ignored. The sooner we embrace unconventional and more inclusive ways of building the next generation of academic staff, the sooner we will be able to transcend the lingering legacy of our apartheid past.

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