"Learning to Engage the Chaos"

21 Dec 2016 - 15:45

To UCT alumni scattered far and wide:

Many of you will no doubt will have seen the GroundUp piece 'UCT's Convocation descends into chaos' or various other such hastily written sound bites on social media reporting on the University of Cape Town Convocation annual general meeting held on December 15 2016. These pieces and photos of a placard-holding, bare-breasted protester may have shocked and unsettled and given you further cause to be concerned about your alma mater: concerns which have mounted over the past two years with falling statues, burning art, heightened security on campus and endless accounts of students and staff jumping ship for higher ground.

I have spent the better part of 30 years as an academic at UCT. I became an alumnus in 2003 and am currently a member of UCT's senior leadership group. I offer this letter to you simply to give you an alternative view on the Convocation event.

Yes, it's true that the meeting started in chaos and ended in chaos. Yes, as GroundUp describes, there was 'shouting, interruptions, insults and booing'.

Is there anything of value we can extract from this chaos? I'd like to suggest that the event exposed things that we as alumni can be heartened and inspired by, as well as some challenges.

Convocation 2016 illustrated that UCT's alumni have never cared more about the future of UCT. The 2015 AGM was attended by 47 members. This year, in contrast, the venue was packed with 400+ in attendance. Many were drawn 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 in such times people gathered because UCT matters. This is not just a personal matter - UCT carries a huge responsibility as an intellectual leader in the country, on the continent and globally. There is much at stake and alumni gathered to vote. This is heartening.

Alumni can take heart in UCT's outstanding leadership. It is unlikely that Convocation President Barney Pityana, in preparing his Convocation speech, had any idea of the context in which he would be speaking. His speech was a careful, measured balancing act of critiquing the student movement on the one hand, and strongly endorsing the urgent call for change. It was courageous.

Then Vice-Chancellor Dr. Max Price took the floor to offer his 'state of the university' address. Another colleague later commented to me on Dr. Price's 'superb' presentation. As impressive as his words was Dr. Price's presence. Despite the volatility of the situation, he was composed, unshaken, clearly no stranger to these kinds of highly charged events. On another recent occasion, Dr. Price thanked the senior leadership group for putting the interests of the university first and foremost. He has truly set the example. Alumni will most certainly not agree with all the decisions that the leadership has made. But we can rest assured that these decisions have been made first and foremost in the interests of the university, over and above personal agendas and egos. So whether you agree with everything or not, as alumni you can be heartened by extraordinary leadership in extraordinary times.

The Convocation included a motion to poll alumni around the world on a vote of no confidence in the executive leadership for their role in the negotiations with students. There is a strong likelihood that the motion would have been defeated. It became clear that a significant majority of those attending Convocation were there to express their opposition to the motion. Why is this heartening? Convocation must exercise its right to hold UCT leadership accountable if it deems that the leadership has failed. However, to channel this critique into a motion of no confidence points to a fundamental misreading of the complexity of forces, nationally and globally, which give rise to these protests. 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 protests have identified a number of common themes: this generation of students is profoundly disillusioned with current democratic processes; they are angry with the neo-liberalism '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 unquestioned as the norm, hence the calls for 'decolonizing'.

To lay the complex challenges facing higher education (and the failure to resolve them) at the foot of Dr. Price is profoundly naive. The motion was intended to galvanize action by preying on fear. As the motion read, 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' etc? 2016 has been a year where unsubstantiated fears have been used to galvanize action. Think Brexit. Think Trump. UCT alumni can be heartened because this tactic failed.

The chaos showed that we have a long way to go as a UCT community in being able to engage with others who have different views; this is a tragic statement about a university. I was struck by a comment made by another colleague sitting next to me. He said he had come to support the vice-chancellor but he also was 'open' to hearing the arguments. I cannot say the same for myself. I had come to assert my position, not to listen. This chaos and the tumultuous events of the past two years have exposed deep divisions in the UCT community. We cannot run away from this. We cannot shout these divisions away. We have to learn to engage the chaos. 2017 promises to be another tough year as we head into the uncertain terrain of further exposing, addressing and healing these divisions. As alumni we have influence to shape UCT in this historic period.