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Jansen prophesies academic ruination
Article from Noseweek Magazine June 2016.
In his address to the Franschoek Literary festival in May, Jonathan Jansen quipped that his work as Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Free State was the second most difficult job in the world after that of National Assembly Speaker.
“Right now, I should be spending time raising R100 million to fund students at my university. I should be developing curricula. I should be meeting with scholars to urge them to come to my university. But I’ve recently had to cancel three meetings with top international scholars in order to deal with constant protests and instability.”
Three days later, Jansen announced that he is to step down from his post as Vice-Chancellor and Rector at the end of August, to take up a Fellowship at the Centre for Advanced Studies in the Behavioural Sciences at Stanford University in the USA. The UFS said his departure was a great loss, but an opportunity for him to further his career as an internationally renowned education academic.
To those who had attended his Franschhoek talk, the announcement came as no great surprise, given what he had told them about the state and plight of university leadership in a year in which South Africa’s campuses have erupted in protests over a range of issues, culminating in millions of rands’ damage, abusive confrontations with staff, violent clashes with security personnel and police, and running battles between student groups.
“Many 18-year-olds, arriving at universities, have already participated in burning schools… and they think it is normal to burn things. On top of that, when young people turn on their televisions, they see the spectacle of impunity and incivility that is Parliament.
“Professors are trained to teach, to develop curricula, to write books, to manage budgets. Now, what we are doing is managing security forces. We are dealing with angry students, anxious parents, and managing right-wing alumni and left-wing alumni.”
Jansen said he had recently interviewed four of the ten vice-chancellors in South Africa and had discovered that none wants to stay in the job. Vice-chancellors were no longer sure whether the benefits of being leaders of universities outweighed the costs, he said. Much of the anger related to conflict on and off campuses was transferred to the leadership. “It becomes personal… and is also directed at family members, often on the social media… You get your heart broken in a million pieces but you have to keep picking up… for the sake of higher education.” Vice-chancellors were not accustomed to the new anger being expressed on campuses, he said.
Following President Jacob Zuma’s announcement that there would be no fee increases, Jansen embarked on a mission to raise R100m in bursaries for 1,000 students, but in recent months he had spent all his time dealing with security issues. “The problem is, you are not a vice-chancellor anymore.”
He felt as if he was constantly playing a US arcade game called whack a mole in which players hit pop-up toy moles with a mallet: “You are always having to anticipate and manage crisis after crisis,” he said, adding: “We are in very serious trouble.”
On the bright side, his mission to raise R100m was going well, he said, with “major” funding in the bag. “It takes persistent, back-breaking work, but we’re confident that by the end of 2017, we should reach our goal,”.
Jansen, in his recent book, Leading for Change: Race, Intimacy and Leadership on Divided University Campuses, looks at the current tensions on campuses and at transforming leadership and higher education by employing physical, intellectual and emotional closeness with young people.
However, Jansen says he has been overcome by pessimism. He predicts it is “a matter of years” before our universities will have been reduced to mere “teacher training colleges”. He foresees that within ten years South African universities will become almost exclusively black. And that the top professors on the campuses will start walking away.
In a matter of years universities will have been reduced to teacher training colleges
“At UCT, for instance, about ten professors give the university its excellent reputation. If you take away Prof Bongani Majosi (Medicine) and Prof George Ellis (Mathematics) and a few others… you are soon reduced to a campus of ordinary lecturers who do not have the mobility that comes with offers from international universities.”
The next development is when middle-class students start leaving because of declining quality of education and security concerns. “The rich will go elsewhere, to private universities.”
Jansen advocates a two-pronged approach at universities. He says bringing people together in forgiveness and reconciliation is not enough; simultaneously we must deal with social justice, poverty and inequality. “It has to be done in tandem.”
What should the government be doing to save our universities? “Not interfering (except in dysfunctional institutions), funding adequately and addressing root causes of instability on campus by, for example, [providing] models of leadership for students in public behaviour, eg. Parliament.”
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