Making the case for employment equity in universities

Last week the Sowetan made the assertion that I had equated the Employment Equity Act to an Apartheid law. Nothing could be further from the truth. The misrepresentation may have arisen as a result of a debate on equity that I had with Jimmy Manyi, the President of the Progressive Professionals Forum. Manyi asserted that because the Employment Equity Act was law, it must be unquestioningly obeyed. I responded that while we must obey the law, all laws are and should be up for debate in a democracy. I did make the case by suggesting that it is possible to have laws that are immoral by making reference to Apartheid. But at no point did I equate the Employment Equity Act to Apartheid, and I did indeed insist on the necessity of our laws to always be fully deliberated. I also insisted that there is an urgent need to deliberate on the Employment Equity Act, if only because there are serious questions about its implementation in a university environment.

There is no debate at Wits about the need to transform our university. But there is a realization that we have to avoid two extreme positions that have emerged in the debate if we are to succeed in transforming Wits. The first of these, on the right of the political spectrum, suggests that post-apartheid South Africa is now an equal playing field. It does not see any need for historical redress. This position is wrong since clearly the consequences of apartheid continue to live with us. The counter view is that the EE Act can simply be implemented in universities without any deliberation of a university’s contextual specificities. Too often politicians and others imagine the university as no different from any other institution in the public and private sectors. But a university is fundamentally different. It is a place where knowledge workers are produced. To train a professor at a university requires at least 10 years of continuous study followed by another 10 years of teaching and research productivity. We could short-cut that process but to do so would undermine the academic quality of our institutions.

What does this mean for the challenge of equity in our universities? There are two issues to be considered. The first is the goal of equity in our institutions. No great university in the 21st century, whether it is Harvard or Oxford or Cambridge or any other, can manage to be truly representative of the demographic specificities of its society. Universities in the 21st century have to strike a balance between national responsiveness and global competitiveness, between demographic representivity and cosmopolitanism. No university can be a truly global institution if it does not have a significant proportion of international staff and students. This makes it impossible to exactly match the demographic distribution of the society. Yet this is completely ignored in the public discourse, by government officials and even some within the higher education system who think that transformation targets can be reduced to mathematical formulas. This problem is made even more complex when one considers that universities struggle to attract sufficient numbers of South African black students into postgraduate degrees because many are under immediate pressure  to start earning a salary and supporting their families.

The second issue that needs to be addressed is our success in transforming our institutions. Clearly there has not been sufficient progress in this regard. The City Press recently published data showing that there are only two universities where more than 10% of professors are black South Africans. Of course one needs to bear in mind that proportions may not always enable an understanding of the real numbers involved. An institution may have a high proportion of a smaller number of professors, while another might have a smaller proportion of a higher number of professors. In real terms the latter may have more black South African professors than the former. Nevertheless, there can be no doubt that there are too few black South African professors in our universities.

Why is this the case, and how do we move forward?

First, we cannot talk about transforming the demographics of our professoriate unless we enhance the pipeline. Too often politicians complain that we do not have black professors when they have refused to make the systemic interventions and investments required for this to happen. In the last 20 years we have not provided adequate support for masters and PhD students. Without black postgraduate students, you cannot get black lecturers, and therefore you cannot get black professors. Berating vice-chancellors and universities is not the answer. There needs to be a systemic investment in providing an academic pipeline, which cannot be determined at university level only.

Second, we need to start doing more in our universities. We need to create enabling environments where black professors feel comfortable. This means addressing issues of institutional culture and ensuring that black academics are not subjected to onerous teaching loads and adverse working conditions which impact on their ability for scholarship. It also means that senior leaders in universities have to learn to transcend the racialised networks they have inherited. We have to learn how to identify emerging black talent, and how to attract them to our universities. These are things that we are grappling with at Wits and addressing with the active involvement of the entire executive. Currently, we have a Vice-Chancellor’s fund dedicated to the recruitment of black scholars. We have supplemented this initiative with another that reserves 50% of all vacancies for equity appointments.  Non-equity appointments can be made but only if the entire executive agrees and when it is convinced that everything possible has been done to identify and recruit equity candidates.

Finally, what is important in all of this is not to look for easy solutions. The problem with the current debate is that it is constructed in the most generic of terms, and as a result it does not grapple with the true complexities of transforming universities in South Africa, which fundamentally is about creating institutions where we produce world class education for both black and white, rich and poor, and everybody in between.

Professor Adam Habib is Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of the Witwatersrand. An edited version of this piece was published in the Sowetan on 12 August 2014. Read the article here: Sowetan 12.08.14.