South Africa’s dysfunctional universities
What happens when those responsible for managing universities cannot trust each other to act with integrity? In a nutshell, as I discuss in my new book, Corrupted: A study of chronic dysfunction in South African universities, dysfunction is the consequence.
This is the situation playing out in some South African universities – sometimes with fatal results. In early January 2023, a protection officer who was guarding Fort Hare University vice-chancellor Professor Sakhela Buhlungu was shot dead in an apparent assassination attempt. The shooting has been linked to ongoing investigations into corruption at the university.
This appears to be just one example of how eroded trust has led to conflict among university managers that’s spilled into the public domain.
The principal conclusion I reach in my book is that chronic dysfunction in a sample of South African universities can be explained by two intertwined factors. One is institutional capacity. This is the expert ability to lead, manage and administer universities. The other is institutional integrity – the steering academic values that buffer universities against instability. Where both capacity and integrity are weak, dysfunction is inevitable.
Individual integrity involves a person acting honestly and doing the right thing. It means consistency in the values that connect words and actions.
An institution with integrity has been described as:
an organisation that defines and acts within a strong code of ethical conduct and positive values.
It doesn’t tolerate deviance from the code by its employees or partners.
Universities with high levels of institutional integrity vigorously pursue their core mandate. This is rooted in a strong sense of academic values. It is the glue that holds functional universities together and focuses their operations. Those academic values also steady an institution in turbulent times.
Such values centre on high-quality teaching, higher learning and cutting-edge research. Together these values advance social and human development. They are prominent on management’s weekly meetings agendas, on senate’s term meetings and on council’s quarterly meetings. Everything revolves around the academic project.
The case of student protests
One of the most important functions of academic values is to hold the institution together in times of challenge. For instance, how does an institution react when the integrity of the academic degree is at risk because of a prolonged shutdown?
In 2015 and 2016, students embarked on historic protests at campuses across South Africa. They demanded free and decolonised higher education. The press for free higher education arose because degree studies were becoming more expensive. This excluded more and more people from university. The decolonisation movement at formerly white universities protested that the curriculum was too European, the professors too white, and the institutional culture too alienating.
In response to the disruptions, the better-resourced, formerly white universities quickly transitioned to emergency remote teaching to ensure that the academic year was not lost. This highlights the importance of academic values to those institutions.
By contrast, in 2021, after a dysfunctional university specialising in the health sciences was shut down by routine protests for months on end, the students received their degrees as if nothing had happened.
The academic project was seriously compromised. But there was little institutional concern about the integrity of the degrees.
It is quite possible to see a structure or an organisation and to misrecognise it as an institution of higher learning. It would be easy to be fooled by the symbolic functions – like graduation – and administrative routines – such as registration – of university life and mistake these for a university. As I have argued elsewhere, a university ceases to exist when the intellectual project no longer defines its identity, infuses its curriculum, energises its scholars, and inspires its students.
When integrity is undermined
The crisis of dysfunctional institutions commonly arises when universities make compromised decisions on everything from tenders for infrastructure to appointments of key personnel. Such decisions compound foundational weaknesses and increase the risk of systemic failure. This is how institutional dysfunction begins and is sustained: through the breaching of institutional integrity.
The institutional integrity of vulnerable institutions is weakened, for example, through the decisions it makes about personnel appointments and promotions. Critical skill sets are compromised by populating crucial positions in administration with friends and family members. In one instance, as I document in the book, a whistle-blower at a serially dysfunctional university gave the new administrator “a list of all the family members appointed by the vice-chancellor”. Action was promised. None was taken.
The integrity of the academy is undermined even more when people who would not enjoy such elevation at an established university are promoted to senior academic positions in the name of equity.
And the governance of an institution is placed at serious risk through the appointment to council of junior members who have never governed anything in their lives. A university council is the most senior body responsible for governance. It should consist of senior people from professional fields with the experience to govern a higher education institution.
Tackling the crisis
There is no shortcut to restoring the institutional integrity of a chronically dysfunctional university.
It requires the appointment of smaller, professional councils without political interference. It demands competent leaders who are not beholden to political parties or factions. These leaders must hold strong convictions about the importance of academic values in the gradual rebuilding of a university.