William Saunderson-Meyer
William Saunderson-Meyer

Pollyanna throws in the towel against the university Taliban

Let’s chant a dirge for the chief executives of one of South Africa’s most besieged economic sectors. Just consider the challenges they face daily.

They head financially precarious entities in a field where both the raw-material inputs and the finished goods are of declining quality. A number of them preside over plants that once produced world-class products but as factory floor strife flourishes, will increasingly be churning out factory rejects.

They are beset from without by interfering, unsympathetic government regulators. They are beset from within by declining performance from staff who are demoralised, overworked and underappreciated.

Occasionally the clients burn down the factory. Or hold the CEO hostage in a trashed office and browbeat them until they concede swingeing price cuts on services that they, the clients, won’t in any case pay for.

Yes, we’re talking about that unhappy bunch, the men and women who preside over SA’s floundering universities.

And what brought it to mind was the recent announcement that Professor Jonathan Jansen, vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State, is about to abandon ship and head for terra firma, taking a position as a fellow at Stanford University in the United States.

Being as I am a product of SA’s complex processes of miscegenation – African and European, white and black, Afrikaans and English, Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk and Anglican, Zambian and South African – I have always had a deep admiration for Jansen. Here is what the old regime would have tagged a “bruin” Afrikaner – as if there ever were any other kind, except in the now discredited mythology of apartheid – who ferociously championed black political rights, yet retained his ability to be a bridge between our racial islands.

Jansen is an internationally respected scholar in the humanities. However, like all university executives his job has been less about academic matters than surfing the wild waters of higher education transformation and increasingly violent eruptions of student anger.

(@RhodesMustFall, Twitter)

(@RhodesMustFall, Twitter)

His philosophy, not unlike that of Nelson Mandela, is one of reconciliation above retribution. Also as with Mandela, it is an ethos that is rejected and reviled by the small bands of wannabe revolutionaries, many in red berets, swarming our campuses and apparently eager to foment a racial conflagration.

Jansen is by no means the first vice-chancellor who has left SA for calmer shores overseas and will certainly not be the last. Although he had from outset stated that he would lead UFS for only seven years, Jansen also concedes in a University World News report that the ongoing campus turmoil has exacted “incredible human costs”, especially on university leaders.

He describes himself as something of a Pollyanna, who always looks on the bright side, and is positive about the future of SA. But the actual picture he sketches is unremittingly gloomy.

“I’m not sure I want to be in higher education leadership anymore … the future looks very bleak. Our top universities will become like the bottom half of our universities and I don’t see anything that changes that scenario going into the future.”

Jansen says that the current campus chaos, exacerbated by government underfunding, is destroying universities. “We are in a period of chronic instability that’s going to drive away top professors and middle-class students. That I can promise you.”

Jansen’s counterpart at the University of the Witwatersrand, Professor Adam Habib, identifies a society-wide lack of accountability as the problem. Speaking at a book fair in Johannesburg last week, he reportedly said that violence had become more prevalent because there weren’t enough consequences.

“When violence erupts at Wits, it takes me four to five hours to get the police active. When they arrive, they look at me and say they are not sure what to do.”

He added that Wits has handed over to the police the names of students who have been identified as being involved in the destruction of property. Nothing has been done.

Habib describes the upheavals in a recent Sunday Times article as “a culture of rage” sweeping the country. He warns that however understandable the causes of it might be, political excess doesn’t only flourish on the right of the political spectrum.

“The excesses of the extreme and unaccountable left can be as devastating for society… Stalin, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Pol Pot and even Idi Amin all started on the pretext of advancing the interests of the poor.”

Jansen, in similar vein, describes the students destroying statues and art works as our very own Taliban.

Pol Pot. The Taliban. Who would want to be a VC in SA today?

Farewell, Pollyanna, we are poorer for your departure.

Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye

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