Not the death-knell but the birth pangs of a new inclusive UCT

12 Jan 2017 - 08:45

Dear UCT alumni

2016 closed in a troubling way for many of you. The Annual General Meeting of Convocation had to be aborted and the Annual General Meeting of the Alumni Association had to be postponed.

The academic year was compromised and there are staff and students who feel traumatized and alienated by the events which have transpired.

Teaching had to be curtailed and in some faculties the academic program was suspended. The normal end-of-year graduation ceremonies could not be held and many students will be returning in January to complete mini-semester programs and write deferred exams.

Intermittently in 2016 and certainly in the latter months, the campus saw many disruptions, including violent clashes between protesters and security personnel.

I am sure that many of you watch with dismay what you perceive to be a deepening crisis of your alma mater. And you worry with justification whether this signals the impending collapse of this great university that you hold so dear.

In circumstances like we are presently facing, it is always important to maintain perspective. A number of important considerations need to be borne in mind.

The University of Cape Town is not an island unto itself. Unfortunately many of those who criticize the university leadership make the erroneous assumption that UCT can somehow completely on its own rise above the crisis that higher education is facing in the country and restore "normalcy" to the campus.

Linked to this notion of restoring "normalcy" is the false contention that all that UCT needs is more "law and order". There should be more disciplinary action, protesters should be arrested and expelled and police and security reinforced.

But even the notion of "normalcy" is fraught with difficulties. It presupposes that there was once some pristine UCT which now has become tainted threatening its future existence.

And if we are all really honest with each other, this pristine UCT existed in another historical era and was constituted by a very different demographic profile.

To believe that such a UCT would not only survive but also continue to thrive in the present-day realities of our country is not only misguided but also foolhardy.

Yet, inasmuch as the old-UCT reflected the white historical privilege that characterized colonialism and apartheid and inasmuch as black people who were permitted to enter its hallowed doors were treated as sojourners, it did establish itself as a higher education institution of distinction.

The big challenge that UCT faces into the future is how does it build on its legacy of excellence (which was mainly the exclusive preserve of a white minority) while transforming fundamentally its twin legacies of colonialism and apartheid which denigrated the black majority and consigned them to the periphery?

And how prepared will UCT be to interrogate the very notion of excellence itself, which is not without its own contradictions and limitations?

Sadly, in the noise and clamour that have hogged the headlines about recent events at UCT, it is not these questions that have received the attention they deserve. Instead the focus has been on the spectacle of protest and not on the substance of the issues.

This should not be interpreted in any way as condoning all of the actions that have been carried out in the name of transformation or as justification for some of the behaviour as an acceptable part of decolonization.

Violence, intimidation, intolerance, disrespect and racism have no place in a democratic society and certainly should be rejected in a university dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge and based on the respect of the dignity of all who enter its doors.

Yes, alumni do have cause for concern. As a university community we have to learn to treat each other with greater respect and tolerance. We have to be open to hearing all sides of an argument and be prepared to accept that even traditions may need to change.

The greatness of UCT is not bound up in its statues, symbols, names and buildings. It is in the minds that have shaped the intellectual landscape of our country. It is in the breakthroughs in research that have changed the way in which the world sees things. It is in the ideas developed that have advanced the cause of humankind.

Higher education in the country is possibly facing one of its biggest challenges since the former apartheid government imposed its policies of exclusion on the sector. UCT is no exception in this regard.

But UCT can play a critical role in contributing to the intellectual insights that can ensure that the sector as a whole emerges stronger from these challenges and that UCT itself becomes a better, more inclusive and transformed institution.

Our concern should therefore be tempered by optimism for what is possible. Not the decline of our great university but a re-imagining of how we can make it an even better university.

And this time it will be a great institution for all who enter through its portals. It will be a proud legacy that we will all want to embrace.

But for UCT to have such a future, all alumni need to commit to supporting their alma mater, particularly during this challenging time.

Too often alumni are quick to dismiss their alma mater on the basis of the latest headline.

UCT survived the darkest days of apartheid. To believe that protests which have very legitimate causes (even if we do not accept some of the methods used) spell the end of the university is to underestimate the resilience of this great institution.

Now more than ever UCT needs its alumni to come to the fore. It needs them to remain engaged. To contribute to the debates on transformation and decolonization. Not to turn their backs on their alma mater but to continue to ask the hard questions on how we can create a better, more inclusive UCT.

It needs them to consider donating to the university. Access and affordability is at the heart of much of the protests and alumni can make a significant difference by providing opportunities for poor but academically eligible students to come and study at this great institution.

If 2016 closed on a troubling note, then let us work to ensure that 2017 becomes the year that a new, inclusive UCT takes definitive shape. Much of what we have been experiencing in many of its manifestations are not the death-knell of UCT, but the birth pangs of this new, inclusive university.

Russell Ally
Executive Director
Development and Alumni Department
University of Cape Town