Low expectation leads to PhDs now being on trial

PALLO Jordan’s saga about his academic qualifications has been more revealing about the divergent ethical approaches and expectations we hold about public officials. A number of high profile individuals came to Jordan’s defence even before he had given an explanation or offered an apology for deceiving the South African public.

Possibly, to a significant degree, Jordan’s perceived greatness could be attributed to our psychological biases and limits, where we use our low bar to measure excellence.

In any case, the designation “intellectual” should not give anyone license to lie or entitlement to have academic qualifications attached to their names.

The moot question is, if Jordan did not need a PhD to occupy the space he occupied, why did he see the need to appropriate this title falsely?

In many instances a doctorate earns one social power, and commands influence and attention. As such, it indirectly opens doors to social and material opportunities. It must have afforded Jordan a supreme place in many people’s imaginations and perceptions, so much so that even when he erred they would give him the benefit of the doubt.

The various rationalisations that many have offered in defence of Jordan – including rubbishing the significance of a PhD – are an expression of mediocre thinking and low ethical expectations for public figures.

As a result, we are now faced with a very awkward situation where it is academic achievement, in particular PhDs, that are on trial.

To his credit, Jordan has since apologised. However, the high profile figures who rationalised his deception have egg on their faces. To defend a lie and dress it up in respectability, is an indictment of society’s frame of reference for excellence.

Jordan’s messy saga is especially dispiriting as it comes on the heels of a number of qualification scandals including SABC chief operating officer, Hlaudi Motsoeneng; SABC board chair, Zandile Tshabalala; and the Sanral chair, Tembakazi Mnyaka.

We cannot say with one part of our tongues that we value education – which comes with rigorous evaluation and qualifications – and with another say it is an insignificant matter that Jordan uses an academic title he does not possess, because he is claimed to be an intellectual, subjectively.

We need to introspect ourselves and the kind of value system that make us lower our standards when confronted with an awe-inspiring political figure who committed terrible errors of judgment. Very soon we will find ourselves not only tolerating mediocrity in society, but also communicating a message to the younger generation that it is fine to lie, as long as your other talents keep shining.

Integrity gets scorched in the frenzy of celebrity worship.

Dr Mzukisi Qobo is deputy director of the Centre for the Study of Governance Innovation at the University of Pretoria and a senior lecturer in international political economy