Stand and deliver

7 Oct 2013 - 13:00

Shawco clinic in the 50's

Second term: Judge Dennis Davis in conversation with Vice-Chancellor Dr Max Price in the Baxter Theatre Concert Hall, where Price reflected on his first term in office and the challenges expected in his second five years at the helm.

When Vice-Chancellor Dr Max Price delivered his installation address to a Jameson Hall packed with dignitaries on 19 August 2008, the watchwords were redress and transformation, academic freedom and integrity, research excellence, and engaged citizenship.

Five years after Price's first installation address and at the start of his second term, these remain fundamental goals for UCT. He emphasised this to members of the UCT community at the Baxter Theatre Concert Hall on 19 August in what was billed as a 'light conversation' between himself and Judge Dennis Davis.

Dominating that conversation was a reflection on Price's first term in office, and some tough questions on progress and the abiding tests that UCT faces barely 20 years into democracy.

Questions from across campus

The floor was opened to questions from academics, PASS staff and students, underscoring what Price called for in his first address: that universities should offer spaces which encourage new ideas, controversy, argument and challenges to orthodoxy.

UCT's ninth vice-chancellor, Price used the opportunity to refresh institutional goals, and reflect on how the university works and on its role in building the country - and its reach into Africa and beyond.

Price did not present a formula for the next five years, stressing that it was not the end of one chapter and the beginning of another; but rather a seamless transition. The impetus and gains of Price's first term will be consolidated in his second.

Gains of first term

Not least of these has been the identification of four critical research areas for the country, with which UCT must engage: crime and safety; climate change; the quality of schooling in South Africa; and poverty and inequality. The appointments of four pro vice-chancellors to tackle these issues have laid a solid foundation for the next five years.

Much work has also been done on equity across the staff and student bodies and on financial aid to students, to ensure UCT is able to attract the best candidates and develop its research thrust and its efforts to become an Afropolitan institution with strong international networks. Members of the audience, and in particular representatives of students and staff, were invited to pose questions from the floor, delivering an interactive and in-depth discussion on the state of UCT. Davis also had a slate of questions sent by email.

Race and equity dominated the conversation, given the perennial tension between diversity, equity and the university's institutional culture. While UCT had made much progress, these areas remained high priorities, said Price.

The thorny issue of separating teaching and learning was mooted. Price said the university was considering appointing academics who would teach and not be expected to conduct research at a high level, and others who would plough their energies into research and whose burden of teaching would be alleviated.

As a research-led university, UCT had reflected a growth in publications, citations and money raised for research contracts, and in its centres of excellence. "Our track record in research is very good," Price said. "However, we don't get money for being a research-led university. Much of UCT's research is carried out on soft funding, as national funding is shrinking."

Transforming the campus

Transformation also took centre stage. Questions were raised about UCT's student and staff complements, with Davis asking how a Eurocentric, white institution could call itself Afropolitan.

"Transformation is a huge question and I believe we are nailed unfairly and unfairly criticised," Price said, citing figures pointing to a rise in black student enrolment and a shrinking number of white students. Bound up in this was the university's "race-informed" admissions policy which, said Price, had been criticised "to the left and to the right" and was now under major review.

"What are the key challenges for the next five years?" Davis continued. "The threat to our source of income," said Price. "Government is reviewing its funding formula; more of the pie is being distributed to historically disadvantaged institutions. Even the NSFAS formula is against us." Online learning also posed a threat to traditional class-based teaching and learning, Price said.