New Agenda 93

Book Review

By Linda Chisholm

Not thirty, but twenty years after democracy, South Africa’s oldest and most
prestigious university was wracked by tumultuous upheavals sustained over two
long years between 2015 and 2017. Although contestation and challenge were not new
to the university, the nature and degree of student protest, directed at the university
itself, were. A few years later, Max Price’s successor, Mamokgethi Phakeng, experienced
different storms that relegated the events of 2015-7 firmly to the past. The book is
nonetheless still relevant, as the calls with which those years were associated, for ‘free,
quality, decolonial education,’ have endured.
Predictably, Price’s account of how he navigated UCT through one of the most
difficult periods has attracted admiration and opprobrium, in equal measure, on the
one side from fellow Vice-Chancellors and on the other from some staff and students of
UCT. His leadership and the decisions he took to steer the institution into calmer waters
continue to be contested.
Price did not then, and with this book will not now, please everyone. But it is worth
noting the changes resulting from the events in which he played a key role: the removal
of the statue of Rhodes on the campus in 2015, changes in financial aid provided for
students, the in-sourcing of workers, and the wide-ranging debates on the role of art and
society. In 2016, in the face of extraordinary levels of conflict, disruption and violence,
he reasserted a central principle of democracy: debate, dialogue and negotiation. From
his perspective, the main achievement was the restoration of peace on campus and
changes in the institutional culture of the university. The most important lesson was that
of understanding the rage underlying the protests, so that institutions will know how to
deal with the accompanying violence in future.
But what kind of a book has the author written about the events? In the first instance,
it is a memoir. Typical of the genre, it presents the author’s point of view. It is the
perspective of the Vice-Chancellor, the leader of an institution caught in an eruption at
once local and national. It provides a textbook case of how the liberal university deals
with protest: mainly through deliberation and dialogue but also, and simultaneously,
through the force of the law. The Price-UCT story, with its own context and specificities,
is skillfully interwoven with what was happening on a national level and at other
institutions such as Wits University. So too are the personal and emotional, the familial
and affective dimensions, with full acknowledgement given to his wife Deborah Posel,
an accomplished scholar and historian in her own right, and his children, on occasion on
the other side of the barricades.
The book shows how controversial decisions were arrived at collectively, with senior
management and Council, how these decisions were informed by a strategy developed
in advance, and how they were intended to be sensitive to the differences and nuances of
opinions amongst different university constituencies. I found the openness with which
he discussed what is normally kept behind closed doors unusual and enlightening.
There is abundant background information on particular issues. When a decision had to
be taken with which he disagreed, he says so, but always makes his own position clear.
When mistakes were made, he acknowledges them. There are no holy cows. Nothing is
cast in stone. Everything is a matter for debate and discussion.
Seen from his perspective, Price and his senior management were in an unenviable
dilemma. At one level, they were caught between trying to reconcile legitimate student
demands – that then degenerated as the student movement fragmented – and the
imperatives of an institution that had to remain open and keep its annual calendar
of lectures, seminars, exams and graduations going if a knock-on effect of the crisis
for students and the institution was to be avoided. At another level, they were caught
between those who wanted more rather than less assertion of authority, and those
who condemned the assertion of authority in terms of ‘militarising’ and ‘securitising
the campus’ in the form of interdicts, suspensions, expulsions, police intervention.
As 2016 unfolded in a nightmarish cycle of ever-changing student negotiators and
constantly-expanding demands, amid personal threats to himself and his family, Price’s
determination not to be provoked and to avoid violence at all costs prevailed.
The book is much more than a memoir, however. Written not in the heat of the
moment, but after a period of research and reflection, it carefully periodises events and
uses varied sources to construct a narrative analysis of the competing forces that shook
the university between 2015 and 2017, and of the leadership’s responses. It is a gripping,
analytical and contextualised account that sets out, with great clarity, how the storm
morphed from one over statues in 2015, through free higher education, in-sourcing, and
artwork, to the campaign for ‘free, quality, decolonial education’ at the end of 2016. The
conflict was at fever-pitch in October and November 2016; the university was on the
brink of shutting down, with exams about to start on the 7th November, as livestream
plenary negotiations were being conducted between the university and students. The
storm petered out following the successful negotiation of an agreement with students,
hammered out over long days and nights, in the midst of a fury that was also unleashed
on other campuses.
In one of his central arguments in the first part of the book, Price explains that
institutional culture – its middle class ‘whiteness’ – was the main unresolved issue
when he arrived, and that this issue was progressively addressed. The last part of the
book deals with possible responses of a liberal university to the violence of the student
movement, expressed in disruption, occupations, vandalism to buildings (including
the throwing of faeces into teaching and learning spaces), arson, physical violence and
threats towards people, and the increasing racial polarisation amongst staff members.
Price discusses in extenso– in theory and in practice – the relative merits of campus
security, the police, and private security forces. And he declares his own position on
violence, as well as that of student and other university constituencies.
Obscured in this account, and in the events themselves, are the changes that have
been most significant in university culture over the last thirty years: the managerialism
associated with university rankings and a funding model that rewards quantitative
research and teaching output over its quality. How this is articulated with the racial
institutional culture appears not to have been at issue for the students, and it does
not surface in Price’s narrative. Does this mean that it does not affect the workings of
UCT in a way similar to other universities? Or was this a blind spot for students and
management alike in those fraught years?
The book is to be commended for its clear delineation and assessment of the politics
and actions of different student organisations, as well as those groups outside of the
university who came to wishfully think about the potential of the university to ignite
a wider revolution. At no point does Price generalise about the actions of students,
though. He shows which particular groups engaged on which issues. He shows when,
how and why they interacted with students at other institutions, on a national level;
and he examines the role of social media in their actions. For those wanting to trace
changes in the student movement over time, this book provides valuable insight into the
organisations, politics and practices of organised student activity in this period, albeit
through the prism of UCT, and from the perspective of the vice-chancellor. The sources
are impeccable.
Also noteworthy is the evidence of the role played by government, the Minister and
President in relation to university leaders, particularly on the question of tuition fees.
This clearly was not a relationship of trust: university leaders found that they could not
rely on government for support. As far as government was concerned, policy trumped
institutional specificities.
The book ends on a slightly unsatisfactory note, with a somewhat hastily-written
Postscript about dissatisfaction with recent processes, which are not specified; it
is presumed that the reader is familiar with them. Unlike the rest of the book, the
sketchiness of the Postscript points to an unfinished story.
With so strong a contribution from the side of the institutional leadership, however,
one hopes that something similar will be written from the perspective of student leaders
and other institutional actors. Did a new vision of the university and the role of the
students emerge from this period? And is it proving to be sustainable? If not, why not?
Was Covid the game-changer?
Why higher education became the focus of such intense conflict in this period is now
relatively well-understood. Whether the next educational explosion will be in higher
education, schooling, or some other part of the system remains to be seen. One thing is
certain: conflict in higher education is neither new, but nor is it over.

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