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Racism, Examination Assessments and the Transformation of Wits University

- Adam Habib

To advance transformation in our medical school, we changed our admissions processes three years ago, enabling special access for students from rural schools.

In the last ten days, a racial controversy erupted at Wits University when a group of medical students took a class photograph with a banner stating that the medical school was racist. I took a firm view against this small group of students on social media, as did the University when it released a public statement a few days later. This is because we believe that it is imperative that a noble struggle to transform our public institutions is not in any way compromised by opportunism on the part of individuals to advance their own careers or attempts to bypass assessment processes, using lack of transformation as an excuse.

Transformation is an imperative at Wits University and within its medical school which is why three years ago, we developed a comprehensive transformation plan that involves, amongst other aspects, diversifying our student enrolment, changing our staff demographics, addressing the living standards of the poorest of our employees, creating a cosmopolitan environment in our university and residences, implementing a new language policy, transforming our curriculum, and renaming our buildings and spaces. We rigorously implement this plan, track progress on a monthly basis and release regular reports on indicators. Read the latest report.

To advance transformation in our medical school, we changed our admissions processes three years ago, enabling special access for students from rural schools and quintile one and two urban schools, provided that they meet our rigorous standards for admission. Yet we recognised that individual acts of racism would continue. We are also aware of racism’s subtle manifestations. This is why we have both a Transformation Office and a Gender Equity Office with the mandates to investigate and prosecute acts of racism and sexual harassment by individuals within our University community. We have had many such investigations in the last year, some of which have culminated in mediation and others that have resulted in severe disciplinary action. Why then were we so firm with these students who alleged racism in our assessment processes?

This is not the first time that we have had such allegations made. The issue regularly raises its head when some students fail. In the last year, we initiated two independent investigations into our assessment processes, one in the School of Accountancy and the other in the School of Clinical Medicine. The first was undertaken by a senior academic from another university, and the conclusion was that our assessments were in line with those of our peers and of a standard that was both globally competitive and contextually relevant. The second investigation, in the medical school, was undertaken by a senior academic from the Faculty of Humanities who has experience on matters of racism and how to address them. After a comprehensive, three-month investigation, he concluded that a racism charge could not be upheld, although there were definitely administrative, communication and consultation weaknesses within the Faculty. This report was discussed with the student leadership of the Faculty and the students in the relevant classes.

Despite this report, just a few weeks later, a small group of students who failed a particular course raised the racism allegations again. Some accused the medical school of making special concessions for white students who failed a course while not doing the same for black students. Not a shred of evidence was put forward to support this allegation. Instead, they targeted a student who they believed received such a special favour. The student had done nothing wrong. In fact, she passed her examination with the second highest grade in the class. However, her exam result was incorrectly captured on the University's computer system and she was obliged to undertake a remedial programme. When the error was discovered, the Faculty put in place measures to correct it, including allowing the student to complete the remainder of her academic assessments and her clinical practice so that she could graduate. We also initiated an investigation to determine how such an error could be made and what safeguards to put in place in this regard.

Essentially, what we have here is a student who passed, who through no fault of her own has been targeted by another group of students who failed, and who is accused of being granted favours because she is white. The group of students who failed were essentially trying to racialise a matter because they wanted to bypass the University's assessment processes. They suggested that the Faculty's assessment processes were against black students, even though the vast majority of our students in the Faculty – black and white – have passed their examinations. These racialised assertions were supported by others who, without having the facts at hand, simply supported the attack on the Faculty and in this case, an innocent student. The incident demonstrates the danger of acting without having the full facts at hand and of engaging uncritically in a crude populism that is informed by racial chauvinism.

Some of this manifested in an article in the Sunday Times on 3 December 2017. The article claims that out of a final 6th year class of 329 students in medical school, 95 failed at least one or two blocks. It claims that of these 95 students, 90 were African. We are not sure of the source of this data. The latest data at our disposal demonstrates that the class size is 321, of which at least 256 will graduate. 11 students have failed and will have to repeat the year. Of the 321, 53 will carry one or two blocks into 2018. If they pass early next year, they will graduate.

The sub-text in the Sunday Times article is that this data somehow demonstrates racism in the Faculty and its assessment processes. But here is the problem with this conclusion; it assumes that something is wrong with the Faculty’s assessment processes despite independent investigations concluding otherwise. It does not mention that examinations are externally examined and independently verified. The implied solution is that we should change our assessment processes, thereby creating an alternative grading system for black students. The net effect would be to compromise the professional standing of future doctors and put out graduates with a lower level of mastery of their discipline.

