Accelerating Transformation

Dear Vice-Chancellor Habib

I write to congratulate you on your report “Accelerating Transformation for an Inclusive and Competitive Wits,” and on the consultative process you undertook in preparation for it.

A Wits alumnus and former executive member of the SRC, I left South Africa in 1965 to evade military service in support of a regime I despised and to pursue graduate studies in Political Science in the USA, unfettered by the censorship, surveillance and racial exclusiveness of “our” universities. A relatively successful career culminating in a decade as a Canadian university Vice-Chancellor reflects the privileges I enjoyed by accident of birth in South Africa, including my education at Wits, and I do not presume that my South African or subsequent professional experience should give any weight to my opinions on the complex issues of transformation you now confront.

I do want, however, to express my admiration for the reasoning and recommendations in your report. I particularly admire the clarity of your recognition of the equal limitations of dogmatically liberal non-racialism and illiberal racial essentialism; the wisdom of your comments on careless misreadings of Fanon and, by implication, other iconic theorists of post-colonial and anti-imperialist revolt, and the comprehensive commitments you make to a realistic agenda for transformation at Wits. I hope all members of the university community will agree to support the various policy development tables you have established under the leadership of senior members of your administration, recognizing the urgency of delivering concrete results rather than dissipating the momentum for change in constipating process that is the bane of academic life.

On the key issue of recruiting professors and staff properly representative of the South African population, I hope it will not be presumptuous to recommend attention to some Canadian experience. Although Canada has no justifiable claim to virtue on matters of equity and diversity, and especially not on the reconciliation and integration of its aboriginal population, there have been some useful policy initiatives affecting Canadian universities. First, is a relatively long-standing Federal contractors programme requiring regular auditing of universities’ employment profiles relative to census demographics for historically disadvantaged categories (women, aboriginals, visible minorities, and the disabled), and of strategic initiatives to make up for identified gaps in employment equity for these categories, as a condition of continued eligibility for contracts with the various agencies of the national government. I can speak from personal experience to the degree to which the threat of ineligibility for federal funding concentrates the institutional mind. Second, are more recent programmes for the awarding of national research chairs by competition among Canadian universities, where the early record of minimal inclusion of women as candidates for such chairs resulted in a court action and settlement that required concerted efforts and accountability for improved results in the appointment of women. Again, I can vouch for a dramatic transformation in many academic programmes, where initial certainty that there were no qualified women changed to a sudden discovery of excellent candidates for these most prestigious appointments, and thereafter to a much more open and inclusive attitude to all other appointment processes, facing the threat of a decline in competitive access to appointments and funding in the absence of an ability to satisfy employment equity objectives.

I emphasize again that Canadians and Canadian universities have no cause for self-congratulation, and despite the positive effect of programmes like those I mention, the pace of change towards genuine employment equity is slower and more uneven than it should be. The intensity of debate over inherently complex issues and the ubiquity of intellectually well-articulated reasons to resist change is inevitable, and indeed desirable in universities, but while such features of university life complicate processes of transformation, we should take comfort from the extraordinary changes over the long run that have made the university arguably the most resilient institution in history. And the long run need not be that long.

Again, you might find instructive the post-war Canadian experience of a “colonized” university system, heavily dependent upon recruitment from English and American universities, changed radically and rapidly under nationalist protest in the 1960s and 70s, with far-reaching curricular reforms and recruitment of Canadian nationals from Canadian universities. If this history is instructive, it must be emphasized that these changes required not simply a nationalist movement and protest, but a massive commitment to the expanded public funding of graduate programmes and research in Canada’s universities. Without a proper prioritization of university education in public policy and funding, political demands for transformation and political intervention in university autonomy are a recipe for competitive decline and decay.

You deserve such political and financial support for your transformation agenda, as you deserve the support and commitment of all of us who cherish the idea of an open, inclusive and internationally competitive Wits.

With best wishes

Michael Stevenson
President Emeritus
Simon Fraser University

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