Wits chief puts heart in the city

April 24, 1998

AFRICA

TWENTY-FIVE years ago, in a car travelling across the Pennines, two South African academics teaching in Manchester - one black, one white - swopped memories of childhood in the Eastern Cape.

Sam Nolutshungu and Colin Bundy, the latter recalls, grew up "almost next door, but sociologically and experientially worlds apart". It was not unusual, during the apartheid years, for people of different races to form friendships only when they were thousands of miles from home.

More unusual was that both would later be offered the leadership of one of South Africa's top universities - and that one would fill the post because of the other's untimely death.

Professor Bundy told this story at his installation as vice-chancellor of the University of the Wi****ersrand, Johannesburg. while announcing an annual postgraduate scholarship in international relations named after Sam Nolutshungu.

The exiled political scientist's shock refusal (later explained by his death) to accept the top Wits job last year after a long and traumatic selection process, prolonged the university's struggle to find a new leader in highly politicised post-apartheid South Africa.

It is with relief that Wits now views its new leader, an historian and former deputy vice-chancellor (academic) of the University of the Western Cape. Academics countrywide read the contents of Professor Bundy's address with interest, since the strategic directions Wits takes will undoubtedly have an impact on higher education.

The importance of the occasion was underlined by the presence of President Nelson Mandela.

The thrust of Professor Bundy's speech, "Great Expectations? The University in Society", was that academics should question their relationship with society and its ideological underpinnings.

South Africa's Higher Education Act, gazetted three months ago, heralded a single higher education system, a new funding formula, a quality assurance agency and greater public accountability.

Universities and colleges are expected, said Professor Bundy, to "admit more students, make their offerings more relevant, ensure that their graduates are more employable, help solve crucial national problems - and do all this more economically, cutting costs, becoming more entrepreneurial, operating with falling state subsidies".

Professor Bundy challenged as "quaintly anachronistic" the common belief that universities are justifiably ivory towers, standing above society and pursuing knowledge for its own sake.

"There is no clear boundary between a university and the modern state in which it operates," he said. Wits would respond to signals and incentives set by government, research foundations, non-government organisations and civil society, "but this relationship has a negative side too", he said.

"Universities should engage with socio-economic needs, but I am made anxious and uncomfortable when those needs are cut from a single bolt of ideological cloth to patterns designed elsewhere."

Professor Bundy said that universities were "expected to increase output while downsizing their plant and personnel. They are urged to seek market niches, to compete, to hustle for customers or clients. The terminology is not incidental. It reflects very accurately the permeation of our times with a particular outlook, the triumph of the logic of the market, a commonsense that brooks little argument".

Wits was keen to expand postgraduate studies as a way of attracting money, encouraging research and training more black academics. But he would like the university to move away from pure research PhDs towards the "richer" United States model, with coursework, seminars, examinations and electives.

The university would have to change but it would also help in restructuring and uniting communities divided by history.

Wits needed to become a more urban university and actively participate in the fortunes of Johannesburg. "We must build organic relationships with the new Johannesburg, much like those the university historically enjoyed with old white Johannesburg," he said.

"Johannesburg has many urban problems, and almost all academic disciplines can apply themselves to tackling these," he added. Wits "will clearly not be an ivory tower. But nor will it be a mere service station, providing fuel and tune-ups to the engines of social development and economic growth."

Professor Bundy did not know when he traversed the Pennines where his life would ultimately lead. Now he has embarked on a different journey, one without his friend - and one much more difficult, uncertain and crucial not only to Wits but to higher education and South Africa.

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