There is a paradox in studies of academic promotion. On the one hand, there are concerns about unrepresentative demography mostly demonstrating that minorities are not proportionately represented in senior positions, and on the other hand, many quantitative studies show the absence of bias. It is for this reason that there continues to be research on why the demographic profile does not change or changes unevenly or only slowly.
Academic promotion is the process which facilitates upward staff mobility within the institutional hierarchy. Ad hominem promotion refers to a process where individual staff members apply for personal promotion, usually in response to institutional calls for applications and is distinct from applying for vacant posts which are open to external applicants. Staff apply for promotion to achieve recognition, status and increased remuneration. Since staff vest their identities heavily in work, promotion is often a focus of their ambition. For the process to be credible, it needs to be fair and free from any suspicion that it is biased, at the individual and at the group level.
Ideally, a system should be both fair to individual applicants and reflect equitable success for all groups in the staff complement. For decades, there has been global concern expressed about demographic representation. For example, men continue to dominate senior positions or minority groups are not reflected adequately in staff composition. There are, thus, two ways of approaching questions of promotion—one focussing on the individual and the other on groups. In this article, we reflect on trends in promotion at the University of Cape Town (UCT), by presenting findings of an analysis of eleven years of promotions data from a research-intensive university in South Africa. The national higher education context features a strong emphasis on transformation, a short-hand for the need to address inequalities that were associated with apartheid.
At UCT, issues of promotion and, particularly, the composition of the professoriate have been in the spotlight for many years. In the main administrative building, an artwork by Svea Josephy dating from 2004 pronounces that “88.5% of Full Professors at UCT are White Males”. Yet, the stakes have been raised in the more recent period by protest actions. This study was conducted against the backdrop of turbulence in the higher education system in South Africa. In 2015, the Rhodes Must Fall movement began at UCT when a student activist, Chumani Maxwele, threw excrement over a statue of the imperialist mining magnate, Cecil John Rhodes (1853–1902). The objection of protesters was to the “colonial nature” of UCT and the demand was for “decolonization” (Hodes 2017; Nyamnjoh 2016; Jansen 2017). This was soon followed by the Fees Must Fall movement, a student-led movement calling for free higher education. Both movements had substantial country-wide support though lost much of this when they rapidly became violent.
At UCT, the protests provided space for some staff to express unhappiness about the promotion process which they alleged was biased in terms of race and gender. While, in general, staff (particularly those whose promotion applications had failed) were not convinced of the fairness of the process, there was now a more general suspicion that “black” staff were being prejudiced. The analysis reported here was undertaken partly in response to these concerns.
University academic promotions—global issues
Concerns about academic promotions are not new. In 1973, David A Katz wrote in the American Economic Review, “Recently, there has been considerable concern regarding the problems associated with evaluating and rewarding university professors. While these problems have always existed, they have been compounded by the recent economic recession and the growth of political activism which transcends the traditional line between student and teacher.” (Katz 1973, 469). One of his conclusions was that “an uneven distribution of rewards appears to be inequitable” (Katz 1973, 476). Katz drew attention to issues of unevenness in rules and processes and to the extensive and often unfettered power of senior administrators. Similarly, a study on job satisfaction in the US amongst academic staff found “Employees want fairness in promotions and a promotion system whose criteria are clear” (Locke et al. 1983: 345).
Attempts to reform promotion systems to ensure fairness and equity have been made over the last half century, as reviewed in the subsequent texts. However, in the last two decades, such initiatives have taken place in a context of globalization and marketization of higher education and the introduction of new managerialism that has swept across the world and into universities (Altbach 2004). This context impacts on promotions in two distinct but contradictory ways. In the first instance, new approaches to governance in higher education have given increasing power to managers. Their work is central to the new audit and evaluation culture taking hold in universities. As promotion requirements have become more explicit and the promotion application process more demanding, the ability of managers to influence the process has been reduced. In this sense, the global trend has been towards transparency and, therefore, towards administrative fairness. However, with greater specificity around the duties and the processes of academic work, the ability of academics to exercise discretion, however well-justified, has been reduced and they increasingly become bureaucrats who simply implement rules. Thus, the nature of academic work has been changing and many have argued that the new managerialism threatens the very nature of the university (Connell 2013). There is now less space for discussion, and academic autonomy has been reduced while non-academic managers have decision-making powers historically exercised collectively by academics (Davies 2003). In this context, the issue of promotion may seem less important than keeping one’s job, having control over who and what one teaches and enjoying the autonomy and collegiality that has often been an important consideration in university employment. Changes to the promotion system under the guise of promoting fairness may in fact benefit a particular group of staff—“the more research-active or managerially-inclined staff” and “provide new avenues for rapid promotion” (Shore 2008: 291–92). On the other hand, new management regimes permit greater top-down initiatives which can include addressing demographic staffing inequalities. New managerialism often embraces the language of equality, yet it operates autocratically. Demographic equality can, thus, be advanced to the detriment of institutional culture. For example, “‘hard’ managerialism is seen to be incompatible with concerns about equity and feminist values” (Deem 1998: 66).
