Scholars transforming academia

22 Feb 2016 - 10:30
New UCT MMUF fellows will spend a month in the US and are (from left) Qiniso Van Damme, Monique Henry, Ayanda Mahlaba, Jody van der Heyde, Tasneem Amra, Nasrin Olla (MMUF fellow 2011/2012) and Aaron Mulenga.

There is no well-established pipeline of black or female academics in South Africa – or in Africa. It's one of the toughest challenges in transforming the university sector.

Among the recruitment challenges is insufficient infrastructural support for the long and expensive journey to PhD level.

Recognising the need for transformation of the country's academic cohort, US-based equity programme the Mellon Minority Undergraduate Fellowship Programme, funded by the Andrew W Mellon Foundation, extended its programme to South Africa and UCT in 2002.

In 2003, the foundation reaffirmed its commitment and broadened the MMUF's mission, changing its name to the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship programme to symbolically connect the mission to the stellar education achievements of Dr Benjamin E Mays (an American educator, minister and social activist who mentored Martin Luther King Jr).

The programme identifies highly promising students at a very early stage in their academic careers, and through financial support, mentoring and stimulating academic activities, establishes them on an academic career track.

Students who are entering the final year of a three-year degree or the third year of a four-year professional degree are eligible for selection as MMUF fellows. Students in a three-year degree programme are expected to apply for an appropriate honours programme as a condition of the award.

MMUF academic coordinator Gideon Nomdo says: "It sets up a holistic collaborative and supportive framework through which students are guided and nurtured into postgraduate studies towards achieving a PhD. ?A particular type of mentoring philosophy informs MMUF's key goal, which is to increase the number of black academics in higher education institutions."

Building knowledge by fostering community

May is always a red-letter month for students entering the programme. They gather for their last briefings before embarking on what for many is their first trip abroad: the MMUF summer institute in the US, held during the mid-year vacation.

This year's newly appointed fellows are Tasneem Amra, Ayanda Mahlaba, Aaron Mulenga, Qiniso van Damme, Jody van der Heyde and Marco Titus. Nasrin Olla (MMUF fellow 2011/2012 cohort), a PhD student at Cornell University, and Kathy Erasmus (MMUF co-ordinator) will accompany those headed for the summer institute at Williams College in Massachusetts, a small, private liberal arts college.

"What makes the MMUF programme unique," explains Nasrin Olla, "is that it recognised, from its inception, that scholarly activity cannot be unbound from a sense of community and friendship. The programme emphasises support structures that are both objectively intellectual and socially conscious; it builds knowledge through a fostering of community.

"Above all, what I learnt from my MMUF experience, to paraphrase the philosopher Hannah Arendt, is that this activity we call 'thinking' is about being open to the words and presence of others."

MMUF fellow Ziyanda Ndzendze (master's, 2011 to 2012 cohort) reflects: "I think the biggest thing for me was that someone saw potential in me and was willing to invest in it.

"Mellon opened a space for intellectual debates, and spaces to converse with big, scary professors. They did a very good job of bridging the gap between myself as a junior student and academic staff, through talks and dinners and other kinds of gatherings – and also getting an academic mentor from my field.

"It also forced me to take my research seriously and taught me how to talk about my research confidently, and gave me the ability to engage with people who are not in my discipline about my research."

Initially, Ndzendze wasn't interested in a career in academia.

"For a while I felt like academia was selfish and only focused on using people (participants) to write papers and share them with the elite academic spaces. And when I started thinking about it, because of my interest in teaching and research, it felt a bit far-fetched for me as a black student because of the face of academia around me.

"A programme like MMUF addresses transformation, and with so many people passionate about social justice and community, I started to see more and more how one can make a career out of academia and still be a socially conscious citizen at the same time.

"[The programme] also made me realise that academia was not a far-fetched goal; and that even I, as a student of colour, can be a professor one day."

Overcoming the obstacles

Ndzendze believes more internal programme are necessary to build a new, inclusive academic corps.

"Each university needs to take responsibility, acknowledge the problem ... and start creating space to cultivate academics of colour.

"The reality is that there are too many obstacles in the way for students of colour, when it comes to pursuing higher education, that are beyond their control. If the university claims to care about transformation, they need to take the mission of producing academics from diverse backgrounds seriously."

Advice to young black students interested in a career in academia?

"Believe in yourself, surround yourself with like-minded people, realise that you have an important contribution to make in academia – your experience is just as important as everyone else?s. And read and read and read ..."

Dr Sean Samson is one of 12 candidates who completed his PhD on the MMUF programme (2005/2006 MMUF cohort). He now lectures in the Humanities? Academic Development Programme and works on the First-Year Experience project.

"I've met black academics from far afield who, through sharing their experiences, helped me do away with the 'myth' of the academy or my own naiveté. By this I mean ideas around a linear route to achieving the PhD, and an assumption about where obstacles would come from. In short, life happens.

"My own journey has been characterised by health concerns, funding issues, and family issues; not to mention the obstacles that come with the actual research (cue the violins). While these concerns have not made the journey easy, I knew that others, from similar backgrounds, had made it through.

"I had access to a network of supportive fellows, and black academics who had maintained their integrity (research and otherwise), especially in those cases where they are called upon to speak for the marginalised. I think that this network of black academics that MMUF creates has been the key resource for me.

"MMUF is focused on increasing diversity in the academy, but it has a development focus where the current calls for transformation require more immediate responses. I became a fellow knowing that the work the MMUF community produces will contribute to diversifying scholarship, but it is only recently that I began to think about what teaching for transformation would look like, what the classroom in which this kind of teaching takes place could 'feel' like.

I've also been reminded of the issues (outside of the classroom) that affect academic success, and that are still racialised. Interestingly, this is refl ected in my own student experience – but in my memory I had made it the experience of a minority, which it isn't. I'm finding my feet at the moment; this is the kind of consciousness I'm trying to develop as a teacher, and I believe that MMUF has contributed to this thinking."