University split over ‘racist’ academic promotion criteria

Sep 4, 2019 by

Africa’s largest open distance learning institution, the University of South Africa (UNISA), is embroiled in an internal struggle between staff unions and executive management over its so-called “transformational” academic promotion criteria that some view as a legitimate way to boost the numbers of senior black academics and achieve equity, but others see as “lowering the bar” and “racist”.

Although the criteria were approved by Council on 19 June, concerns have now been raised about plans by the university’s executive management, led by Vice-Chancellor Professor Mandla Makhanya, to “rescind” the council decision.

In a series of statements to University World News, the UNISA branch of the Academic and Professional Staff Association (APSA), which played a major role in driving through the new criteria, said they have “no confidence anymore in the current university leadership and the crisis deepen every single day because of very questionable decisions they make”.

APSA Branch Secretary Dr Rendani Netanda said last week there were fears that despite agreement with organised labour and representatives of university management on the need for the promotion criteria to achieve redress across the entire institution, “APSA have now learned, with great shock, that the university wants to persuade the Council to rescind its resolution adopted on the 19th of June 2019.

“This confirms the depth of [the] leadership crisis in UNISA and it has a potential to amount to chaos if not well intervened.”

In a message to all academics on Friday 30 August, he said: “… the whistle has be loudly blown that there is an attempt by management to reverse the implementation of transformation criteria in all colleges except in the College of Law and Accounting Sciences.” [sic]

Netanda told University World News that there were also further “doubts” on the part of APSA raised by the vice-chancellor’s rejection of a collective decision reached in the UNISA Bargaining Forum to backdate appointments made during the current call for applications to 1 January 2019. He said the reason provided was that the Senex had approved appointments from 1 April instead of 1 January.

Process

University World News understands that there is some unhappiness among certain staff, not only about the impact of the criteria on education quality, accreditation prospects and institutional budgets, but around the process which led to the adoption of the promotion criteria, which originated from the College of Law but were subsequently applied to the university as a whole. News about the new council-approved criteria reached all staff in the form of an emailed call for applications for ad hominem promotions.

According to Netanda, the criteria, applicable for three years (ie 2019-21) for both the colleges of law and accounting sciences, were approved by Council on 24 April 2019. However, he said staff “held the common view that it is unfair to use the criteria in only the College of Law and the College of Accounting Sciences while the other five colleges have the same challenges.

“… Both organised labour and the university management negotiated and eventually agreed that a more or less similar transformation promotion criteria must be applicable across the whole university,” he said.

Criteria

The controversial promotion criteria were publicly castigated in an online newspaper column on 15 August by outspoken academic and former vice-chancellor Professor Jonathan Jansen who described them as racist and accused the university of “single-handedly destroying what is left of the academic project”.

In terms of the criteria, a senior lecturer needs a masters degree and three years’ teaching experience, while an associate professor needs a PhD, three years of ODeL (open distance e-learning) teaching, two research outputs in three years, three research outputs in five years, and no supervision (supervision forms part of the research output).

Jansen wrote that a black person “with any self-respect” would not apply for promotion on such a basis. “This is a racist policy for a different reason – it does not believe that black people can excel like any other group of human beings given the same opportunities. We must enjoy special accommodation,” he wrote.

Almost any other university considering a promotion to associate professor would require evidence of substantive research over many years (15-20 journal articles and an academic book in the social sciences and humanities); a record of supervision of a number of doctoral and masters students; and a respectable research rating by the National Research Foundation, he said.

Echoes of an apartheid past

Jansen, a former vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State and a former dean of the University of Pretoria – both of which are formerly advantaged universities in South Africa – accused UNISA of doing what white Afrikaner nationalists had done during apartheid.

“They dropped the bar for promotions and generations of white, Afrikaans-speaking men became professors on the flimsiest of academic criteria and loyalty to the Afrikaner establishment. I know. I had to deal with the aftermath of white affirmative action at the University of Pretoria as dean and as vice-chancellor at the University of the Free State,” he wrote.

