Appreciating the University of the Free State's transformation: a juxtaposed journey with Alice to Wonderland
Smit, Emmerentia Jacomina
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Introduction and background to the study The dynamic higher education (HE) sector is continually adapting in order to enhance scholarship. The University of the Free State (UFS) experienced extreme pressure to stabilise the institution in the aftermath of the Reitz debacle in 2008. As a UFS staff member involved in marketing and publicity, I often experienced cognitive dissonance about the resulting changes in the institution. Directly after the Reitz debacle, the Minister of Education, Naledi Pandor, introduced a Ministerial Committee on Progress towards Transformation and Social Cohesion and the Elimination of Discrimination in Public Higher Education Institutions. The ensuing briefing paper reported that the challenges of transformation should not be underestimated. Inherited legacies “produced at the structural level … social and economic inequalities which were accompanied and underpinned by a complex skein of discriminatory political and cultural attributes, dispositions and orientations” (Soudien, 2010). Blade Nzimande, Minister of Higher Education and Training, argued that “explicit bigotry, such as the videotaped incident at the University of the Free State, [is] met with public outrage. Meanwhile, covert forms of racism [discrimination] remain prevalent” (McEvoy, 2009). The transformation debates led me to consider creating a post-critical living theory (Polanyi, 1958; McNiff, 2006) on the institutional identity consciousness (Corbey, 1991) of the UFS (Jansen, 2008). In addition, I considered the possibility of appreciating the Reitz debacle as a public catalyst to a wonderland of transformed identity (Cooperrider, 2010). I also reflected on the outcomes of Higher Education Institutions’ (HEIs) leadership styles and their contribution towards supporting and developing authentic institutional identity at both rural and urban HEIs (Cameron, Dutton & Quinn, 2003; Bushe, 2005; Whitney, Trosten-Bloom & Rader, 2010). By breaking down the disciplinary boundaries, I unpacked the changes in terms of consciousness development, leadership, vision, and identity at the UFS and then reflected on my own identity transformation within the context of the broader institution. In doing so, I juxtaposed a journey with Alice in Wonderland, using the Wonderland characters, sites and experiences to reflect on the transformation at the UFS. I called it my Metaphor Positioning System (MPS), in contrast to a Global Positioning System (GPS). I met Alice at our agreed point-of-departure. Instead of using a GPS (Global Positioning System) to make sense of our journey, I used a MPS (Metaphor Positioning System) and BBM, using the browser option on our mobile phones to record Alice’s route. Science differs in Wonderland, where the different branches of Arithmetic are Ambition, Distraction, Uglification, and Derision, and where the future is beforehand documented on the Oraculum – a calendar of all the days of Underland, each having its own title and illustration. We had no predetermined “route” or “course” and, therefore, had no ETA [estimated time of arrival] or ETE [estimated time [en route] or [geo-fencing] boundaries] for our journey. My “position” was the present “epoch” and Alice’s 150 years ago. Our position was somewhere between the beginning and the end of the journey. The UFS campus was our “control point” and I could locate Alice’s actual position on the “moving map” screen. Adapted from screenwriter Linda Woolverton’s Alice in Wonderland (2010). Theoretical framework For the purpose of this study, a qualitative, post-critical and postmodern Appreciative approach (Bushe, 2005; Cooperrider, 2010; Whitney, Trosten-Bloom & Rader, 2010) is applied to the processes of institutional identity transformation at the UFS. The study is primarily located within the field of Higher Education Studies but borrows notions from industrial and social psychology, visual culture and management studies. Research problem, aim, and objectives The apparent devastating Reitz debacle in February 2008, when four White students humiliated four Black service workers while capturing the incident on video (CNN, 2008), introduced major changes to the UFS. These actions of transformation must have been so radical that it resulted in the World Universities Forum’s 2011 Award for Best Practice in Higher Education. I had to make sense of these processes of change at the UFS and, as a staff member at the institution, observed the numerous changes, which urged me to engage with it on various conscious levels. However, as I engaged on my journey towards coming to terms with the changes, I realised that in my subconscious mind I had also changed, resulting in my final article. This study, as a juxtaposed journey with Alice, was driven by the following questions: What is the authentic identity of the UFS when it needs to identify and brand itself? Is the institution aware of that identity which lies at its heart? The purpose of this study is, first, to apply an Appreciative approach to what appears as an enormous disaster in the existence of the UFS and, secondly, to lead the UFS to consciousness and appreciation where the institution can declare: I am Me. In the entire world, there is no one else exactly like me. Everything that comes out of me is authentically mine because I chose to be authentic – I own everything about me: my being, my feelings, my voice, all my actions, whether they be to others or myself. I own my fantasies, my dreams, my hopes, my fears. I own my triumphs and successes, all my failures and mistakes … I have the tools to survive, to be close to others, to be productive, and to make sense and order out of the world of people and things outside of me. I own me, and therefore, I can engineer me. I am me, and I am Okay. Virginia Satir’s Declaration of Self-Esteem. Article landscape This study consists of 5 articles.