Future of varsities hinges on thorny issue of security

It now is clear that the immediate future of our universities might hinge on how we think about security.

As one committed to the idea of the university as a free and open place for ideas, especially uncomfortable and marginal ones, the notion of security on campus sounds inimical to the very concept of what an institution of higher learning should be about.

And that is why those genuinely concerned about our public institutions are in two minds about the place of security on a university campus.

In normal circumstances, universities across the country and indeed around the world have very limited, often invisible security in place.

Campus security is unarmed and for the most part “security” is an office on campus where petty or even more serious crimes can be reported.

Since we still have campuses with open access, such as at UCT, it is possible for anyone to walk onto or off a campus without being questioned or stopped.

Needless to say, the open campuses are also high-risk campuses given rampant crime in communities around universities and throughout the country.

But in normal times, one is as likely to see a security officer accompany a woman student from the library to her residence late at night, as to file a report on a stolen cellphone from a bag in the science laboratory.

All that changed when students turned violent on some of our university campuses. Even then, academics at the open universities were often split when their senior leaders brought added security onto campuses. And when police came onto the campuses, there were for many academics flashbacks to the apartheid era when police were summoned onto campuses.

This ambivalence about added security or outright rejection of “the securitisation of campuses” is still heard today even as very visible evidence of violence started to mount at about a dozen universities.

So what does the senior management of a university do?

Here we need an honest assessment as to why the added security was necessary in the first place. It was to prevent physical harm to staff and students as well as the burning down of campuses.

Sometimes vice-chancellors exposed themselves to harm and humiliation when they operated on the assumption of peaceful protests; there are countless examples that could be raised here.

The reality is that the university leadership has a solemn responsibility to parents about the safety of their children; it is, I can assure you, a heavy burden to bear.

University managers also have a huge responsibility to society to protect public facilities essential to teaching and learning, examinations and graduations, studies and research.

For these enormous tasks, the normal campus security could not under any circumstances guarantee the safety of campus citizens and essential facilities.

As libraries burnt, residences were set on fire, an auditorium razed to the ground, computer laboratories wrecked, whole administration buildings reduced to ashes, and a petrol bomb lobbed through a vice-chancellor’s office, university leaders had two choices – they could allow the sacking of our campuses which already runs close to R1-billion or they could find ways to prevent the collapse of much-needed and very expensive campus facilities.

Make no mistake, these protests have become deadly and already the tragic loss of a worker’s life at Wits is being related to the protests.

The miracle of 2015-2016 is that more people have not died given the rising violence on and around campuses.

Our thinking about campus security in these deadly times has to change otherwise our facilities and our people are at huge risk.

In this regard there is a security concern that must be addressed – effective security on and around campuses that is disciplined and capable of managing protesting crowds even in the face of extreme provocation.

At the same time, the rights of the majority of students must be protected.

As the Wits poll showed, 77% of students want classes to continue.

Despite that evidence, a small minority continued to disrupt classes, assault non-protesting students and staff, and then coil into victimhood when faced by security.

That is disingenuous.

Sadly, institutions like UCT are more vulnerable than most because it is within their DNA as an open, liberal university to balk at the notion of added security and policing on and around their campuses.

The activists, not all of whom are students, know this and they are exploiting that vulnerability for all its worth.

It is important that the UCT leadership is supported in securing one of our leading universities for generations of students to come.

Professor Jonathan Jansen is the former vice chancellor of the University of the Free State, currently a resident fellow at Stanford University, US

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