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The Case for Equity

23 Apr 2007 - 11:15

The case for equity - Professor Martin Hall

By Professor Martin Hall, Deputy Vice-Chancellor with responsibility for transformation

Professor David Benatar and I share the same objective - an ever improving university in a just society. We differ as to the means of achieving this objective.

David Benatar's argument is as follows. When universities such as UCT make staff appointments they may use three forms of Affirmative Action that use race as a criterion ("tie-breaker", "strong preference" or "set asides"). The stronger the reliance on race, the less the relative value of the qualities of the applicant. These Affirmative Action policies are justified in two different ways. "Rectification arguments" seek to correct past injustices. "Consequential arguments" are that Affirmative Action results in one or more beneficial outcomes: better knowledge (or "truth"), the replacement of bad stereotypes with good role models, a more legitimate institution, or an ideal society. Professor Benatar argues that each of these justifications can be shown to be fallacious. As a result, Affirmative Action policies are contrary to the objective of a just society because they perpetuate the "absurdities and perils" of racial classification and because they are a threat to quality.

It is important to be clear that there are no rules or guidelines for the work of selection committees at this university that use terms such as "tie-breaker", strong-preference" or "set asides". Further, none of our policies use the term "Affirmative Action". Our Equity policies are rather founded on Section 9 of the South African Bill of Rights - the "equality clause". This stipulates that "everyone is equal before the law and has the right to equal protection and benefit of the law". Unfair discrimination on the basis of race, gender, disability and a range of other grounds is prohibited. But at the same time, the Bill of Rights specifies that "fair discrimination" may be used to achieve a condition of equality in which everyone has "the full and equal enjoyment of all rights and freedoms". In sum, the 1996 Constitution and the legislation that has followed recognises that previous discrimination has created a situation in which a general condition of equality has yet to be achieved. The onus on the university - and specifically in the framing and application of its Equity policies - is, quite correctly, to demonstrate that the discrimination it applies in admitting students and appointing staff is "fair".

How is this Equity Policy enacted in practice? Again, our policy is clear: "the University recognises that the criteria for appointment are academic and professional excellence, and that any candidate recommended must meet the requirements for the appointment in question". This leads to a set of clear expectations of selection committees, including that they will take into account "diversity attributes" such as race, gender and disability.

The nub of the issue, then, is whether any selection process at the university that uses race as a criterion is justifiable. Professor Benatar insists that "rectification" and "consequential" arguments are mutually exclusive categories; you must either be a "rectifier" or a "consequentialist", and you may not switch at will. But rectification arguments are historical - they look back at prior conditions and see such conditions as germane to the present and the future. Consequential justifications anticipate how actions in the present might achieve a desired outcome. To argue that the two sets of justifications must be mutually exclusive in analysis is to argue for a world without history.

Freed from this requirement, Professor Benatar's arguments against race can be regrouped in a different way. On the one hand are arguments that are primarily about fairness to the individual person. On the other hand are arguments that are primarily about the institution - about the composition of the public university as gatekeeper to careers and professions, and as generator and distributor of knowledge.

David Benatar's arguments against the use of race when weighing the merits of an individual are twofold. Firstly, race is an inappropriate proxy for past or present injustice because the more disadvantaged the person, the more underqualified the person will be for life in a university by virtue of poor schooling or prior education. In other words, the more race is taken into account, the less quality counts. Secondly, disadvantaged people make poor role models (or counter-stereotypes) because they are disadvantaged. In other words, if race is used as a "strong" criterion for selection, thereby diminishing the weight given to quality, negative stereotypes may well be perpetuated - a consequence opposite to that intended.

Arguments against the use of race at the collective level - improving the university as an institution - hinge on the issue of proportionality. Professor Benatar argues that it is illogical to assume that objectives such as diversity of opinion, institutional legitimacy or the attainment of an ideal community depend on the demographic composition of the university matching the demographic composition of South African society. The measure of the racial composition of the university is therefore unnecessary and inappropriate as an index of our progress towards an ideal institution in a just society.

To counter these arguments, we need to understand how Professor Benatar uses "race". It is notable that, in advancing his arguments, Professor Benatar does not tell us clearly what he believes "race" to be. But in stating that Affirmative Action is illegitimate because it perpetuates the "absurdities and perils" of racial classification there is a clear implication of continuity - that we are using the concept of race today in the same way that it was used prior to the abolition of the Population Registration Act. It is clear though that there is no continuity between race as evoked in apartheid race legislation, and race as evoked in the Bill of Rights, and by extension in our Equity Policies.

Firstly, and obviously, we do not use race as a biological type. We rather use race as a historical and social construct, founded in shared histories, beliefs, customs and values. Our understanding of racism is that these social and historical constructs are combined with the illegitimate use of power to attain unfair advantage through the promotion and use of prejudice. Given that that we are a society less than two decades away from legally sanctioned and enforced racism, and that daily examples of prejudice abound, arguments that the university can be "race-blind" are naïve.

Secondly, and perhaps less obviously, the recognition of the salience of race, including whiteness, as a social and historical construct is an asset that contributes to the university's objective of contributing to a society in which everyone has "the full and equal enjoyment of all rights and freedoms". Because the word "race" carries its own burdens of connotations, we tend to forget that it is shorthand for a cluster of attributes that are essential to our continuing success as a university. Here, our Equity policies seek to transform the narrowness of established traditions of recruitment and selection that have resulted in a predominantly white, male and Eurocentric worldview of "knowledge making". Diversity in gender, sexual orientation, differing physical ability, multilingualism, the experience of being first generation at university, and a knowledge of different intellectual traditions enhances the intellectual life of the university. Most urgently for UCT, now and in the coming years, we need to draw on the full intellectual resources of South Africa and the rest of Africa in order to construct new knowledge paradigms and build innovative intellectual traditions. This requires that we break free of the old criteria for appointment. In this sense "race", along with "gender", is shorthand for cluster of experiences, perceptions and abilities that augment formal academic qualifications and relevant experience in moving towards new standards of excellence.

What of the interests of the institution as a whole - of the group of arguments that David Benatar adumbrates against proportionality and legitimacy? For it is indeed the case that our current Equity Policy calls for representivity in the institution in proportion to the broader composition of society.

Here, a slavish adherence to proportionality would indeed be absurd. If our policies were aimed at, say, a 2% adjustment in Black staff, or a 1% increase in women, we would be in the realm of blind managerialism. But there must surely be a quantitative measure to what constitutes a just society.

Here is the present situation. Black South Africans (defined inclusively in the designated group terminology of the Employment Equity legislation) comprise about 90% of the South African population, and White South Africans the remaining 10%. As of today, 19 581 students are registered at UCT, of whom 19% are international, 40% Black and 42% White. In 2006, we made 334 staff appointments (a turnover of less than 10% of our total staff). Of these appointments, 9% were international, 64% black and 28% white. Given these measures are we, as a public institution, sufficiently close to our Constitution's objective of a society in which everyone has "the full and equal enjoyment of all rights and freedoms", and are we are moving rapidly enough in accumulating the rich and diverse intellectual capital that we will need if we are to maintain our reputation as a leading university in the years to come?