The costs of equity by Prof Jonathan Jansen, President of ASSAf

Almost all academics would agree that equity in university staffing is a good thing and that any perceived trade-off with excellence represents a false choice. The best universities pursue both those commitments and the more thoughtful among them would recognize that at least one measure of excellence is the extent to which institutions also advance equity in appointments and promotions.

But I am beginning to ponder the costs of equity in South African universities. I am certainly not concerned that over time the problem of achieving equity in university appointments resolves itself even at higher levels of appointment i.e., associate and full professors. We are still engaged in a research project which suggests that the rate of change towards equity in professorial appointments rectifies itself in terms of ‘race’ though the speed at which we get there depends very much on the drive of institutional leadership.

Taking UNISA out of the equation (there 50% of academic appointments are professors, 27% for the sector as a whole) for reasons we know: the lowest possible bar for senior academic appointment and promotion), all universities are chugging towards meaningful racial equity in staffing that has already been achieved in student enrolments.

Interestingly, trends across the world suggest that one group is excluded from the inevitable march towards equity and that is women researchers in the bench sciences; in these disciplines senior women researchers tend to opt out of scientific work for complex sociological reasons including the demands of the job, which privileges men, and the pull of other priorities. More about this when we publish this research.

There is, however, a cost to equity among the most talented black and women academics at the very point that they are emerging as serious scientists (broadly defined, including the humanities) mostly at the senior lecturer level of appointment. This concern arose from our ongoing research on the rate of translation of P’s to A’s in the rating system of the National Research Foundation (NRF). Recall that a P is the highest rating for a talented academic researcher at around age 35 or younger while the A is the top rating for a senior scientist. How many P’s eventually become A’s and over how many rating cycles (a rating is held for a five-year period)? My hunch from another small research project is that very few make that transition at any point over an academic career.

The question is, why? I sensed this problem while working with the Future Professors Programme, a DHET-funded initiative that seeks to accelerate the progress of the top young scientists at senior-lecturer equivalent positions. Most of these excellent researchers are black and women South Africans. At the very point that these scientists are about to take-off in their academic careers with often spectacular research projects, the university extracts a cost from them in the following ways.

They begin to experience the pressure at this stage of their careers to become Heads of Department or even Deans. In other words, they are called on to assume senior administrative, management and leadership duties that in most cases will hobble their scientific careers. These researchers are experienced enough to do such work but young enough to find their research trajectories undone.

To be sure, there are individuals who have done both with acclaim and one is tempted to mention some names but such multi-taskers would be recognizable in many universities. However, most breakthrough scientists cannot do both; the sheer weight of headship or deanship cancels out research time and even impacts in negative ways on what teaching still remains.

Here’s the snag. It is not only the fact that these are senior scientists in the making, it is also that they are increasingly Black and women. A Dean is under pressure from higher up, the Vice-Chancellor or Deputy Vice-Chancellor’s Office, to transform the leadership of departments that might still be overwhelmingly white and male. Those senior administrators, especially the one-eyed ones, see only equity when a leadership vacancy arises and not also the opportunity lost to research when a promising scientist is under pressure of recruitment.

The promising and productive young scientist is now at a crossroads in her career and these kinds of questions come to mind. How do I say no to the Dean? Does saying no carry some hidden penalty? If I take this job, even if only for one term, will it enhance my chances of becoming professor? The Faculty (or school or department) has never had a black head in its history; surely I can’t just complain about the lack of transformation but not respond to the opportunity to change that picture when the opportunity arises? How can I say no to the salary increment that my young family could benefit from at this time?

These are difficult questions and involve tough choices. I can see the perspective of the Vice-Chancellor’s Office desperate for transformation in the ranks of senior leadership across the university, and also that of the young scientist who so desperately wants to move from doing good research to becoming a great scholar on the world stage. And yes, there are career calculations to be made at the coalface of academic work and obligations.

My advice to the many young scientists counselled on these questions goes something like this. You will always have the opportunity to lead a department or faculty or even a university but the chances of escalating your research to competitive levels on a world-stage seldom comes more than once in an academic journey. Once you have established yourself as a serious scientists, then make yourself available for leadership jobs.

And for those who can do both, managerial leadership and laboratory research, for example, negotiate terms such as time-off for leading your research team and funding for additional research team members. However, the risk remains: enter the demanding world of academic administration and there is a real chance your promising research career will slowly grind to a halt. Now that is a serious cost to the future of a more equitable research enterprise that is reflected in the diversity of the professoriate.

I welcome counter-views and other insights on this important question.