In May of this year a senior academic at the University of Zululand — Professor Gregory Kamwendo, Dean of the Faculty of Arts — was murdered. At the time, the motive was unclear but given the state of the institution many suspected foul play.
It has recently been reported that Kamwendo was murdered by an assassin allegedly hired by one of his colleagues.
The cause? Reportedly that Prof Kamwendo had uncovered a fraudulent scheme to produce PhD graduates.
At first sight, the story seems unbelievable on two counts.
First, the idea of fraudulently producing PhD graduates seems absurd: why would anyone do that? Second, how could exposure of such a scheme lead to an act as extreme as murder? To answer these questions, one needs to consider the state of the University of Zululand (‘UniZulu’) as an institution and the broader dynamics of South African higher education as a whole.
UniZulu had previously been placed under administration in 2011 due to corruption and gross maladministration. Since then the new leadership has been implicated in a wide range of scandals from retaliation against whistle-blowers to tender corruption. Despite that, a special audit report by the Council on Higher Education in March of this year asserted that the university “is not dysfunctional” and should consider a strategy to enhance its institutional reputation. Two months later Kamwendo was murdered.
It would be easy to see this as an isolated incident at a profoundly dysfunctional institution. That would be a mistake. Kamwendo’s murder is an incident that is simply at the extreme end of a spectrum of problematic dynamics in the South African academy. In our academy self-serving behaviour, abuse of power and outright greed are on the rise, while substantive quality, integrity, collegiality and academic freedom are trumped by ‘outputs’ in the form of graduate numbers, publications and rankings — however dubious these outputs may be.
In this context, Kamwendo’s murder could disturbingly be the result of a simple cost-benefit analysis: R400 000 per PhD graduate for the university; a proportion of that for the ‘supervisors’ of the supposed ‘graduates’; labour market benefits such as promotions for the ‘graduates’ and their ‘supervisors’. In contrast it cost a mere R10 000 to eliminate the person who was going to threaten this revenue stream. When you think about it like that, Kamwendo’s murder is no longer an inexplicable act that can be pinned on a few venal individuals in a single, corrupt institution, but the product of the systematic warping of the incentives of our higher education system, where integrity is a trade-off in the pursuit of “outputs”.
The murder of Prof Kamwendo is a stain on our entire higher education system, which we condemn in the strongest terms. Unfortunately, however, it is not an isolated incident. The pattern at UniZulu is clear. But similarly, problematic dynamics with, as yet, less extreme outcomes, are present in all of our universities. We send condolences and support to the Kamwendo family. In grieving the loss of a man of such principle and integrity, we call for justice, not just in prosecuting his murderers but in addressing the institutional and system-level dynamics that his murder draws attention to.