Book launch: The Responsive University and the Crisis in South Africa; Engagement is, in fact, a methodology for teaching and research

Published On: 2 November 2021|

The renowned scholar whose two fundamental questions to universities, ‘what are we good at‘ and ‘what are we good for‘, ignited reflective conversations among delegates at the 2nd National Higher Education Conference in October, was a keynote speaker during The Responsive University breakaway session of Universities South Africa’s Transformation Strategy Group. The two questions, which were extensively referenced at USAf’s recent The Engaged University, were drawn from Professor Chris Brink’s (2018) book titled The Soul of a University – Why Excellence is Not Enough.

As he launched the 2020 sequel, The Responsive University and the Crisis in South Africa, Professor Brink (above) said he wanted to bring to light the many challenges that people who live on the fringes of cities contend with, from dawn to sunset. Such people live in crime-ridden shanties with neither clean water supply nor sanitation facilities. They lack proper transport and live in downright difficult conditions. He said the crisis in the title of his book refers to these dire conditions of inequality – also depicted pictorially on the book cover.

Drawing from ‘what are we good for‘, he said universities find it hard to answer this question. “We are not so fluent in responding to it. Often, it seems to catch us by such surprise that my view is, we do not pay enough attention to the ‘good for‘ question.

“So, partly because of that, anywhere I go, globally, and in South Africa, I think as universities and the higher education sector, there is an issue of legitimacy that is confronting us. More and more we are asked the question, what is your role in society; what do you bring to the table – what contribution do you make?

He mentioned legitimacy in society as the biggest challenge confronting the sector. His new book was stimulated by the conviction that universities needed to go beyond engagement.

“And I say this carefully, but unapologetically, because the theme of this conference, of course, is The Engaged University,” he said.

“But, if I may mix my metaphor, just a little, the whole point of an engagement is that there is a plan to get married. And if you do not get married, then the purpose of the engagement falls away. So, if you extract a little from there, we need not just to talk about engagement to society, we need to talk about when and how we are going to get married,” he said.

Within the context of this metaphor, Professor Brink went on to say that once the sector was fully engaged, it would know about the shacks and other challenges that society — both global and local — faces. “All that knowledge that comes out of the good at question – all the expertise that we have, all those clever professors that we have – should enable us to respond to those societal challenges and make a contribution towards a solution,” he said.

Such an analysis was befitting for South Africa, now labelled the most unequal country, the professor asserted.

Through this new book, Professor Brink said he was looking to solicit views from international academic leaders — of what a responsive university might be, using their respective contexts. Using the South African crisis of inequality as an exemplar, he divided the book into two similar parts — the global context and South Africa.

In compiling this 16-chapter book, Professor Brink said he had worked with multiple academic leaders, who had each authored a chapter either alone or in collaboration with others. All that work had culminated in the concluding chapter of reflections on the overall volume, by himself, as the editor.

All contributing authors relate in this book, narratives of societal challenges they deem universities should tackle. While some chapters raise conceptual issues, others consist of case studies. “For the case studies, I wanted to look at what you might call ‘success stories’ to see what works — what has worked in various places in the world,” he said.

The contributing authors are listed below:

Part One: The global perspective

  • Chapter 1 — Glyn Davis: An Irredeemable Time? The Rising Tide of Hostility toward Universities
  • Chapter 2 — Robert Hollister: Mobilising the Full Resources of Universities for Civic Engagement and Responsiveness (The Comprehensive Infusion Strategy of Tufts University)
  • Chapter 3 — Ira Harkavy, Rita Hodges, and Joann Weeks: Towards Creating the Truly Engaged, Responsive University (Penn’s Partnership with the West Philadelphia Community as an Experiment in Progress)
  • Chapter 4 — Angelina Yuen and Miranda Lou: The Journey of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University from a Local Trade School to a Socially Responsible Global University
  • Chapter 5 — Eivind Engebretsen, Anna Wahlberg and Ole Petter Ottersen
  • Chapter 6 — Mary Stuart: The Permeable University (Moving Beyond Civic Engagement to Transformation)
  • Chapter 7 — Nick Wright: The Newcastle Helix
  • Chapter 8 — Yael (Yuli) Tamir: Teaching, Reaching and Preaching (Towards a Realistic Utopia)

Part two — South Africa

  • Chapter 9 — Ahmed Bawa: Reimagining South Africa’s Universities as Social Institutions
  • Chapter 10 — Andre Keet and Sibongile Muthwa: The Transformative, Responsive University in South Africa
  • Chapter 11 — Siphamandla Zondi: Protests and Pursuits (The South African University in Turmoil and the Search for a Decolonial Turn)
  • Chapter 12 — Lis Lange: South African Universities between Decolonisation and the Fourth Industrial Revolution
  • Chapter 13 — Tshilidzi Marwala: The Fourth Industrial Revolution in Higher Education
  • Chapter 14 — Larry Pokpas, Lois Dippenaar and Nasima Badsha
  • Chapter 15 — Millard Arnold: Poverty, Inequality and Decolonisation (Are Business Schools Responsive to the Challenge?)
  • Chapter 16 — Chris Brink: Reflections and Conclusions

Abolish the terminology that calls engagement a third mission of the university

In Chapter 16 on Reflections and Conclusions, Professor Brink proposes that “the terminology that says ‘engagement is a third mission of the university’ is quite unfortunate because engagement should not be thought of as a third silo, next to two other silos, called research and teaching.”

