Corrupted: A Study of Chronic Dysfunction in South African Universities

by Admin

Discussions on the state of affairs within institutions of higher learning in South African universities are now in vogue, all written in different personal styles, designed to draw in a much wider readership than just academics. If universities are microcosms of the nation these commentaries are very disturbing, alarming and forewarning. Their tales focus on the abject failure of some key post-apartheid management systems, the vicious and malicious internal struggles, fraught labour relations, the rise of uncompromising identity politics, and corruption on breath-taking scales, have been offered by Jonathan Jansen (Citation2016), David Benatar (Citation2021), Nithiya Chetty and Chris Merrett (Citation2014), amongst others. The lighter side of neoliberal restructuring that results in farce and the absurd is offered by Keyan Tomaselli (Citation2021Citation2018). This grouping of books maps the terrain by offering insider accounts examining the trends, norms, practices, achievements and limitations of research activities within universities transitioning from apartheid into new forms of social engineering – where criminality, chaos and collapse reign. They offer a window to managerial disruption, resource corruption and social eruption. The former gut-wrenching studies map out the traumatised academic side of university institutions in South Africa, and most of them implicate particular university councils in not only enabling the rot but, being part of it.

Inserted into this conjuncture is Jonathan D. Jansen’s, Corrupted: A Study of Chronic Dysfunction in South African Universities, which complements the above commentaries and which also offers an insider perspective from the experiences of a former dean, vice chancellor and forensic administrator, a kind of turn-around practitioner tasked with fixing catastrophically failing tertiary institutions. This book, which offers a first-hand discussion of the issues beguiling South African universities is an eye opener of the connectedness between the failure of university administrations, the politics of university leadership, and the economic disasters within some South African universities. Jansen begins with a contextual discussion of the idea of dysfunctionality – its normalisation, forms, and acculturation within the universities – under Chapter 1: A Study of Chronic Dysfunction in Universities. He also grapples with the question: “What explains the persistent instability of a subset of universities in South Africa?” Some of the propositions made include institutional histories, integrity issues, residual apartheid tendencies, economic competition and corruption. These aspects benefit from the author’s extensive experience as a university administrator within post-apartheid South Africa, supplemented with interviews with other members of the university leadership.

The author’s Chapter 2: Historical Roots of Dysfunction: Shaping the South African University, offers very informative discussions on race history and its significance in South African universities’ establishment, management, funding, and leadership. Racial – and hence economic and ideological binaries are explored here along with their impact on the culture and ideology of university leadership. Particularly due to its consequent biases, race seems to play a critical role in the instability of mostly black South African universities. The discussions under Chapter 3: Dysfunctionality in Universities: A Political Economy Perspective focus on the politics of rivalry within university leadership. Jansen illustrates the consequences of unending competition for leadership, the continued sabotage of university financial well-being, and the role of corrupt cultures in the dysfunctionality of universities. Dysfunctionality – regarding material, political, symbolic, and cultural resources – and the lack of institutional goodwill or capacity are among the key factors enabling dysfunctionality.

Chapter 4: A Personal Journey Through the Political Economy of Universities thinks through authoritarian modes of leadership, external interests and politics of leadership, and neglect of the academic mission of the universities as composite parts of dysfunctionality. Terming the discordant between leadership and academic project pathologies of stability, Jansen offers insights into the chaos and tension between universities, their adjacent local communities, and external politics. The impact of messing with the appropriation of professional labour within university leadership is also keenly explored. The shift from apartheid to post-apartheid was, without doubt, a significant force in the reconstitution of universities within the new South Africa. In Chapter 5: Casting Long Shadows: How History Shapes the Politics of Universities, the author discusses the instability of this transition with respect to 1) the accompanying resistance, activism, revolt, and protests; and 2) changes in the racial demographics of university students, institutional resources, and residual race politics. The chapter broadly wrestles with the issue of institutional adaptability or its lack, and the significance of the various forces influencing this process on the outcome of the universities’ stability.

The debate about the role of a university as a resource ready and available for appropriation, which the author advances under Chapter 6: The University as a Concentrated and Exploitable Resource, provokes the question of mismanagement of funds within universities. The conflict between those who see the university as a source of income, and those who want to advance its academic goals strongly correlates with dysfunctionality. Some of the factors discussed here include the net worth of the universities, the race bar of its management, irregular expenditure, and lack of accountability mechanisms. Dysfunctionality, it is argued, is inversely proportional to many of these factors. The prevalence of criminality within university administrative and management teams is closely related to the exploitation of university resources. In Chapter 7: The University as a Criminal Enterprise, the author discusses the seriousness of integrity malpractices within universities, whether through corruption, attacks by rogue leaders, intimidations or other forms of illegal coercion. These factors, it is suggested, make the universities stray from their academic projects and result in rivalry for economic control and consumption.

Institutional capture, the likely consequence of both exploitation and criminality, is the main subject in Chapter 8: The Micropolitics of Corruption in Universities. This chapter not only discusses corruption mechanisms in a detailed manner, but it also explains “how and why it happens, by and for whom, and with what consequences for higher education institutions.” The overrunning of integrity leadership by cartels, subversion of institutional rules, compromised audit systems, and even violence against, and assassination of, those advocating for good leadership are among the micropolitical factors of university dysfunctionality. The chapter notes that preoccupation with personal enrichment at the expense of university development is a key factor in the dysfunctionality of South African universities today. Further, in Chapter 9: The Twin Roots of Chronic Dysfunctionality, Jansen notes how politically-motivated breaching universities’ regulatory check mechanisms incapacitate these institutions. There are detailed discussions of the normalisation of dysfunctionality at the expense of students’ welfare, leading to a disconnect between the university’s academic project and its political goals.

The discussions in Chapter 10: Rethinking and Rebuilding Dysfunctional South African Universities focus on interventions for dysfunctional universities. The chapter cautions against the risks of dysfunctionality posed by over-admission, funds mismanagement, historical factors, conflict cultures, polarisation, funding deficits, and increased political influence. Most crucially, the composition of university councils is often the trigger as its members often are drawn from opportunistic business sectors scavenging for resources, tenders and returns. Reading this book, one notices the author’s sincere effort to document a critical aspect of South Africa’s university system and break the silence on a very important dimension of university education in the new South Africa. Few have such courage to explore the issue, and even rarer is to find such knowledgeability and bravery co-existing. Yet, as one reads through the book, a new realisation of the author’s selflessness in explicating the sorts of struggles that universities are undergoing becomes apparent. From students, academic staff, administrative staff, political players, government agencies, and influential community leaders; anyone reading the book will find easy-to-understand information with the potential to intervene in the dysfunctionality of South African universities today.

In conclusion, it is noteworthy that this book arises from a very specific context and experience in South Africa’s knowledge enterprise. The author is an excellent scholar of global repute, with outstanding credentials in the field of education and research, and leadership experiences as the first black rector and Vice Chancellor of the University of Free State. All these confer upon him a unique combination of South Africa’s educational sector both as its product and leader, and also global expertise. The contributions that he offers in this book can be largely understood through this biographical perspective – which both enrich the insights offered and opens up a space for further interrogation of the South African university today and in the future.

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