Young academics need a strong, properly structured support system to climb the ranks and one day become professors
Young academics need a strong, properly structured support system to climb the ranks and one day become professors

June 29, 2015

There is a growing call globally for universities to develop and nurture more black professors. In South Africa, the issue is sharpened by the country’s racist legacy. It has been more than two decades since the official end of apartheid and there are still alarmingly few black professors in South African universities.

There is an obvious need for equity and redress after decades of racial exclusion. But there are also compelling educational reasons to employ more black academics in our universities.

For instance, young people – especially black youths – need to be exposed to role models they can admire and emulate. There are wider benefits: a critical mass of black academics can influence institutional culture. This will help to create universities where all students and staff feel welcome and can do their best work.

Universities produce and disseminate knowledge. They have an obligation to contribute to the public good. A more diverse academic workforce is likely to challenge the traditional ways in which these purposes are achieved and can contribute to South Africa’s broader transformation agenda.

A diverse group of researchers will also introduce a broader range of research questions and methodologies. More varied research sites and kinds of knowledge are likely to be generated and valued by academia.

Preparation and support are key

But professors aren’t born: young academics must be nurtured and supported through a long, tough journey into the professoriate. Professors need deep knowledge and understanding of their discipline. They must be able to teach and induct a diverse student population into ways of thinking and knowing about that discipline.

They also have to build a research career which involves conducting groundbreaking research and supervising postgraduate students. Finally, it means getting involved in community engagement programmes.

This daunting list of requirements makes it clear that appointing anyone as a professor without proper preparation is potentially very harmful both to the individual and their institution. Universities and the government need well-conceptualised, managed and sustained systems to bring black academics into the professorial fold.

Baby steps need to replaced by big leaps

In the last 20 years, some South African institutions have introduced programmes designed to grow their own academic timber and change the demographic profile of their academic staff. Rhodes University, for instance, has used accelerated development programmes in its bid to diversify the next generation of academics.

Academics involved in these programmes are given a reduced teaching load so they can obtain their postgraduate disciplinary qualifications. Crucially, they are assigned a mentor in their field to guide and support them in all aspects of their career development. All the next generation academics must participate in a formal programme that prepares them to become lecturers. So far, 33 black academics who have gone through this programme have been offered posts at Rhodes.

Other universities and the National Research Foundation have established Emerging Researcher programmes to enable academics to develop their research profiles. There are also several initiatives aimed at enhancing academics’ capacity to supervise at a postgraduate level.

Together, these programmes are only a drop in the ocean when it comes to attracting, retaining and supporting black academics. Now the South African government and the statutory body Higher Education South Africa have agreed that it is time for a coherent national strategy on this important issue.

The Department of Higher Education and Training has created a New Generation of Academics Programme that will initially fund 125 new teaching posts across all the country’s 25 public universities. Each lecturer will be appointed on a six-year contract at a cost of about R2.1 million (around US $165,000) per post. Most of these posts are earmarked for black South Africans and/or women.

Does the higher education sector have the capacity and political will to implement this programme properly? Those who are demanding meaningful transformation in the system will be watching closely.