He believes that engagement is a methodological approach. It is how universities conduct research and teaching.

“There are quite a few times when we touch on the topic of engagement and equality. It would be too much to say perhaps the success stories I mentioned were successful because of their engagement strategy. But certainly, there is corroborating evidence that their engagement strategy was part and parcel of a success story.”

He said if universities think about engagement as a third mission, then that mission competes with the other two missions [research and teaching]. Professor Brink cautioned that this thinking bedevils the institution promotion criteria and other aspects of university operations.

“So, if you are in that situation, the best I can do is to say, try and convince your university that there is a change afoot; that there is a different way of doing things, and it is possible,” he said.

As reflected in Part One of the book and looking at the South African context, Professor Brink said, “there are perhaps more commonalities between the advocacy for decolonisation and what is happening already within the supposedly dominant western paradigm.

“Perhaps we are not really two warring tribes,” he said.

Discussion time:

Universities and society should generate value for each other

Dr Tebogo Rakgogo, First respondent from the Tshwane University of Technology and President of the National Institute for Humanities & Social Sciences Alumni Association (HSSAA), commended Professor Brink on the publication of his new book. Dr Rakgogo is also a Board Member of the Pan South African Language Board (PanSALB).

Expounding on some of the sub-themes covered in The Responsive University and the Crisis in South Africa, Dr Rakgogo (left) first touched on transformation, saying it appeared that some individuals were conflating the concept of transformation and race. “The issue of coloniality, decolonisation and transformation should not be associated with race,” he said, arguing that the determinant is all in one’s plan and objectives. “You can be a white person but with a proper plan, fully in support of the transformation agenda. You can also be a black person whose views and perspectives are anti-transformation.”

On the two questions that are at the centre of the responsive university debate, Dr Rakgogo said “these questions dictate that there should be a direct relationship between universities and society.” He further explained that society should be of benefit to the university, and vice versa. On South Africa, he said the relationship between universities and society was yet to be fully addressed, citing two well-known crises that had confronted the country in 2021, and on which the university sector could have seized the opportunity and engaged actively. The first concerned the unrests that broke out in parts of KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng in July and, secondly, he cited societal reluctance to take up the CoViD-19 vaccine.

According to Dr Rakgogo, these issues should have dominated universities’ discussions at seminars and conferences. He said universities teaching public administration and public policy should have charged their students to interrogate these issues and offered practical solutions from a policy development perspective.

Similarly, those teaching languages ought to have dug deeper to assess the potential role of linguists in these topics. “If people do not want to vaccinate, one of the qualitative variables or contributing factors may be the issue of language.” He said some fundamental facts might not have been properly explained in the vernacular, especially to the masses at the grassroots.

Thirdly, he intimated that universities should identify factors contributing to the high national unemployment. He argued that by so doing, universities would be demonstrating their relevance to society as entities belonging to the state, and, by implication, to the people.

Noting that most unemployed people lacked formal education, Rakgogo suggested that universities should design programmes to equip them so that they, too, can contest for positions in workspaces.

“There should be a direct relationship between the two things because these universities will never survive… will never operate without society,” he concluded.

Dr Rakgogo was one of three respondents lined up to comment on Professor Chris Brink’s input, and his new book. Two other respondents were Professor Mary Stuart, Former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Lincoln in England and one of the contributors to Part One of Brink’s new book, and Dr Bernadette Johnson, Director: Transformation and Employment Equity at the University of the Witwatersrand.

The Responsive University and the Crisis in South Africa was launched in collaboration with the University of Johannesburg’s Ali Mazrui Centre for Higher Education, whose Founding Director, the late Professor Michael Cross who succumbed to CoViD-19 in June, 2021, was the Co-Founder and Co-Editor of the Brill / Sense African Higher Education: Developments and Perspectives series, under whose banner the book has been published. The African Higher Education: Developments and Perspectives series provides a platform for dissemination of seminal and cutting-edge research on current higher education issues in Africa.

Paying tribute to Professor Cross, Professor Brink said he remembered how Professor Cross had readily accepted his proposition to publish under their banner when he broached the matter while they were travelling together on a bus, three years ago. Professor Cross died on 6 June, 2021; shortly after Professor Brink had sent him an email advising him that the book was in print. Professor Brink said he would never know whether Professor Cross had even got to read his email, or not.

“Thank you, Michael. Rest in Peace,” were his last words to the Founding Director of the Ali Mazrui Centre for Higher Education.

The writer, Nqobile Tembe, is a Communication Consultant contracted to Universities South Africa.