UCT ‘struggles to find black professors’

Written by Yazeed Kamaldien

The reason why South African universities do not employ more black professors is because there are not that many to choose from, said UCT’s vice-chancellor Max Price yesterday.

Price leads a university that in recent months has struggled with questions about its alienating ‘whiteness’ and lack of transformation. But he has always defended the university, saying it had been “providing leadership on transformation”.

UCT vice-chancellor Max Price at the Cape Town Press Club. Picture by Yazeed Kamaldien

UCT vice-chancellor Max Price at the Cape Town Press Club. Picture by Yazeed Kamaldien

Price was guest speaker at yesterday’s Cape Town Press Club gathering at Kelvin Grove Club in Newlands. He was tasked to offer insights on “how to grow the pool of black academics” and the “controversies around student admission criteria”.

Price said staff demography was still “essential to any university” and UCT wanted to employ more senior black teaching staff. But, he said, the university struggled to find black professors.

“It’s not a UCT problem. It’s a national problem. There’s not one black South African female professor at UCT. That’s a terrible fact,” he said.

“There are only 28 black South African women professors in South Africa and there are 22 universities (in the country), excluding Unisa (the University of South Africa), competing for those professors.”

“The reason why there are so few black professors at UCT is because the pool is so small. Becoming a professor takes many years. We have 20 years of democracy. It takes 10 to 20 years to become a professor.”

Price said employment equity and affirmative action, aimed at diversifying staff, was not only a “question of social justice or redress”.

“It’s also about enriching the university. It brings about different ways of thinking,” he said.

Critics of these race-based policies often assumed employing black staff meant “lowering standards”, he said, adding that UCT rejected this.

“People often talk about quality standards when they criticise affirmative action. They say to employ more black staff you will drop standards. We have an opposite interpretation,” said Price.

“Black academics have had to jump the same hurdles and are just as good as everyone else. The pool is small as there are not that many black professors. We would not tolerate a drop in standards, that’s why there are not that many black academics.”

Price said there was still a need for institutional changes at UCT though, as staff needed to become more conscious of racial stereotypes. He recalled an incident that proved this.

“A black professor was early for a meeting with a dean (of one of UCT’s departments). The white secretary came into the dean’s office and said, ‘Can I help you? You’re not supposed to be in here’. In her white world view, there are no black professors,” said Price.

Turning to the student demographic at UCT, Price said they wanted to “educate people who will be concerned about transforming society”.

He said they wanted to shift from a “race-based affirmative action policy” when accepting students.

“We have many black students now from middle class homes who are doing well at high school. They come from good private schools… We don’t need to rely on that strong race-based approach,” said Price.

“What race represents still creates disadvantage. We have included other direct methods of disadvantage. We know children of university graduates perform much better at school. We know students who have been to schools where they don’t have libraries and laboratories will be disadvantaged.

“We don’t need to know someone’s race to know their levels of disadvantage. We use other methods that itself brings in 75% of black students.”

Price said this did not mean the university ignored poor black students that needed financial and academic support.

“High schools do not create black students that can cope with university. We have support systems to enable students to succeed. That’s part of transformation. We spend a lot of money on this element of transformation,” said Price.

“We create financial opportunities so poor students can access the university. Any student who is accepted academically, we will find the funding for that student.”

If Price had his way, he would make away with race-based student enrolment.

“There’s a better way to select for diversity. That’s to use the lottery (method),” said Price.

“We need a minimum threshold to pass and then we use the lottery to select (students). There’s no reason to think your school marks can show you will be good in a profession.”

Meanwhile race still played a role in how UCT’s academic and student life unfolded daily. The university has had to do “anonymous surveys” to understand its racial issues.

“We try to run intercultural workshops where we talk about the role that body language plays or how people respond to different accents,” said Price.


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About Yazeed Kamaldien

Self-employed journalist and photographer from South Africa.

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