As By Fire – Jonathan Jansen on the 2015/6 university protests

The Cape Town launch of Prof. Jonathan Jansen’s latest book, As by Fire: The End of the South African University, was held last week at the Book Lounge. I was invited to be the discussant and, having already read the book a few weeks ago and found it to be worthwhile, was pleased to accept.

On re-reading it in preparation for the discussion, my initial impression persisted: relative ‘insiders’ to the last few years of university politics and protests might not learn much that they didn’t know, while the general public certainly could.

The book is grounded in Jansen’s interviews with 11 other Vice-Chancellors (Jansen was at the time VC at the University of the Free State), all of whom spoke fairly openly about their experiences and the challenges faced as they tried to balance the interests of competing parties – students, whether protesting or not, parents, staff, donors, as well as governing bodies like university Councils.

These people are all deeply-informed, even though they obviously speak from a perspective that is of necessity at least partly managerial. None of them had the liberty of doing whatever they might independently have thought ideal, because of those competing interests, and because many of their decisions had to be made in sub-optimal conditions, before all the facts were available, and under extreme pressure.

Jansen doesn’t hide the fact that the book only speaks from this perspective – he makes it clear, and also explicitly tells us that this perspective isn’t necessarily a privileged one, when set alongside the analysis that might be offered by students, or workers, or staff.

The political, social, economic and emotive weight of the events and background narrative discussed in the book doesn’t lend itself to consensus, whether on the interpretation of individual events, or on their collective overall impact and the consequences for our universities.

It thus seems crucial to me that we remind ourselves of the principle of charity when interpreting the contents of the book, rather than reading it – or engaging with Jansen – in a way that simply confirms our biases. Just as one would hope for Jansen to not dismiss a student perspective out-of-hand (for example, as people did with the infamous #ScienceMustFall clip), we would hope for the same when speaking about Jansen and his book.

That’s unfortunately not what we get in a piece by Zachary Levenson, published on Africa is a Country (AIAC), that describes Jansen as South Africa’s own David Brooks. Brooks, in case you don’t know, is a conservative American author who writes for the New York Times, and who frequently attracts criticism from the left for trading in stereotypes and lazy social analysis to make policy or political claims.

To my mind, Brooks is an example of the kind of conservative I’d hope for there to be more of, in that he at least seems thoughtful rather than irredeemably ideologically blinkered. Be that as it may, the headline is clearly intended as an insult, because AIAC’s editorial stance means that it, and its target audience, would be among those offering the criticisms described above.

But even so, one can be fair in interpretation of what people say, and one can certainly avoid presenting things in a deliberately misleading context. Consider this example (emphasis added):

I’m not in the business of kicking dead horses, but it would be bizarre to read Jansen’s transformation of one university as an indication that South Africa’s higher education system has been substantially integrated, decolonized, or whatever other concept we might apply. But in a talk in Cape Town on Wednesday night, July 12, this is precisely what he did. An employee at the Book Lounge in Cape Town’s city center told the audience that he couldn’t recall a bigger turnout for a big launch in the entire time he’d worked there. It was hard not to notice that the crowd was predominantly over fifty and white. This isn’t to say that it was entirely white — of course it wasn’t — and there were plenty of younger people there. But it’s worth noting that a talk on race in higher education by a black man — though he’d of course disagree that the talk was about race at all — was attended largely by older middle-class whites who seemed to hang on his every word.

How does the comment of a book launch discussant (yes, it was me, not an employee of the Book Lounge (but perhaps Levinson arrived late, and didn’t hear the introductions)) about the size of the crowd relate to university transformation?

How do the demographics of the crowd that he/I said this to make any point besides what we already know about Cape Town, book launches and their over-representation of whiteness? That’s a baseline reality – and a problem, sure, but one you write about in a piece about that problem, rather than shoehorning into a criticism of Jansen, while telling us a falsehood about what Jansen said.

Two paragraphs down, Levenson says

he [Jansen] told the crowd that the South African political scientist Susan Booysen’s edited volume Fees Must Fall (Johannesburg: Wits University Press, 2017) conveys the student perspective — and even includes a couple of actual student contributions, as if it were shocking that people in their early twenties could pick up a pen — and that he was trying to bring the administration’s perspective. We also need workers to write a volume, he added, pushing the pluralism of “rainbow nation” post-racialism. If only the various perspectives could hash it out, everything would be fine.

One could have interpreted Jansen as making the sincere point that it was valuable to hear the student perspective – and would do so if you took him at his word, as described in the book and on the night, that he had an “open door” policy for exactly this reason. It’s an unfounded and uncharitable inference to make that he was being condescending about it (c.f. “as if it were shocking”, in the quote above).

