The human costs of student tumult – An untold story

The “incredible human costs” of student protests in South Africa in the past two years has been missed amid the turmoil, for students and staff and especially for university leaders, says Professor Jonathan Jansen, whose resignation as vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State was announced last week – and as campuses countrywide continued burning.

The 2015 mass #FeesMustFall movement, which united students across race and class and achieved a one-year freeze on fee hikes along with increased state funding, has fractured into sporadic, politicised and often violent protests with arson. Last week buildings burned, among others, at the University of Johannesburg and the University of Fort Hare, which was celebrating its centenary.

The kind of turmoil universities have experienced takes a high human toll, not only on campus leaders but also their families. “Why is nobody talking about this?” asked Jansen during a session on “Leading in Complexity and Change: Transforming the higher education sector” at the 2016 Inyathelo Leadership Retreat held in Cape Town last month*.

“It is incredibly difficult to understand deeply what has just happened to us.” Everybody has theories. However, “the first discourse must not be theory in the grand sense but has to be an understanding – a deep, descriptive and analytical understanding – of what people go through in leadership on a day-to-day basis. And I don’t think we have that.”

Jansen said he had set up interviews with vice-chancellors who had been at the heart of student action, and had started with an outstanding interview with Max Price, vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town. “I will also, to misquote Nelson Mandela, have ‘conversations with myself’ to try and understand deeply what’s going on.”

“We throw out things about Gramsci and Fanon and God knows who. But actually we don’t really know what drives this particular foment in higher education. So I’m going to take off a year and go and try and think about this and write it up and share it hopefully.”

Off to study

Jansen is a globally recognised scholar of education and a prolific author and newspaper columnist who is widely respected across South Africa. He is known for a conciliatory approach to racial conflict and efforts to transform the university.

Since Jansen took over as vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State in July 2014, there have been increases in student success and graduation rates, in the proportion of academics with PhDs, in research outputs, staff diversity and third-stream income, said council chair Judge Ian van der Merwe in a statement last Monday, regretfully announcing his departure.

His loss is also a blow for the country, as Jansen will leave the vice-chancellorship at the end of August to become a fellow in the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University in the US. He was awarded the fellowship earlier this year.

In his own statement (in Afrikaans), Jansen said it has always been his intention to lead Free State for seven years – he had told the council and staff of this intention years ago, including when he was appointed to a second term in 2014. This year is his seventh.

There is no doubt that Jansen has come under enormous pressure, as have his fellow vice-chancellors. Now he will spend time seeking a deep understanding of what has transpired.

Some lessons on leading in difficult circumstances

Jansen talked about lessons he had learned on leading a university in very difficult circumstances.

One was what the Japanese called ‘amoebic leadership’, referring to the single celled organism that can change its shape. “You really have to change in relation to what the situation on the ground demands.” The rules for managing a university in South Africa had changed in the past two years, Jansen said, and the job had become “very difficult”.

There had been leaders, for example, who had insisted on only talking to the representatives of elected student and worker bodies. But vice-chancellors quickly found themselves on the back foot because damage done was not necessarily by the student representative council or staff union. “It was done by people outside of those formal structures.”

“So you’ve got to learn to lead very quickly in this amoebic form of leadership. The problem with the amoeba of course, as a friend at New York University told me, is that it doesn’t have a spine,” laughed Jansen.

“The second thing, and this is something that I’ve personally had to come to grips with over the past two months, is that no matter how much you think you’ve done right, there are things beyond your control.” Even for a university that has moved fast to change its symbolism, culture and communications.

“Now that’s hard for a South African man, because you like to think you’re in control of everything. Which has always been untrue but it's especially untrue in the context of what just happened. So here’s a lesson in humility I think for leadership in universities.”

He gave as an example student calls for the removal of statues that are historically offensive, such as the #RhodesMustFall movement at the University of Cape Town. “I didn’t think that a thinking university such as Free State should just break down its statues. I think that’s the stuff the Taliban does.”

What Jansen did was raise money to send student leaders to Germany and Poland, including Auschwitz, to figure out how the Germans – particularly the Jewish community – dealt with symbolism following national socialism, and to return with ideas.

He gave the example of a campus statue of apartheid leader CR Swart. One way to deal with this was to list the crimes he committed next to the bust and, a short distance away, erect a statue of a person who fought for democracy.

“Soon you have a pedagogical situation rather than the removal of memory. Well, all of that overtook us of course, in the crisis that followed a rugby match.”

