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REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

To survive, South Africa’s universities must learn to engage with chaos

The recent 2016 meeting of the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Convocation – the annual gathering of its alumni – has been described as having descended “into chaos”.

But in fact the meeting was a microcosm of South African higher education in 2015 and 2016. It revealed how hard universities must work in the coming years to encourage dissent and debate; how important it is for academics and other members of university communities to step out of their comfort zones and listen to views with which they bitterly disagree. Now, more than ever, universities must engage the chaos that has become their new reality.

Since the 1990s higher education globally has experienced a new wave of student protests – in the UK, Hong Kong, Chile, Turkey and the US to name a few.

Though each has its national character, scholars of protest have identified a number of common themes: this generation of students is profoundly disillusioned with current democratic processes. They are angry with neo-liberalism’s “capture” of higher education and the consequences for fees and increasing inequality. They are also critical of the ways in which Eurocentric, white, middle class culture is unquestionably the norm – hence the calls for “decolonising the curriculum”.

Chaos – but also inspiration

It’s true that UCT’s convocation descended into chaos. There was shouting. There were “interruptions, insults and booing”. No doubt many would have left the event feeling sobered and angry.

There are many unanswered questions about where all this is going. Is there anything of value to extract from this chaos? I’d like to suggest that the answer is yes. There is much to be heartened and inspired by, although of course there are also challenges.

Starting with what can inspire: this year’s convocation illustrated that UCT’s alumni have never cared more about the university’s future. The 2015 meeting was attended by 47 members. This year the venue was packed with more than 400 people. Many were drawn – irrespective of their positions – out of their deep concern and commitment to UCT and its future.

The chaos in part reflects the highly charged and contested versions of this future. These are crazy times, but still people gathered because UCT matters. This is not just a personal matter. The university carries a huge responsibility as an intellectual leader in the country, on the continent and globally.

The meeting also revealed outstanding leadership. Vice chancellors around the country have stood courageously against tremendous pressure from all sides. Certainly, Convocation’s president Barney Pityana could have chaired better by suggesting ground rules for constructive engagement. But that’s said with the benefit of hindsight.

It is unlikely that in preparing his speech Pityana had any idea of the context in which he would be speaking. His speech was a careful, measured balancing act of critiquing aspects of the student movement on the one hand, and strongly endorsing the urgent call for change. It was courageous.

Then the vice chancellor took the floor to offer his “state of the university” address. His presence was as impressive as his words. It was a volatile situation but Dr Max Price remained composed, unshaken, clearly no stranger to these kinds of highly charged events. All this, in the face of a motion of no confidence brought against him and his executive leadership.

The Convocation included a motion to poll alumni around the world on a vote of no confidence in the executive leadership’s role in negotiations with protesting students. There is a strong likelihood that the motion would have been defeated – it became clear at the meeting that a significant majority of those attending were there to express their opposition to the motion. The meeting was adjourned before it could come to vote.

It is profoundly naïve to lay the complex challenges facing higher education – and the failure to resolve them – at any single leader’s door. The motion was intended to galvanise action by preying on fear. It read, in part, that unless there is “further intervention” UCT will “suffer the migration of the best matriculants”, “the departure of many of the best and brightest of academics”, the “loss of donations and bequests” and so on.

2016 has been a year where unsubstantiated fears have been used to galvanise action. Think Brexit. Think Donald Trump. It is heartening that this tactic failed.

Engaging the chaos

What the chaos pointed to more than anything is that the UCT community – and perhaps South Africa’s academic community more broadly – has a long way to go in being able to listen and engage with others who have different views to our own. That’s a particularly tragic statement about any university.

This was illustrated both in the behaviour of student protesters at Convocation and those in the audience who shouted for their removal. I was struck by a comment made by a colleague sitting next to me. He said he had come to support the vice chancellor but that he also was “open” to hearing the arguments. I was impressed by this. I cannot say the same for myself: I had come to assert my position, not to listen.

The tumult of the past two years has exposed deep divisions in university communities. They have always been there but they are now visible. The academy cannot run away from this. These divisions cannot be shouted away. 2017 promises to be another tough year as South African universities head into the uncertain terrain of further exposing, addressing and healing these divisions. Do not expect the chaos to be over. If universities are to survive, they must learn to engage it.

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