Keyan G. Tomaselli, Contemporary Campus Life: Transformation, Manic Managerialism and Academentia (Cape Town: BestRed, 2021)

THIS book is a reminder that the medium is indeed sometimes the message. Keyan Tomaselli, for many years the well-known griot of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, employed satire, irony and ridicule to comment critically on the institution in the tradition of protected West African bards. Into this book he inserts a great deal of himself, the autoethnography of a self-described academic traveller, in the fashion of Bill Bryson. He writes about a disastrous situation in South African higher education in a style best summed up as droll.

Staff and students, teaching and learning, research and communication. These are the essentials of the university and Tomaselli subjects each to his sharp analysis, subversive irony and the catharsis of humorous storytelling that sustains people through periods of chaotic authoritarianism. Tomaselli remembers the days when at South Africa’s liberal anti-apartheid universities there was a significant measure of democratic, grassroots governance over academic matters; symbolised by elected deans. Today, in a liberated country, South African universities are often governed in distinctly undemocratic ways through anti-humanist bureaucracies. The term academentia is well-chosen: universities have been transformed into production lines, degree factories serving customers, overseen by ‘manic’ managers.

This new, highly paid elite now runs universities through spreadsheets that measure inputs and outputs; supposed performance. The strengths and interests of these managers are branding, appearances and opulent offices; and they travel constantly between well-catered meetings. The same ‘self-serving gangster ruling class’ that hjacked transformation in society as a whole is present in the academy. It has subordinated intellectual innovation and original thought to the servicing of clients, markets and political agendas. Enormous salaries and bureaucratic inefficiency are characteristic, but when the script proves flawed it is academics who are the scapegoats for the failure of dysfunctional systems and policies.

In at least one American university (Texas A&M) this has been taken as far as turning each member of the academic staff into a cost centre. Everything is apparently measurable; except that in the final analysis universities are unquantifiable. Thought and intellectual effort are not products. Tomaselli repeats the widely reported opinion of Peter Higgs who suggests that the God particle might have remained unknown under contemporary governance; and asks how Albert Einstein would have fared. Thinking cannot be reduced to metrics. Bean counters and abacus management simply encourage mediocrity.

Reduced to serfdom on an administrative treadmill, disorientated by constant change, and ‘measured to death’ in the interests of performance management, the life of an academic is no longer at all desirable. Fordism has produced irrelevant demands concerning spurious efficiency, undefined transformation, and deathly corporatisation; and dealt a blow to collegiality. Short-termism has trumped long-term custodianship of national assets.

The policy of government has been to massify the student intake. Many individuals are ill-prepared for higher education; or simply uninterested except to acquire with minimal effort a piece of paper misinterpreted as a job passport. Tomaselli reckons that only 25% of students are genuine learners and that critical thinking is at a premium. Writing in sentences is not popular and plagiarism is common. So is militancy such as the demand ‘Pass one, pass all’. Tomaselli’s damning response to that is ‘Fail one, fail all’. Campuses have become sites of victimology and revolving protest that appear embedded in the national DNA. Tomaselli poses two questions that most people do not have the courage to ask: who and what exactly is to be freed by transformation; and to what purpose? He also queries whether transformation and decolonisation can ever find a satisfactory conclusion as history is complex and multi-layered. It cannot be reduced to the binary.

Under these conditions research and writing have suffered. One factor is a permissions regime in which bureaucrats suck any enthusiasm out of the creative process and this is beginning to affect not just field survey and experimental work, but the simple process of quotation and citation. Rules about ethics require archival vandalism over research material. The pressure to publish from an audit culture means that far too many articles are produced with a rising count of retractions. Tomaselli points out that academic articles are no longer trusted as potentially authoritative sources in legal proceedings. He also notes that academics of major standing – Manuel Castells, Stuart Hall, Michel Foucault – wrote books, not the articles now much in vogue in the measuring and monetisation of publication.

Academics in general have tended to be poor communicators with the world at large, weighed down by what is conveniently and conventionally regarded as academic. All too often this is no more than jargon understood only by fellow specialists, while intelligible and engaging prose written for the general public is dismissed as unacademic. Tomaselli points out that the most effective means of communication is actually the cartoon.

The truth, unpalatable to many, is that universities are indeed elitist: places of stability designed for literate thinkers. The value of academia, writes Tomaselli, is that it ‘Takes forever … Rhetoric, argumentation and thoughtfulness, and a consideration for the consequences of ill-advised ravings … Think, theorise and then teach ‒ the three Ts’ (p. 167). It has no room for idiotic Twitter culture, so-called safe spaces, sloganeering or violence; but does require robust and honest debate. The current state of academentia, and not just in South Africa, discounts that possibility.

This book ends on a suitably upbeat note, but few of the author’s twenty improvements look attainable: an entirely antagonistic culture has taken a grip on higher education in South Africa. Yet again one returns to Jonathan Jansen’s famous question whether universities any longer exist in this country. Entertaining and readable, this book reveals a desperate state of affairs.