IN the 1980s, as a relatively young staff member on the Pietermaritzburg campus of the University of Natal, I had occasional encounters with the university vice-principal, Deneys Schreiner. I’ve recently read for pleasure and review his biography written by Graham Dominy.[1]

Schreiner was a member of one of South Africa’s most prominent liberal families. His grandfather and great aunt were respectively W.P., premier of the Cape and supporter of the ANC delegation to London before Union, and Olive the feminist and novelist. His father, O.D., was an Appeal Court judge, fierce opponent of the National Party particularly over the removal of the coloured vote, and president of the Institute of Race Relations. The Schreiner I knew was famous for the spacious grey beard (‘formidable and iconic’ as Dominy amusingly describes it) he grew in 1956 when the coloured vote struggle was lost; then removed for South Africa’s first democratic general election in April 1994. Presciently he soon let it grow back. Dominy sums him up as ‘a good man, a fine scholar and a clever thinker.’ His gravestone carries the inscription ‘Nihil illegitimae carborundum’, which may be translated as ‘Don’t let the bastards grind you down’.

Reading the biography made me think back to the days when the head of the university campus administration in Pietermaritzburg (I use that word deliberately; not management) was a principled, if cautious, liberal. Schreiner could be maddening, a view apparently shared by some members of his immediate family. He liked to quibble and play devil’s advocate, but we all knew this was not malicious. It tested your viewpoint and argument, made you careful about your facts and motivation, and generally improved the quality of dialogue. On a couple of occasions I left Schreiner’s office convinced I had wasted my time; only to find out a few days later that he had argued my case successfully somewhere. It was a lesson to remember.

Above all, Schreiner represented a generation of university administrators who put conviction, high principles and responsibility ahead of personal ambition. They were there for the duration, custodians of a public asset, guided by universal values such as academic freedom and autonomy; and constantly aware of the fact that they were guardians required to hand over to the next generation a flourishing institution. Their every decision was framed by responsibility to an ethic of service; not short-term contracts, the next promotion and political correctness. This meant that you could generally operate knowing that any reasonable idea, project or response would receive a fair and usually intelligent hearing. 

The result was an institution that is a far cry from the academic and financial bankruptcy of some South African universities today. Their current culture derides and dismisses the institutions of the past but this in itself is a pointer to loss. What I mourned as my own university career came to a premature conclusion was the absence of space to exercise imagination, initiative and innovation. With university restructuring in came managerialism and authoritarianism. I left higher education mainly because senior administrators were no longer able to function in any sense as effective advocates for their colleagues. My job as I saw it was to enable the work of those for whom I had been given responsibility in the context of the legitimate purpose of the institution. It was something Schreiner would have understood only too well. But by 2005 it was impossible. So-called line managers were required to do no more than pass down orders and enforce discipline.

The campus of the 1980s was full of imperfections and had no shortage of passengers. But it embraced sterling qualities, personified by people like Schreiner, which made it a true university. One was tolerance of a wide range of views that were exchanged in a civilised manner. When Schreiner had to deal with a student discipline problem, he did so in an effective, decisive and judicious way. Deeply opposed to apartheid and supportive of non-racial campuses, he joined student protests; and backed up those who were persecuted by the authorities. University leaders like him gave courage to those facing the might of an authoritarian regime, for instance during the four-year State of Emergency.

University administrators of that era had the experience, confidence and ability to make good ad hoc decisions and calmly encouraged others with the same inclinations and aptitudes. The process of running a university was taken very seriously and assumed a great deal of hard work; but this was not without a level of humour and enjoyment that would be impossible today. The fact that the Pietermaritzburg campus was a pleasant place to work meant that it encouraged intellectual and practical creativity. Many people gave to it far more than they took away.

It was also very well integrated with the city around it in a variety of ways, easily accessible and welcoming. The library, for instance, was open to members of the public and free borrowing rights were extended to staff of public benefit organisations, including the local newspaper. The weekly university lecture often drew large numbers of people from the city and could be a major intellectual or political event. Dominy’s biography reveals that Schreiner was a strong supporter of the adult education department.

Now this same campus is a place of fear: staff of all sorts admit to anxiety about their safety after numerous acts of student violence and thuggery that have been tolerated for years by the university authorities. They, while indulging outrageous behaviour by some students, have established a culture of academic serfdom and a disciplinary environment. Some of the examples have had all the hallmarks of derangement. In Schreiner’s time many such disputes were settled maturely over a cup of tea and a handshake.

Once universities abandon a liberal ethic they stop being universities because they are no longer universal.  Teaching, research, thinking and writing require a stable and calm atmosphere. Academic discourse needs tolerance and civility. It is not possible in an atmosphere of either authoritarianism (university management) or anarchy (certain student movements). But today those are the prevailing winds on too many campuses.

About ten years ago the influential and astute educationalist, Jonathan Jansen, argued that the South African university was effectively dead. Nothing has happened in the meantime to suggest otherwise. The buggers certainly didn’t grind Schreiner and his like-minded colleagues down. But they have, alas, subsequently triumphed. Society will pay a price.

[1] Graham Dominy, The Man Behind the Beard: Deneys Schreiner, a South African Liberal Life (Pietermaritzburg: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2020).