Vice-Chancellor’s Circular - Developments on our campus

Vice-Chancellor’s Circular

26 March 2015

Developments on our campus

Yesterday afternoon, 25 March 2015, I received a memorandum from the University Student Representative Council (SRC) raising issues of transformation at Rhodes University and the issue of the name of our institution.

The renewed call for the name change started soon after some UCT students demanded that the statue of Cecil John Rhodes be removed from UCT. On Thursday, 19 March 2015, the SRC convened a student body forum to discuss issues of transformation, in general, and that of the name of the University, in particular.

On Tuesday 24 March 2015, I had to cut short my University business trip to Johannesburg and returned to Grahamstown two days early to deal with pressing issues relating to important developments on campus. I felt that I needed to be here out of respect for our students and to fulfil my duties and responsibilities as the Vice-Chancellor.

Yesterday (25 March 2015), I had three important meetings with the Deans and the Executive Leadership Team, the SRC and the Black Student Movement.

Let me state from the outset that the issues raised by our students are very important and deserve to be taken seriously. The recent developments on our campus do not constitute a crisis but signal a need for us to act with a sense of purpose and urgency. It is vitally important that we, as a university and as a nation, start to engage our complex and uncomfortable past in earnest in order to forge a new and shared future.

A university is, by its very nature, a democratic space where contending views and ideas must be expressed, debated and discussed. I therefore welcome the space that has been opened for us to engage on what one may call ‘courageous conversations’ as we remake and reshape our future.

On the issue of transformation…

In my inaugural address on 27 February 2015, I indicated that the issue of transformation and equity is one of our strategic priorities going forward:

We must advance the transformation imperative of our University.

We have made significant progress in the transformation of the demographic and social composition of the student body. The ‘race’, class, gender, ethnic, national, linguistic, cultural and religious composition of our student population has changed and will continue to change given our imperatives of social equity and social justice. However, similar levels of transformation have not been witnessed in our staff complement.  In particular, it has been difficult to attract and retain Black academic staff.  Additionally, the paucity of Black and women academics in the higher ranks of the academy is a matter of great concern. We acknowledge our predicament and pledge ourselves to intensified efforts to transform our staff complement.  We must harness all efforts to create highly-attractive and welcoming environments and scholarly positions filled with academic richness, scope and promise and to follow this with purposeful investment in Black and women academics so that they are attracted to academic careers, that they are able to exceed their expectations, that they are able to rise through the academic ranks, and that they are able to assist in charting the future through their leadership. Such purposeful investment is exemplified in the 10-year old Accelerated Staff Development Programme funded by the Mellon Foundation and by the Kresge Foundation.  A number of our Black and women colleagues of academic influence and position bear witness to the programme and its impact. May their numbers, role and fine contribution to this University grow prodigiously, if not exponentially. A university characterised by ‘Business Unusual’ requires this.

Indeed, we welcome the initiative of the Department of Higher Education & Training to develop and train a new generation of academics for our higher education system. It is a matter of immense pride for us, as Rhodes University, that that initiative had its genesis in our own Accelerated Staff Development Programme.

Another significant area of transformation is the curriculum. As mentioned earlier, the social and demographic composition of our student body has changed significantly over the past number of years. The question which arises is: to what extent have we engaged our curricula and pedagogic approaches to respond to this diversity and to draw on the richness that it presents? Are we still privileging and valuing knowledge from some parts of the world to the exclusion of that which comes from other parts of the world? Broadening the content to embrace knowledge from different parts of the world is just one part of curriculum transformation. Another important part is the pedagogic philosophy and approach adopted to accommodate and leverage on the diversity of our student population. As academics, do we see that the students who sit in front of us in the lecture and seminar rooms of our campus are different to those who sat beside us when we were students? Have we adapted our pedagogical approaches to ensure that every one of those students is included as an equal in the learning that goes on in our classrooms? Does our approach to diversity of participation, and to diversity of knowledge, assist our graduates to provide leadership for a more sustainable and resilient society? These are the kinds of questions we need to be asking as we move forward into a more equitable future.

We also committed ourselves to address the issue of institutional culture:

We must create and maintain an inclusive, welcoming, affirming and positive institutional environment.

We must, in the first instance, embrace diversity and celebrate difference. However, as an institution of higher learning we must go further than that and use the power of civil and reasoned argument, logic and debate to engage differences with a view to narrowing them, breaking new ground and enhancing and deepening shared understanding.

