The Big Read: Varsities face toughest exam

12 June 2015 - 02:18 By Jonathan Jansen

There is nothing more important that determines the future of the South African university than how we resolve the question of the black professor. How we settle this debate will decide whether middle-class South Africans, black and white, send their children overseas for their degrees in coming years. It will also determine whether the quest for justice in the character and complexion of the professoriate will ever be met inside institutions of higher learning.It is a debate that has been raging since last year when Xolela Mangcu published a timely and incisive set of newspaper articles on the absence of especially black African women professors at UCT. From that point on, the printed press has published pieces on the subject that ranged from downright racist (standards fall when blacks become professors) to dangerously populist (white gatekeepers must be removed and blacks must become professors now). The tone of these debates has almost always been shaped by ignorance of what a university is and what it means to be a professor.We must start, as always, with a word about history. In the century of higher education in South Africa, one of the first things we must concede is that the white professoriate was, in many cases, a consequence of affirmative action - for whites. In my own field, education, I can easily generate a list of 100 white professors, retired and still working, who would never have become professors at any serious university in the world had they not been white in this country at the right time in history.Why is it important to recall that simple fact? Because the knee-jerk response of some in the white establishment, that accelerating the appointment of black professors will lower standards, is disingenuous. They were lowered before and that is why none of the former white universities are anywhere close to being among the top 100 universities in the world, despite a long history of racial advantage. Our universities, for the most part, are mediocre, and the reason a handful are more competitive has nothing to do with intelligence and everything to do with the privileged relationship between race and resources over many decades.The appointment of many more black professors in especially the former white universities is a matter of social justice. It is the single most important element of institutional transformation facing the country today. How we deal with this issue can make or break the top universities in South Africa in the same way that racial nationalism destroyed the leading universities in post-colonial Africa.As we push for the transformation of the professoriate, there are some unpleasant realities that we must stare in the face. The education statistician Nic Spaull poses the problem simply: of every 100 pupils who started school in 2003, only 49 reached Grade 12 (matric) last year. Of that number only 37 passed, of whom only 14 qualified to go to university. Not all of the 14 actually go to university and fewer than seven get the first degree in the minimum time. Of those I would guess less than two go on to get the PhD (the basic degree that starts you on the professorial route) and even fewer than that pursue an academic career - and that is not even mentioning race. What is the so-obvious point? If the pipeline from school to university to an academic career is so incredibly weak, then the chances of producing top-flight black professors are extremely thin. Small wonder more and more of our doctoral graduates are Africans from other African countries.Then the question everybody avoids: what is a professor? It is a top-flight academic who generates high-quality research in the top journals in the world and - especially in the humanities and social sciences - produces scholarly books (not general literature) published by leading international publishers. That person would have supervised to completion masters and doctoral students and been highly regarded by his or her international peers in the discipline. Now, how many of our full professors satisfy this criterion?The new racial nationalists are impatient and want short cuts. They must be stopped, for the very character of our universities is at stake. At the same time, universities must be challenged to deal with the very real problem of racial gatekeeping and the spectacular lack of imagination in slowly but systematically building the next generation of especially black and women professors.Ultimately, as in professional sport, you build top academics and top athletes by making sure the preparation starts in school.

This article is reserved for Sunday Times subscribers.

A subscription gives you full digital access to all Sunday Times content.

Already subscribed? Simply sign in below.

Registered on the BusinessLIVE, Business Day or Financial Mail websites? Sign in with the same details.

Questions or problems? Email or call 0860 52 52 00.