In February there was tumult at Free State after (black) student and staff protestors marched onto a field where an inter-university rugby match was being played. Infuriated (white) students and parents ran onto the field and assaulted some of the protestors. The clash sparked more protests, during which students torched the CR Swart statue.

“The third thing I had to learn very quickly was that you dare not as a leader respond on the terms of the protestors,” said Jansen, describing himself as a traditional South African who grew up in a home – albeit in the sprawling, poor and tough ganglands of Cape Town – where people were respected regardless of their race and older people were valued.

“Even in the most difficult circumstances, I’ve insisted with students and staff that there must be a degree of civility in the way that we interact with each other. Well, that’s gone out of the window in this country, as you know.

“This is a period of incivility, in politics, in everyday interaction. And we make a mistake in thinking that when students come onto campus they’ve left the community, in which they are subjected very often to these very harsh incivilities that I speak of.

“It has been absolutely crucial for me, even though I insist on a degree of decorum and respect in the way we interact with each other, to not go down to the level of some of the protestors in which the politics of humiliation is very much part of the game.”

A fourth matter learned very quickly involves social media, on which Jansen is very active. “You’re on a hiding to nothing if you try to compete with students in the social messaging space. Forget it. You will lose. They’ve got more time than you, and they’re smarter than you. And so your strategy has to be very different,” Jansen told the retreat.

“One of the mistakes leaders make is to confuse the mechanics of change with the messaging about change. When you communicate with 32,000 students your message has to be very simple, very compassionate and very clear.” You can work out the details later. “Very often we lose when we don’t understand how young people think, particularly about messaging.

“Let me also say this to fellow vice-chancellors: don’t try and control the social media space. Don’t try to make rules about what students can and cannot say. You’re going to lose. Don’t take them to court. You’re wasting your time. There are many more important things to do.”

A fifth lesson Jansen learned was that “a few people can do great damage to the interests of the majority. The majority of our students are not racist. The majority of our students are not confrontational. But all you need is for a bunch of lunatics on both sides of the racial divide and you’re in serious trouble as an institution.”

Sixth, said Jansen, when a university is old – Free State is 114 years old – “you cannot change the cultural and ideological DNA of that institution in 10 or 20 years. Those things are very, very deeply embedded.” The entrenched institutional culture was moulded under apartheid, and this meant that every two or three years there would be an incident.

“The problem with South Africa is that we think we can resolve racial problems on an incident-to-incident basis. You can’t actually. You have to deal with this at a systemic institutional level and that takes a huge amount of time.

“The test of transformation is whether, when there is a crisis, students in particular regroup in racial blocks or whether there is – as we had two years ago – solidarity against racism.” In 2014 there was unity against two white students who side-swiped senior student Muzi Gwebu while driving recklessly, and then assaulted him when he approached the car. Now, not so much.

Higher education under threat

Jansen said one of the most important papers written recently was by Professor Nico Cloete et al. It pointed out that a problem in this country “is that we circle the analysis, either around ourselves as South Africans or around countries in Western Europe. That’s a big mistake. We need to circle the analysis around what’s happened on the continent of Africa.”

“I’m a bit of a Pollyanna. I always see the good in people and I’m always very positive about our country. But I’m not sure I want to be in higher education leadership anymore.

“There are two things that are not resolved that are going to destroy the higher education sector. Let me speak for the university for a minute.”

Jansen said he had the privilege of working in Zimbabwe post-independence, where his PhD fieldwork was done, and had worked at other universities around Africa.

“There are two things that destroy a university and I don’t know how this gets resolved.”

The first problem was instability across campuses. “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.”

The second problem was under-funding. “That’s not going to go away. I think government is stone deaf to almost everything we’ve said over the past few years, and trying to solve this problem with temporary solutions to an immediate political situation is not going to work.

“So 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.”

* The 2016 Inyathelo Leadership Retreat, held from 4-5 April in Cape Town, was titled “Strategies in Fast Changing Societies: How do universities adapt (or die)?” Jansen shared a platform with professors Yunus Ballim, vice-chancellor of Sol Plaatje University, and Prins Nevhutalu, vice-chancellor of Cape Peninsula University of Technology, in their session on “Leading in Complexity and Change”. The retreat was co-hosted by Inyathelo – the South African Institute for Advancement, funded by The Kresge Foundation – Universities South Africa and the Cape Higher Education Consortium.