The UKZN Griot. An Ode to Deans of Old
‘Authority tends to assign jobs to those least able to do them.’
Let me assess Cornuelle’s Law with regard to some deans with whom I have worked. As a Wits student in the late 1960s, deans were the imperious who sat on high and glared at students during registration. Their signatures were necessary, so students deferred, got signed in and never saw the dean again. Except, me being the perennial disturbance in the lives of authority, I did get to engage them occasionally.
My earliest memory was when I applied late for Geography Honours at Wits. I had foolishly neglected to submit the application on time. I was told no dice, no acceptance, go away, by a dean’s secretary.
So I consulted the geography HOD. He wrote a letter, made some calls, but still no dice.
I then met with the SRC president. In those days SRCs actually worked for, and represented, students, rather than for political parties and themselves. He listened, reached for his tie in the drawer of his desk and strode purposively across the courtyard to the VC’s office. A day later the dean reluctantly signed me on.
Then as a junior academic in film I cheesed off my new HOD, in Drama. He had queried the cultural politics I had brought to my new epistemologically rabble-rousing journal, Critical Arts. He cancelled my promotion. My previous Geography HOD was now a DVC, so I banged on his door and asked for his intervention.
Soon I was in the new dean’s office. A wonderfully likeable chap, not on-high at all. This urbane professor told me that HODs cannot interfere with committee processes and that my HOD would be educated in this regard.
I got my promotion and was then head-hunted to Rhodes University. Both of these instances were a surprise to my Drama HOD, who was most gracious in accepting the situation.
Before going to the interview at Rhodes, I was called in by the DVC. He told me that a hundred phone calls had been received from Rhodes because there was great consternation about my application. The Journalism department there was known to be a cauldron of Marxism, destablisation and hippydom.
The post had been vacated by Guy Berger, who had been imprisoned for his anti-apartheid activities. Was I going to follow in his footsteps? Berger was not a hippy, dope smoker nor rabble-rouser. The Wits DVC told me to expect particular questions, and if they did not surface during the interview, then I was to pose them myself and answer them.
‘Oh’, he continued, ‘There’s one more thing. The new Rhodes VC is the same fellow who as dean at Wits tried to exclude you from Geography Honours. He’ll be chairing the selection committee,’ Keith Beavon roared with laughter and sent me on my way.
Well, I was appointed, even though seen to be a Marxist, but not a hippy. On arrival, an English professor called me in. Nick Visser told me that one of my tasks was to help the other five Marxists at Rhodes restore the integrity of historical materialism as an analytical method, and to disarticulate it from hippy discourses and sloppy personal behaviour with which it had become associated.
Where at Wits I had never been to faculty meetings, which were reserved for the select few, at Rhodes they were held on Saturday mornings. Efficiently chaired; everyone consulted their Handbooks, and three hours later there was a mass exodus to Kenton-on-Sea. Successive deans assisted in the process of restoring academic procedure to the Journalism department. We got on well.
On arriving at Natal University in early 1985, I found a very different culture. Faculty meetings could run for two days. No one consulted the Faculty Handbook. Everything was up for discussion. Workload allocations were unknown.
So democratic was Natal that actual decisions were hard come-by. Where Rhodes meetings were rules and outcomes based, Natal’s were debating chambers with no quarter given, but always polite if dogged and robust.
At Natal, I learnt that deans represented academics, and not just authority, as they do now. They represented the Faculty and not themselves, even when they disagreed with a Faculty’s judgement. For example, the dean who had individually opposed the establishment of the Centre for Communication, Media and Society was the one who convinced Senate that the Centre had his Faculty’s support and must be established.
Successive deans continued in this constituency-led vein until corporatisation reversed the roles of accountability from the early 2000s. Academics were hung out to dry in the so-called transformation of the university into its spreadsheet managerialism, an inevitable consequence of the mega-institution.
So I partly disagree with Cornuelle’s Law. My experience of most of the deans under whom I served during the days when universities were democratically managed, was a positive one. But once non-negotiables came down from on very high, deans became administrators with limited discretion or flexibility.
Where deans once fought with the academics in the trenches – though some still do – now the trenches are filled with exhausted academics who have no real policy influence on the academy any more.
When last could you bang on your dean’s door?
- Keyan Tomaselli is Distinguished Professor, University of Johannesburg and a UKZN Professor Emeritus and Fellow. He has never been a dean.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this column are the author’s own.