Studies on promotion—fairness, inequality and doing something about it
Are particular groups of staff affected by a glass ceiling which puts a cap on their promotion? A number of studies have examined the position of women academics with the consensus being that in some cases they are seemingly affected but that when decision-making is open and a systematic procedure is used, decisions that foster the glass ceiling phenomenon may be averted.
“When procedures for promotion decisions are standardized and criteria for decisions are well established, qualified women may fare at least as well as qualified men. When procedures are not standardized, or when criteria for promotion decisions are unspecified or vague, there may be more occasion for gender-related biases favoring men to affect the outcomes of the promotion process.” (Powell and Butterfield 1994: 82)
Studies on promotion have often focussed on the performance of women. Such studies disclose a complex picture, revealing in some cases that women receive more promotions than men (Hersch and Viscus 1996), others revealing only “fairly minor racial and gender differences in promotion rates” (Lewis 1986: 417) and others noting male advantage but one that has been declining (Baldwin 1996: 1184). Nevertheless, the under-representation of women and staff of colour in senior positions at universities is an ongoing global concern (Allen et al. 2000; van den Brink and Benschop 2012; Oforiwaa and Afful-Broni 2014; Winchester et al. 2006).
In seeking to understand inequalities in the academic hierarchy and specifically why some groups are less successful than others, attention is often paid to the procedures and criteria by which promotions are decided. The suspicion is that discrimination against minority groups may occur because the criteria favour some groups or that the processes by which the criteria are applied are biased.
A critique of promotion criteria often focusses on the undue weight given to research achievement (often held to advantage men) rather than teaching, perhaps because research output can be more easily measured. As students increasingly are viewed as customers to be wooed and pleased (as well as taught and supported), some universities are placing greater emphasis on teaching in the assessment of promotability (Subbaye and Vithal 2017). The same goes for engaged scholarship and social responsiveness with increasing recognition being given to the conversion of research into public good where the focus is not so much on knowledge creation but on knowledge application and “academic citizenship” (Macfarlane 2007; McMillan 2011).
Nevertheless, inequality in staff hierarchies remains common and questions continue to be asked about the promotion processes. While this is a logical place to search for explanations, studies do not readily endorse this as an explanation for inequality. In a comprehensive study of Australian universities where academia has felt the influence of feminism for many decades, for example, a group of researchers conducted a study to explain why only 16% of Australian professors were female (whereas they constituted 39% of the academic labour force), they adopted a hypothesis which states that “under-representation of women in academia reflects barriers in the promotion process” (Winchester et al. 2006: 506). They further proposed that policies that “do not take career interruption into account or which focus primarily on research as a criterion for promotion would disadvantage women. Such policies would in effect constitute barriers to their promotion” (Winchester et al. 2006: 506). They concluded, however, that “the under-representation of women at senior levels cannot be attributed to flaws and barriers in the promotions process” (Winchester et al. 2006: 518). More broadly, they found that “the lack of women in senior positions was not due to discrimination or bias” (Winchester et al. 2006: 519).
Building capacity that strengthens the chances of, particularly minority, staff to get promoted, is common. Mentoring is frequently used to support staff on the road to professorship (Gardiner et al. 2007). Integrated approaches can be successful. In the Chemistry Department at the University of Berkeley, California, where minorities and women are performatively on par with white males at the PhD level (when, historically, white men have been dominant), a bundle of initiatives was introduced. A “culture of structure”—where “the community’s knowledge, implementation and even application of standards” create “a culture in which students know what they need to do, and advisers know what they should encourage”—succeeded in advancing staff and equity (Mendoza-Denton et al. 2018: 301). Interventions make a difference, but they seldom eradicate inequality. Limitations are put down to problematic assumptions that are mobilized in interventions (for example, that certain groups of staff are inherently less competent), poor implementation or to broader structural factors that resist transformation (Johnson-Bailey and Cervero 2008; Ibarra et al. 2010; Iverson 2007).
Demographic inequality may be a result not of biased promotion process but of recruitment processes and staff retention. This point is tellingly made in a big study of the US military which sought to understand the shortage of senior female officers. The conclusion is that the under-representation is a result of high female turnover and overly selective recruitment strategies (Baldwin 1996). Baldwin argues that the focus of affirmative action should be on retention and recruitment (rather than promotion) if a more representative officer profile was regarded as important.
National context and the transformation debate
South Africa’s universities are creatures of colonialism and, subsequently, apartheid. After 1948, the state used universities to produce ideological support for “separate development” and placed white, National-party supporting, males in positions of authority, often as Vice-Chancellors at the Afrikaans language universities and those established to cater separately for black students.
