By Xolela Mangcu
I have eight books to my name, four of them edited, and four of them single-authored. By the end of next year, that number will be 10, and six of them will have been peer reviewed. I have been published in international journals and have chapters in peer-reviewed books edited by distinguished academics around the world.
I have been a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, the world’s most prestigious think-tank. I hold a distinguished fellowship at Harvard, which was most recently held by Achille Mbembe and Charles van Onselen. This is an addition to the three fellowships I have held at Harvard since 1998.
And, of course, I have an Ivy League PhD, and have held fellowships at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Rockefeller Foundation. Hey, that’s not too bad, right? And I didn’t get in by asking for favours. So why do I brag about it? Most of the time, it would be because I am just narcissistic. But this time it is to make a point about race and higher education in SA. There are many white academics who are full professors with hardly this record.
When I asked a distinguished African scholar why some of these guys are being “invited” to full professorships while those of us who have done much more are still associate professors, his answer was to the point: “They are white and you are a darkie, it does not matter what your record is.” I then asked: “But how long are we going to stand for this?” His answer was just as swift: “We are still well colonised.”
Now let me hasten to make the point that I have not been denied promotion where I work. And that’s because I have not applied for it. I am being strategic about when to apply, so that I am not turned down on a technicality. This brings me to a larger point about the promotions system in our universities.
The system of getting individuals to apply for promotion is traumatic for a lot of individuals. So they spare themselves the humiliation by just not putting themselves up. Some of them, though by no means all, just hang around until retirement.
If you have demotivated people like that in your faculty, what effect do you think it has on your students? How about this line as a motto for our universities: “Happy professors make happy students, happy students make happy professors.” I should patent that.
It is my considered view that our universities should do away with the system in which aspirant professors have to compile mounds of documents and jump through bureaucratic hoops before they are admitted into the professoriate.
If someone is good at what they do, you can smell them from afar. Make the institution accommodate the individual, instead of making the individual spend his time navigating the institutional architecture of the university, trying to figure out who they should ingratiate.
I have been in academic programmes in the US where PhD students are identified for the tenure track even before they have finished their dissertations. Should our universities not do the same for black academics, instead of telling them about impossible 20-year horizons before they become full professors? I like to use the examples of Larry Summers, who was made economics professor at Harvard the moment he finished his PhD. He must have been 25 or something.
At 28, Alan Dershowitz became the youngest full professor in the history of the Harvard Law School. There was no 20-year wait for these guys. One may find them disagreeable, but no one could quibble with their achievements.
That is why institutions such as Harvard remain at the top of the pecking order. They smell that talent from a distance and that is what we ought to do with black students. That is what the universities are doing for their friends in any event.
Imagine that these were black institutions doing this — it would be cronyism right? Right. The point is that whoever does it must be called out, if we are going to improve our institutions. As a start, we need greater transparency in the entire rewards system of our universities, particularly on promotion.
What irks me is that universities receive public funding, which they use not only to maintain these processes of racial exclusion but also to fund foreign academics. No doubt we need these individuals if we are going to remain academically competitive in the world. But surely those who pay the taxes also deserve a foot in the door? No, at the head table.
• Mangcu is associate professor of sociology at the University of Cape Town.
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