In response, APSA said Jansen’s understanding of the criteria was “indecent and incorrect and serves no liberal purpose but to mislead the masses and to cause disunion between blacks and whites”.

In a statement to University World News, the union said there were two types of academic promotion criteria used at UNISA: traditional generic guidelines applicable to qualified academics; and the transformational criteria applicable to the designated groups.

The transformational criteria were a “mature, conscious decision, and a product of drawn-out constructive discourses between the appropriate stakeholders and the university management which was constructed, amongst other grounds, on the need to comply with the Employment Equity Act 55 of 1998”.

They were also “informed” by statistical data showing that certain groups are not “equitably represented in various occupational categories and levels” and that UNISA “has not been fully compliant to the Act”.

According to APSA, the traditional generic criteria for appointments and promotions had not been repealed and were still open “for everyone (Africans, Indians, coloureds, women and people with disabilities) and whites”.

They had been “supplemented” by the three-year transformational criteria to “redress, expedite transformation and to promote equitable presentation across all occupational categories and grades”, it said.

According to APSA, in addition to the criteria listed by Jansen, other requirements were needed for promotion to associate professorship. These included “participation in … academic citizenship, community engagement, and teaching and learning as other critical areas that are carefully scrutinised prior to being promoted irrespective of whether the criteria are generic or transformational”.

Quality, not quantity

Disputing accusations of a “lowering of the bar”, APSA said: “A righteous and mature academic mind will find it stress-free to comprehend that what matters most in order to earn a promotion should not be Prof Jansen’s ‘quantity’ of outputs but the ‘quality’ inherent in the output.

“In the same line of thought, it is a narrowed view to define ‘seniority’ by merely looking at the number of years of experience as contested by Prof Jansen. Seniority must be defined by the excellence demonstrated as well as by one’s competency to simplistically cope with the complexity inherent in the job,” it said.

APSA accused Jansen’s argument of failing to appreciate the contributions made by senior UNISA academics without PhDs.

“It also didn’t take into cognisance that some of our high performing professors, mostly whites who got promoted during an old selective system, did not have PhDs and have been doing quite well in academia.”

At the time of publication, UNISA had not responded to inquiries about alleged plans to rescind the council decision.

However, in a statement received on 23 August in response to Jansen’s allegations, the university said it had “embarked on a consultative process engaging academics and the various stakeholder groups in the university as we believe that these conversations are essential in universities in their quest for transformation”.

“In the process a number of opinions and documents have emerged from a range of stakeholders in the university, including organised labour and the colleges. As the process of consultations continue, and submissions continue to be presented to management we believe that this has created confusion within the university and in the public domain via the media.

“While the currently in force University Guidelines for the Minimum Criteria for Promotion of Academic Employees (as approved by Senex in July 2018) are being interrogated we wish to stress that the university’s promotion criteria of Senex, July 2018, are quantitative guidelines and thus do not guarantee promotion, but set the framework for shortlisting candidates,” the university said.

UNISA said “qualitative aspects are as important [as quantitative] in determining the candidate’s readiness for promotion and are probed through the evaluation of required statements, evidence-based portfolios, reflections, presentations and other evidence and documents”.

In order to accommodate the diversity across disciplines and colleges, selection committees were required to “qualitatively evaluate the research portfolio”, it stated.

According to the statement, there were no promotions without publications, but the university focused on “research output units” rather than numbers of articles or publications.

“This means for example that the research output points for journal articles are proportionally divided among the numbers of co-authors … [and] … there cannot be any promotions in the absence of publications.”

Government regulation

The Department of Higher Education and Training confirmed by email that it did not have the authority to standardise academic promotion criteria across the sector. “This is the responsibility of individual universities which set their own criteria for promotion,” said spokesperson Ishmael Mnisi.

On Jansen’s allegations that the policy was racist and anti-transformation, Mnisi said: “The Department cannot respond to or evaluate the allegations of individual commentators.

“The Department seeks to support transformation of the university system through the development of a capable, demographically representative academic staff at universities across all levels of the academic career pipeline and has several programmes in place for this.”

Source: University split over ‘racist’ academic promotion criteria

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