Racism at Free State – anticipating the future

If we consider ideological blindness, we recognise that there are always exceptions to the rule. Recent events at the University of the Free State, taken as evidence of the participants' attitudes, suggest to us that white and black, especially younger South Africans living in our region continue to battle with the legacy of the past. Their perceptions are that they have been used, abused and conveniently forgotten: indeed, black and white youths feel they have been invalidated and abandoned in a fast-changing, demanding and globalising world. These perceptions feed dynamics which are then reinforced by indoctrination and prejudice within their homes, churches and schools, as well as by their political leaders and community organisations. As construct psychologists like Cummins (2003) have argued, individuals who feel invalidated and-or wilfully abandoned will experience anxiety, anger, hostility and violence. We add another consequence: racism.

These dynamics have to be viewed against the backdrop of overwhelming media reports on murders, rapes, corruption, political parties persistently skewing difficult issues for opportunistic political gain, the frustrations of non-delivery in almost all spheres of life, and the perception that our living spaces have become hostile and life-threatening, to name a few. Everyone is appalled, except the leaders and managers who escape being held accountable for their non-delivery.

In a recent article in Rapport, Professor Willie Esterhuyse used the elephant metaphor to depict the syndrome of racism which is part of the lives of white and black South Africans in very different ways. In Esterhuyse's view: "Almal weet daar is 'n olifant. Hoe kan jy dit miskyk? Maar hulle wil liewers nie daaroor praat nie." [Translated: Everyone knows that there is an elephant. How can they not see it? However, they would rather not talk about it.]. Ruth Frankenberg (1993) refers to this attitude as colour evasiveness, which implies that stakeholders actively avoid confronting the nature and scope of the problem.

Race-related constructs are so contentious that some stakeholders at UFS seem unwilling to confront the meanings that they assign to this very prominent dimension of their experience, especially in the public domains of both the workplace and student life. To date, management at the institution has not sufficiently interrogated these meanings, nor have they actively pursued strategies so that staff and students may generate shared meanings (common ground and visions) in shared spaces within the institution.

This problem is exacerbated by the political polarisation that has been taking place in South African society, to the right and the left, driven by extreme and highly vocal groups. Universities are increasingly becoming battlegrounds for political gain, and this process creates a polarised atmosphere on campuses, crowding out the moderate middle ground, and subverting the role and function of the university in its specific context. These dynamics impact on institutions both in their local and global connectedness.

Capacity constraints

Next, let us consider capacity constraints in higher education. Firstly, unrealistic expectations captured in higher education policies, developed by the government, have set up the higher education system and universities for policy implementation overload and possible failure. Policies become impracticable when the human and financial constraints at all levels of higher education compromise success. This factor is specifically relevant at the University of the Free State where, from a resources perspective, the institution belongs in the category ‘poorest of the poor’.

Universities such as UFS were isolated during apartheid from international trends. This meant that, with the exception of some academics and researchers, many of them did not change their higher education practices for a very long time during and then after apartheid. They were not prepared for new approaches, for example, to teaching, learning and student life in post-1994 South Africa. This lack of new knowledge and information about higher education trends and factors created a vacuum that was filled by a range of political agendas opposing change, especially outcomes-based approaches. The lack of capacity today, one of the consequences of apartheid, implies that higher education may again be exploited by political opportunists whose objectives are either overtly or covertly attuned to subverting change, instead of their contributing to developing the system based on sound higher education theory and practice.

There are many of these trends and factors in the debate on higher education such as:

1- Demographics: skills shortages, ‘massification’ and so on, which impact on higher education.
2- Economics: funding, global competition, ranking and rating aligned with third stream income etc.
3- Environment: climate change, environmental degradation, student migration, ‘brain drain’, an increasing gini coefficient, global needs-interests in conflict with or aligned with local needs-interests in education.

In the South African context, these contentious issues have been marginalised as priorities in favour of debates on issues such as academic freedom, institutional autonomy and accountability, as well as higher education policy positions referring to a ‘single coordinated education system’, ‘cooperative governance’ and the firm ‘steering’ of the higher education system by government.

Anticipating the future

Bearing in mind these capacity constraints, is there a way forward for UFS? We believe, in anticipating the future, that we should begin with the re-conceptualisation of this university as an institution in our specific context. We have to consider the positioning of the university in its environment, and how its specific context promotes (or should promote) a specific institutional culture. Importantly, we have to consider how this process is complicated by a multitude of sub-cultures in academic (faculties) and student life (Reitz residence). These sub-cultures often tend to develop outside the institutional culture, prompting management to maintain a myriad of communication channels which have to be, often under the most difficult circumstances, to manage these groups' activities.

Firstly, UFS should address the issue of governance, and we have to question whether members of council, senate, the institutional forum, the student representative council and top management have the competencies to deal effectively and efficiently with the changed and changing demands of the post-1994 higher education landscape.

Regardless of capacity constraints, governance structures at all levels (academic and otherwise) in the institution have to establish shared spaces where staff and students (of diverse backgrounds) may actively engage one another to combat ideological blindness, build common ground, and disabuse themselves of dysfunctional race-based reasoning. One of the negatives to be addressed in the current scenario is parallel-medium instruction which has had a disparate impact: unintentionally, this policy has segregated students on the grounds of language. This is specifically relevant in the light of the changed demographic composition of the student population.