In the same vein, unless you think that only one perspective has any explanatory value, it’s to Jansen’s credit that he would like to see more student perspectives (from both protesting and non-protesting students), as well as worker perspectives. That’s how we get the full picture, which is what those seeking understanding should want.

The motivated reading and motivated reasoning go on. When Jansen uses Stanford to make the simple point that one can do more with more resources, and that it’s thus a shame for resources to be destroyed in protests, Levenson asks

“Why was he comparing one of the richest schools in a country with some of the top universities in the world to a place in which all major universities are public?”

Well, because the point would hold true for that comparison, just as it would if he were to compare the relative value of having access to resources at a university with the same general value of having a well-resourced chicken farm.

Levenson then turns to some more Jansen-as-Brooks derision, before telling us “I couldn’t help but wonder why Jansen was focused so intently on signs of elite status in a country attempting to remedy the effects of decades of apartheid schooling” – on an evening where Jansen explicitly told us of his desire to get involved in fixing South Africa’s schooling system.

Then we move to decolonisation, a topic on which Jansen offered a fairly lengthy, and animated, exposition. I’d suggest that anyone who thinks we have a clear, and shared definition of what this means in practice at our universities is treating their ideological stance as non-negotiable, and that seems to be what Levinson does, in saying

“Let’s not overstate the problem,” Jansen continued. “Let’s not name it wrongly because that is disingenuous.” Given how frequently he was reminding the audience of his academic training as a social scientist, I couldn’t help but wonder why he would reveal that he hadn’t read any postcolonial theory written in the past forty years, or why he would feign ignorance, as if he couldn’t actually understand the meaning of the concept in its current context.

In naming the three books that he thinks foundational in understanding decolonisation, Jansen by no means confesses to not having read any others. And again, if you leave open the possibility that multiple viewpoints can help to clarify complicated issues, you don’t speak about “the meaning of the concept”. Jansen might think it means something different to what you do, just as I’ve heard various competing student interpretations of the concept.

Levinson then discusses the questions posed by Chumani Maxwele, who was present. Curiously, he doesn’t mention Maxwele by name, which made me wonder whether Levinson is indeed as informed as he presents himself as being.

The reason why Maxwele wasn’t named, according to Africa is a Country tweets, is that

One easy fix would be to leave that part (Maxwele’s questions) out of your account entirely, but that would be unfortunate, as Maxwele asked good questions. Which is precisely why, as this response notes, he should have been credited and identified:

AIAC then proceed to dig themselves a deeper hole, by claiming that they were trying to avoid the polarisation and sensationalism practiced by other publications, pointing to a TimesLive account of the same evening as example.

As the same Twitter user (@tomtom_m) responds, it’s perfectly possible to identify Maxwele without going down the silly distraction route that TimesLive chose – Maxwele’s questions, and Jansen’s answers to those, didn’t mention Drs Price and Surve at all, though the TimesLive reporter (who also tried to get me to comment on that) seemed intent on making that the story.

In short, this comes across as a very weak cover story for a writer having either failed to recognise Maxwele, or for having partially erased Maxwele’s voice, either of which would be unfortunate oversights in a piece that claims authority as well as purports deep affinity with the student protests.

In conclusion, another (long) paragraph from Levenson, describing the audience reaction to Maxwele’s question about why the black parents walking to and from work outside were not in the room:

I could see audience members rolling their eyes. It was the most substantive question of the evening, and easily the most thoughtful, yet Jansen gave it short shrift. He insisted that we can’t keep emphasizing race in every conversation, as if excising the concept from our repertoire would correspond to an eradication of racism (let alone racialism) in everyday life. But this corresponds precisely to the ideology of post-racialism in contemporary South Africa: it’s less about a verifiable observation than a strategy for shutting down any discussion of race whatsoever. No one could argue with a straight face that South Africa’s higher education system is anything approximating integrated, or that the geography of apartheid schooling doesn’t persist in a novel public v. private guise. But here was Jansen advocating an elitist schooling model in a post-apartheid context, all without so much as mentioning race, save for selectively denigrating the very concept.

This is a misrepresentation of Jansen’s answer, where Jansen made it clear that race isn’t the only important feature of an audience, and that there was value in talking to audiences of all descriptions. He was certainly not “denigrating the very concept”.

In fact, his answer even left room for Jansen agreeing that it would be ideal if those parents were in attendance – but that this doesn’t mean that gatherings without them are worthless. As Voltaire said, don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Jansen also pointed out that this audience was a sample of one, and that he regularly addresses audiences where those parents are present. He proceeded to invite Maxwele to join him at the next one. Hopefully we’ll hear whether that happens or not in due course, and hopefully we’ll get a more honest account of the event.

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.