A more scientific analysis of this data could lead to a different diagnosis of the problem and an alternative solution. If this data were put against another set which looks at graduation rates of students after one additional year of study, it would demonstrate that the number of African graduates will substantially improve. The issue that this raises is that given our entrance requirements in 2011 (the year of entry of this cohort of students) were lower for African than they were for white and Indian students as a result of the structural educational deficits African students suffer under, is it worth it for us as a society to incur this extra cost to produce a more demographically representative sample of doctors? My answer to this question would be a categorical yes, especially given that we now have further enhanced the transformative character of our admissions by including students from rural and quintile 1 and 2 urban schools.

But there is an even deeper problem that this data demonstrates. Even if an additional year would be worthwhile for producing a more demographically representative sample of doctors, why is it that there is such an overt racial profile to the failure rate in the final year of medicine? Even if African students are being taken into the programme on a lower academic score, six years earlier should our academic development and social support programmes not correct for the structural educational deficit after five or six years? What challenges do these results pose for our academic development and social support programmes? These are the nuanced questions that we should be considering. The debate does not even touch on these questions because it addresses the challenge through a crude racial populist lens. The net effect is that the problem is being misdiagnosed which may result in inappropriate solutions being advanced.

The challenge to our assessment processes has not been made simply by black students. We have had repeated attempts at this in recent months by students (and sometimes parents) across the racial divide. We have had wealthy students who threatened the University with legal action because they had failed or were unhappy about the marks that they had received. Sometimes this created tensions within our student community because of a feeling that concessions were somehow being made, even when this was not the case. In other cases, we have had students or their parents threatening to report the university to ministers and others in government. And then we have had other students – across the racial divide – who have played the race card in an attempt to bypass either our assessment or admission processes.

In all of these cases, our response has been the same: we will not succumb to legal, political or populist pressure to pass individuals who have not mastered the knowledge and skills that are required for them to graduate. Our resolve in this regard is clear, because not only would it be morally reprehensible to pass students who have not mastered the knowledge and skills required by their disciplines, but it would also be dangerous for society. After all, medical students hold the lives of their patients in their hands. Teachers are responsible for the educational futures of our children. If we were to compromise on examination assessments, it could jeopardise the lives of many others in our society.

Our defence of Wits' assessment processes, after independent investigations that proved their legitimacy, is important to retaining the credibility of our qualifications. If a perception emerges that our rigorous assessments can be bypassed through legal, political or populist pressure, then our degree certificates will lose their employment and professional cache. As of now, 93% of our students get a job within six months of graduating. The outcome is beneficial for our graduates, and is a result of the sterling contribution of all of our staff and the dedication of most of our students. This must not be compromised in any way by the unfortunate actions of a few.

Finally, a remark on the racism that has manifested itself in this debate. There are posts on social media and statements made in forums such as talk shows that are profoundly racist. They speak disparagingly of whites and blacks, and inappropriately use historical incidents to arrive erroneously at the most racist conclusions about groups of people. Some make disparaging remarks about 'curry', 'Gandhi' and Muslims, simply, I assume, because they pigeon-hole me as reflecting these identities. And others speak approvingly of fascist discourses and behaviour in the naive belief that this will somehow deliver them from their sense of racialised victimhood. 

Some are of these remarks are, of course, made out of ignorance, and they can be forgiven. But there are many others that are borne of deep racism. And there are not enough voices rising up against this racism. Politicians and political parties pander to it for opportunistic ends and short term electoral gains. Social justice activists remain silent for fear of being labelled or deemed irrelevant. Journalists do not rigorously interrogate the proponents of these views and allow individuals to get away with the most outlandish, racist remarks.

But we do this at our collective peril. If we allow our public discourse to be dominated by the most racist among us, those who mobilise on the most basic of human instincts, then we will be condemned to a future of division, fear and violence. The vast majority of us are decent human beings. But we are too easily silenced by the political spectacle that is being created by the small group of racists among us. We need to stand up against them; they need to hear that they do not speak in our name. Only then, can we collectively build an inclusive future that serves all of our interests.

This opinion piece was originally published in the Daily Maverick. Professor Adam Habib is the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of Wits University.