How universities are governed is the biggest challenge

The stories emerging about black students' experiences in South African universities are nothing short of tragic. Stellenbosch University students have released a film called Luister – Listen – which documents their experiences of racist and exclusionary behaviour.

Students at the University of Cape Town created the Rhodes Must Fall movement in early 2015. Their campaign for institutional transformation has been mimicked elsewhere, even reaching Oxford University.

All of this shows that many South African universities are not perceived as open and safe spaces by the majority of those they are supposed to serve.

This undercuts the whole purpose and role of higher education in a democratic South Africa. Universities should be a space for free thinking where knowledge generation and societal development go hand in hand.

So how best can the country’s universities effect change without undercutting what makes many of them excellent? Many are well regarded internationally for their research output and teaching. They are sites of innovation, creativity and entrepreneurialism. Their academics are trusted collaborators and partners in international initiatives.

How can the higher education sector guard against proposed changes being merely superficial quick fixes? At least part of the answer may lie in institutional governance.

A three-fold restructuring

Three major ideas have been batted about as being necessary for transformation.

These are to increase the number of black academics in universities, to offer studies in languages that are most common to South African students and to reform the curriculum so it takes more local knowledge and African thinkers into account.

These are all important, but a coherent discussion is also needed about how universities are governed and how this could be changed to help institutions become more inclusive and friendly.

Decisions about curriculum and other academic matters rest with university senates. The real power, though, lies in the hands of university councils and management. They control the purse strings.

This kind of governance environment skews decision-making and imparts a natural bias towards centralised authority. A more inclusive approach is necessary.

For starters, we must cast a critical eye over the composition of university senates. These are an institution’s highest academic decision-making body and could be an important site to effect transformation. In South Africa, senates are largely the domains of professors.

By right, full professors are normally members of the senate with a smattering of support staff, students and elected representatives from other academic ranks. Given how few black professors there are in South Africa, it’s easy to imagine what these spaces look like.

This structure, taken directly from the United Kingdom’s practice, is hardly relevant in post-apartheid South Africa. Universities in South Africa need to rethink the form of this important decision-making body. In North America, for instance, most universities have elected senates that are representative bodies of academics, support staff and students.

Democratising senates and making them more representative of what universities actually look like is a great step towards eventual transformation.

This means taking away the automatic right of all full professors to sit on the senate and making it a democratic space with a more fair distribution of representatives from different academic ranks, student groups and support staff.

Surely this will improve decision-making and ensure that relevant and important voices are heard.

Councils must back off

A second governance reform would be to reconsider the role of university councils. These entities, like corporate boards, should be focused on strategic decision-making and ensuring sound fiscal management.

The government changed its policy after apartheid and empowered councils to get more involved in universities' daily affairs. The rationale was that those council members appointed by the government would be sensitive to the necessity of diversifying a largely white academy.

It was a good idea at the time, but unfortunately it hasn’t played out as intended.

The first problem has been the government’s approach to funding universities. They have demanded that the number of students be increased – but increased funding at below inflation rates. This pressure has pushed councils away from engaging in strategic initiatives and instead seen them focusing on budget line items.

Another problem arises when council appointees adopt a corporate mindset to university governance (and to ideas about transformation).

For instance, a number of councils are pushing for annual quantitative measurement systems around research, teaching and service. This is inappropriate and distracts from what universities are about: knowledge generation and social development, both of which are often hard to measure in the short-term.

University councils need to return to their arm's length roles and allow internal governance structures to get down to the business of transformation.

Decentralise power

A third and final governance reform in aid of transformation would involve decentralising the power of senior university management. Despite statutory safeguards, much authority is centralised with vice-chancellors and their deputies. For transformation to really be effective, it needs to be an initiative owned and driven by everyone.

Universities are microcosms of society. They are a community where different stakeholders – students, academic staff, support staff and others – contribute to its functioning. This needs to be recognised more coherently and appropriately in governance structures.

In such a context, what is needed are senior university managers who act as leaders, facilitate the deliberations of a more democratic and representative governance structure, and promote change, not individuals who are concerned with their own power and authority. This will require a culture shift among senior university leaders.

South African higher education needs to get to grips with transformation. There is no silver bullet, but rethinking how our universities are governed must be central to our efforts.

* David J Hornsby is a senior lecturer in international relations and assistant dean of humanities at the University of the Witwatersrand.

* This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.