It is astonishing, if not overwhelming, to consider the problem-solving and decision-making tasks that face higher education governance structures in the context of their core role and task as universities. This list is endless: students and learning; opportunity and inclusiveness; scholarship and research; community and connectivity; partnership and outreach; integrity and stewardship; quality and excellence; equity, diversity and redress; financial sustainability; regional cooperation and engagement; outward thrust, nationally and internationally; global pressures for and against change in higher education; strategic contingency plans to circumvent financial disaster; responding to competitive threats; visionary leadership; threatened markets; organisational pressures; benchmark performance; organisational inertia; comfort zones; the impact of fear on stakeholders; lack of knowledge and skills in multiple domains; lack of pay-off; day-to-day focus in decision-making; stakeholder arrogance as they push specific agendas; and so forth.

It is clear that these challenges require exceptionally high levels of proven competence in an equally endless range of higher education domains. Governing a university, DW Leslie (2003) states, requires that academic managers at all levels have to be able to deal with the following broadly formulated, yet formidable tasks:

1- Balancing legitimacy and effectiveness.
2- Leading along two dimensions: getting work done and engaging people.
3- Differentiating between formal university structures and the functions of universities as they adapt and evolve.
4- Bridging the divergence between cultural and operational imperatives of the bureaucratic and professional sides of the university.

Research on these potential ‘fault lines’ at UFS (and any other institutions) would significantly contribute to improving governance not only at the institution, but elsewhere in the country, the continent and globally. The Centre for Higher Education Transformation (CHET 2007) has been pursuing these issues in practical terms in the context of research on performance indicators within two focal areas.

The first encapsulates a standard profile of each of the 23 public higher education institutions in South Africa. Their research also considers ways in which 23 institutions can be clustered into peer groups enabling university councils to compare the performance of their institutions to the average of performance at similar institutions.
This research by CHET can be of immense value for UFS to engage in efficient and effective governance.

The second issue relates to a range of related processes: diversity, diversification and differentiation, desperately needed at a university such as UFS. According to Frans Van Vught (2007), universities have to be open systems, responsive to their environments; thus, the diversity within a university system has to reflect the external environment from which it receives its inputs. His critical perspectives are captured in the following four assumptions and two propositions (Van Vught 2007, 8-12):

Assumption 1: Organisations for higher education receive inputs from, and produce outputs for, their environments.
Assumption 2: In order to survive, higher education organisations need to secure a continuous and sufficient supply of resources from their environments.
Assumption 3: When scarcity of resources exists, higher education organisations compete with each other to secure a continuous and sufficient supply of resources.
Assumption 4: Higher education organisations both influence and are influenced by their environmental conditions.

Proposition I: The larger the uniformity of the environmental conditions of higher education organisations, the lower the level of diversity of the higher education system.
Proposition 2: The larger the influence of academic norms and values in a higher education organisation, the lower the level of diversity of the higher education system.

There is evidence of these processes of diversification at UFS, including a highly successful Career Preparation Programme, an academic literacy project aimed at promoting access, numerous community projects, a host of community service learning initiatives, and various capacity development initiatives to promote equity and redress, aligned with performance management. These initiatives are aimed at diversification and differentiation. UFS management should intensify their attempts to build and extend this reciprocal relationship between the university and its environment.

Van Vught's reasoning is appealing, and should be an imperative of a university such as UFS, and other universities in this region: they could benefit from diversity because it offers better access to a wider variety of students; provides more social mobility through multiple modes of entry and forms of transfer; better meets the diverse needs of the labour market; serves the political needs of a larger number of interest groups (and creates political stability); permits the combination of elite and mass higher education; increases the effectiveness of higher education institutions (allowing for institutional specialisation); and offers more opportunities for experimenting with innovation. These processes should prompt participants at all levels to seek opportunities to generate and celebrate valued and shared meanings in shared spaces in the institution.

Finally, in its history of more than a century, UFS's role and function have been defined and redefined at various stages of its and the country's development. As before, the institution needs a new vision of excellence, equity and redress, optimally synchronised with the demands of its region and its environment (it cannot be all things to all people). It needs to realise that if it does not focus its efforts as an institution and what it stands for on the needs of its specific context, environment and this period of history, the broader ideological differences of radical groups may destroy the progress we have made, and cause more frustration and polarisation.

A new vision at the UFS should recognise its new ‘majority’ profile, consisting of mainly bilingual, first-generation students within the majority community who have very specific needs-interests. UFS has the opportunity to position itself not as "the Harvard or the University of Cape Town" of the central, mainly rural, region of South Africa, but as an excellent university optimally responsive to and grappling with contentious issues (such as racism), and profitably engaging peers globally and locally on these and other issues.

* Professor Kalie Strydom is head of the Centre for Higher Education Studies and Development at the University of the Free State.


CHET Seminar: Indicators to improve governance. Irene, South Africa, 2 November 2007.
Cummins, P (2003) Working with anger. p83-94 in Fransella, F (2003) (ed.) International handbook of personal construct psychology. John Wiley and Sons: Chichester.
Esterhuyse, W (2008) "Die Olifant in ons sitkamer". Published on 8 March 2008 on the Rapport website.
Frankenberg, R (1993) White women race matters: The social construction of whiteness. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
Leslie, DW (2003) “Governance or governing?” A paper presented at the Roundtable on Governance in Higher Education, Sante Fe, New Mexico.
Van Vught, F (2007) Diversity and differentiation in higher education systems. Paper delivered at the CHET anniversary conference, Cape Town, 16 November 2007.