The University, Inc.

On Monday next week, the new academic year at my University will begin – and I’m wondering if it’s too late to find some South American country to take refuge in. Because as every new year arrives, I feel more and more like the store manager at some discount supermarket, attending to queries of the order and import of “which electric toaster would you recommend?”.But there are some reasons to be particularly pessimistic this year. Without divulging any secrets (the bureaucrats have been known to lead academics down dark alleys, after all), know that:

1. The Dean of my Faculty has been asked to step down to make way for an affirmative action appointment. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not opposed to wanting to fill senior posts in this way, so long as merit is still the primary constraint on appointments. But this University struggles to find lecturers in AA demographic groups because the private sector pays qualified candidates double (or more) the salary we can, and one would suspect that this gap would only increase when talking about someone eligible (and willing) to be Dean. So you have to worry about the search being futile, and then about someone far less suitable than the current Dean (who wants to stay) being appointed.

2. I’ve been here for around 15 years. In all that time, a constant noise has been that the Faculty Handbooks are an element of our legal contract with the students – they spell out what the students are meant to do to be eligible to write their exams in each course, for example. But as of this year, these handbooks are only going to be distributed to 1st-year students, with senior students having access only through the University website.

Now, I’m no lawyer, but I would imagine that if something is to count as a legal contract with a student, you have to do all you can to make sure they have access to the terms of that contract, and have read these terms? And surely your registration forms for senior students should include a mention that handbooks will no longer be available in printed form, and ask you to affirm that you are aware of the existence of these handbooks on the web? The reason they are not available to all students is, by the way, to save on printing costs.

3. A new piece of software, Peoplesoft, is replacing Heritage as our student administration backbone as of this year. To start with, we’ll only be using this software for limited purposes, but within 3 years we hope to finally have online registration enabled, etc. But this software change means that all sorts of functionality everyone is quite used to has been replaced with something foreign, and this should surely imply an effective and prompt communication stream around what we need to do to be ready to use this new functionality.

But no. While some administrators received such emails, academics did not, and at this University, academics are forced into doing plenty of admin (for reasons I’ll avoid discussing now). So here we are, not having done the requisite training, nor signed the requisite forms, with our students arriving next week. In my case, many hundreds of students, who will all somehow have to manually be allocated to tutorial groups.

Sorry, there’s a customer at the door. More later.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.