As Vice-Chancellor, I pledge to encourage and support freedom of expression and opinion and model practices and values that are consistent with the spirit and prescripts of our Constitution. We must, and will, respond with firmness and decisiveness to behaviours and attitudes that are divisive, hurtful and demeaning to others and which, sadly, still characterise much of our wider society. Many of those engaged in these behaviours and attitudes may be unconscious of the effects of what they do because of the way they have been socialised into thinking their acts and thoughts are ‘normal’. Through awareness-raising activities, we must challenge every single student and every single staff member to reflect on the way they interact with others in order to identify the hidden thoughts and attitudes underpinning the way they go about their daily lives. In 1994, our country emerged from a great struggle against racism, hatred and inequality. Many lost their lives in that struggle, as I indicated at the beginning of this speech. As a nation, we cannot afford to go backwards and, as a place of knowledge and an institution of higher learning, Rhodes University has to take a stand against any attempts to do so, however conscious or unconscious they may be.

On the issue of name change…

The question of name change is an important matter which should be resolved through a process which involves debate and dialogue. We must create fora and appropriate avenues for all university constituencies to engage meaningfully on this issue. We must listen to all views and decide together on how we want to move forward.

This past weekend some print media claimed that I had said that the “debate on name change was closed” and that there was no need for name change. Nothing could be further from the truth! In all the interviews I have had with the media, I have steadfastly refused to publicly declare my position on the matter of name change. My view has been consistently that if I were to declare my position on this matter, I would be disrespecting our Council, Senate, Academic and Support staff, Institutional Forum, Students, Unions, Alumni and Convocation, and the Board of Governors. Above all, I would be undermining the democratic and inclusive process that should involve all constituencies and stakeholders in making the decision on the future of the name of our institution.

Since the question of the name of our institution came to the fore, I have received a number of messages and have interacted with a wide range of students and staff on this matter. I have heard strong views expressed from both sides. The views expressed are not along any racial lines – they cut across racial and other fault lines. There are those who are of the view that, given the horrendous things that Cecil John Rhodes did to the Black people in the Southern African region through his colonial and imperialist excesses, it is morally and ethically indefensible and completely unconscionable to have a university bearing his name. For these people the name Rhodes represents vicious colonial brutality and conquest and for them there is a strong link between Cecil John Rhodes, the person, and Rhodes University.

There is another group of people who hold the view that the values that Rhodes University stands for are very different, and are in stark contrast to, those that Mr Cecil John Rhodes held. For them, Rhodes University has over generations developed an identity that is separate from, and that far transcends the person, Cecil John Rhodes. These people value the quality of education and experience at Rhodes University. For them, the connection between Cecil John Rhodes and Rhodes University is a very tenuous one.

If we are to have a productive debate and fruitful discussion on this matter, we must respect each other’s views. We should never try to delegitimise, trivialise or be dismissive of, each other’s views and experiences. We shouldn’t call each other names nor should we launch personal attacks on each other. We should use the power of rational and reasoned argument, logic and debate to forge common ground on these issues where we hold different views. We must also be open-minded and be willing to be persuaded to change our position on the matter based on the quality of the argument advanced. Any engagement on these important issues must involve all University constituencies and stakeholders: our Council, Senate, Academic and Support staff, Institutional Forum, Students, Unions, Alumni and Convocation, the Board of Governors and the Grahamstown community. Whatever decision we arrive at, it must be an outcome of an inclusive, democratic, consultative and participatory process. Whatever decision we make, we must be conscious of, and understand, its implications and consequences for our University.

On the issue of vacation accommodation for students…

At lunchtime on Tuesday, 24 March 2015, the Black Student Movement handed over a memorandum to the Registrar, Dr Fouie, requesting that the University assist students who cannot afford to go home for the short vacations. At my meeting with the Black Student Movement yesterday afternoon, I assured them that we were sympathetic to the legitimate need of students from poor families. We pointed out that the issue relating to students who need assistance was not new as I had been dealing with it for the past six years. We agreed that we would have to look at the request for assistance on a case-by-case basis.

We acknowledge that as we advance our objective of making Rhodes University accessible to students from poor, rural and working class families, we cannot continue to deal with this issue of vac accommodation in an ad hoc manner.  We need to draw on the collective wisdom of our University in order to develop a long-term and sustainable mechanism to meet this transformation challenge.

These issues will be raised at the Senate meeting this coming Friday. We will also ask the Institutional Forum to convene, as a matter of urgency, to map our way forward. Members of University Council will also be apprised of these developments. It is my intention to keep the University community updated on various developments on the issues mentioned in this Circular.


Sizwe Mabizela

 Dr Mabizela signature

Vice-Chancellor, Rhodes University