OPINION: Over-empowerment of mundane when sight is lost of core purpose and values

I was taken a bit by surprise by the overwhelming response by fellow academics to my last column on the state of undergraduate teaching and learning in our universities.

Mostly I was surprised by how academics not only agreed with me in terms of their concern, but also by their reluctance to continuously raise the issues of academic quality in their institutions, mostly out of fear of being labeled “whingers” or “complainers”.

In this world saturated with pscyho-babble motivational discourses, there tends to be a notion that the most constructive approach is for everyone to be a “fixer”, or a “doer” – as though attending to problems does not require an initial honest diagnosis of the problems.

In any case, what I also realised through engaging with people over this worrying issue of undergraduate standards, is that our universities are really only as good and as innovative as the people within them.

So if universities are failing to listen to the most innovative people within their structures, then none of their systems will save them.

This takes me back to a point about institutions that I have been writing about quite consistently over the past year – that institutions are made both by their rules and by the people within them.

However, more than anything, institutions must be able to use their rules to produce high calibre individuals who are able to sustain the institutions and develop them further.

This is obvious within the political arena when one looks at the ANC. Clearly no number of rules is going to enable the movement to save itself from looming electoral humiliation in 2019 because the very cultural fabric of the organisation has been rent.

The quality of leadership, the very quality of the individual that makes up the ANC is what its future will rise or fall upon.

Similarly, any political organisation faces the same challenges.

Once an organisation is unable to set a high bar of entry for the individual, and depends on rules and systems to enforce compliance, that organisation will eventually fall to degraded culture.

Once upon a time of course, an ANC member was also meant to embody the organisation’s values with every element of their lives. Attending branch meetings and ticking off registers was never the end goal.

Embodying the intellectual culture of the movement was considered intrinsic to the fabric of the ANC, no matter where a person ranked.

Intellectualism was a popular and mass duty.

By that I mean there was no distinction between an “intellectual” and a “mobiliser” within the ANC as a movement.

Similarly in universities, an intellectual culture ought to be the general fabric of the place and it ought to be able to reproduce itself among the majority of the people in it.

A junior lecturer has as much of an intellectual duty as a professor. The only difference between the two are levels of specialisation and experience. Similarly, students, support staff and administrators form an equal part of the intellectual ethos of a university as do academics.

When you note university systems struggling to maintain quality, take note of how administrators no longer see themselves as academic standard bearers, how support staff are censored and deprived of the right to engage intellectually, of how students become recipients of teaching and academics become deliverers of curriculums.

When universities become like this, you get an over-empowerment of the mundane, and absurd situations such as a South African university where a human resources administrator feels that would improve the university if academics conformed to corporate-style dress!

When the mundane becomes empowered, output becomes uninspired, repetitive and conformist.

Am I saying our universities are like this?

Not entirely, but we are going to get there if we do not pay attention, and the response by my fellow academics to my article tells me that I am not the only one who is worried about this.

The key to avoiding such an outcome is that we need to listen to the concerns expressed by these academics and to be concerned about the type of people our universities are reproducing and less about compliance games.

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