Tom Robbins
Tom Robbins

Mkhize appointment a blow to university’s reputation

The recent appointment of KwaZulu-Natal Premier Zweli Mkhize — a key supporter of President Jacob Zuma — as chancellor of the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) will only further damage the institution’s already shattered reputation.

In the space of a little more than five years this university has gone from having a judge respected for his independence (Chief Justice Pius Langa) as its chancellor to ANC provincial chair and sitting premier Mkhize.

In between, former parliamentary speaker Frene Ginwala filled this ceremonial and advisory position. While Ginwala was firmly in the ANC camp, indeed in former president Thabo Mbeki’s coterie, she is at least known for being somewhat independent, a quality that befits both a speaker and a university chancellor.

Would Mkhize really stand up for the university were Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande — the communist leader and another important Zuma supporter — to slash university funding or curb academic freedom?

Recently a UKZN-appointed committee cleared the institution of allegations of suppressing academic freedom. It appears the stifling is more of an internal organisational nature than one of restricting the direction of academic pursuit, though no doubt banning professors from publicly criticising the organisation hardly fosters an environment of academic freedom.

While academic standards may not have slipped as much as some critics allege, the appointment of Mkhize won’t help the university rebuild its reputation. An institution’s reputation isn’t something you can get back overnight — like a struggling football striker might be able to with one big performance — it takes years.

The country’s biggest food producer, Tiger Brands, which was involved in the infamous bread price-fixing scandal, has understood this well. It replaced chief executive Nick Dennis with Peter Matlare. Matlare was not the best person for the job in a technical sense but brought a highly credible public-relations and government-relations approach to the company. After all, he even previously managed to improve the reputation of the SABC when he headed up the public broadcaster.

But back to UKZN. Top academics and suburban middle-class parents have deserted this university in droves. Exactly how much better their sons and daughters’ degrees from Stellenbosch or UCT are may be debatable. But the point is that they are lost to KZN and many will probably never bring their skills back to Durban, further marginalising a city which is struggling to hold its position as a centre of learning and culture.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, managements at an earlier component of the now amalgamated University of KZN, the University of Natal, fought hard to build up the institution’s reputation for academic freedom. This after it had previously been plagued by pro-apartheid vice-chancellors such as one-time National Party finance minister Owen Horwood.

Of late the university has failed to combine the admittedly difficult juggling act of producing competent disadvantaged graduates and retaining middle-class support. Premier Mkhize’s appointment won’t help turn around the ship.

Robbins is a graduate of the former University of Natal