With the dawn of democracy in South Africa, universities became sites of policy debate on how they should be transformed in order to serve and reflect post-apartheid conditions. Affirmative action was one of the key mechanisms debated to redress racial (and gender) inequalities at universities. Some effect was given to the idea of redistribution in the Higher Education Act of 1997 which expressed a vision for a “transformed, democratic, non-racial and non-sexist system of higher education” which would emphasize “equity of access” and “fair chances of success” and “eradicate discrimination” (Motala and Pampallis 2001: 23).
The transformation of universities involved many elements, including student access, pass rates, acquisition of higher degrees and curriculum, but also included the composition of academic staff. Government addressed the issue of staff demographics in its 1997 Education White Paper. It sought to improve the “proportion of blacks and women on academic and executive staff of institutions” (Cloete and Bunting 2000: 75). While not explicitly identifying targets, the implication was that there should be alignment between national demography and staffing complements. In the area of redress and access, for example, it stated “While the number of Africans has increased substantially, the level is still smaller than the proportion of Africans in the population” (RSA 1997: 28). A lack of alignment was observed in the gendered distribution of posts. Women occupied between 30 and 35% of academic positions, but 90% of “the senior and middle ranks” were male (Cloete and Bunting 2000: 35–6).
Initially, the pace of change was slow. From 1993 to 1998, the proportion of white academic staff only went down from 87 to 80% with Cloete and Bunting concluding that, “the higher education system is moving much more slowly than was expected in the White paper. At this pace the higher education system will struggle to satisfy the requirements of the Employment Equity Bill” (Cloete and Bunting 2000: 36). The Gender Equity Task Team supported these conclusions but also identified mechanisms which it believed explained the under-representation of women on university staffing complements, including sexist university cultures that discriminated in numerous ways against women. The Task Team recommended that Universities “scrutinise and then standardise promotion criteria” and that account should be taken of “factors which militate against women gaining promotion” (Wolpe et al. 1997: 158).
Government pressure on universities to “transform” has increased. In 1998, the Employment Equity Act imposed obligations on employers (including universities) to advance the interests and positions of employees and potential employees who were black, female or disabled (Portnoi 2003). Although the focus of the Act was on ensuring the appointment of people from “designated groups”—black, female and disabled—the Act also stated that “the designated employer must provide training and skills development for affirmative action appointees to obtain the necessary skills or qualifications required for a position in the particular workplace” (Portnoi 2003: 79).
A raft of government interventions and organic institutional responses has had significant effect. From 1998 to 2011, the number of university students in South Africa nearly doubled (to 937,455) and the student racial demography changed dramatically with the percentage of black students rising from 55 to 80%. In gender terms, the shift was also dramatic with the proportion of female students rising from 45 to 58% (RSA 2013: 28). On the other hand, government noted limitations including that while “there are almost equal numbers of men and women (staff) overall, women are clustered in the lower ranks of the academic hierarchy” (RSA 2013: 28). Despite the initial slow increase in black African staff numbers, government became increasingly concerned with the status of black African staff, a sub-category of the generic “black” staff which had initially informed transformation policy. The proportion of black African staff rose to 30% by 2012 (from 12% in 1998) (RSA 2013: 28). The black African percentage of the national population was 80.48% according to the 2011 Census (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographics_of_South_Africa). More recent data from the Department of Higher Education and Training shows that by 2017 this percentage had risen further to 38%, reflecting an almost three-fold increase in numbers of black African academic staff, rising from 2817 in 2000 to 7500 in 2017 (an average annual increase of 5.9% per year since 2000 relative to a 0.9% decrease per year for white academics). Staff classified as white comprised 47% of academic staff in 2017 compared to 70% in 2000 (Higher Education Data Analyser www.heda.co.za/PowerHEDA/dashboard.aspx accessed 04 August 2018).
Nation-wide dissatisfaction with the slow pace of social and economic change in South Africa exploded onto university campuses in 2015. While indeed, “every university in South Africa is part of and complicit with some form of unacceptable behaviour supported by tradition, culture and politics whether tacit or spelt out, whether conscious or unconscious” (Lange 2014: 9), we shall argue that the detail of current university practices cannot be reduced simply to a reflex of the past, as though history locks universities into replicating their origins.
UCT—the promotions system and how it works
In the next section, we turn to the analysis of eleven years (2005–2015) of UCT’s promotions data. UCT has seven faculties, each with its own promotion criteria. These are clearly set out, and although not uniform, there are consistency checks in place, and they each have a similar structure which blends four elements—research; teaching and supervision; administration, management and leadership; and social responsiveness/engaged scholarship (community-orientated activity). Each faculty has a process that starts with an annual call for applications for promotion and leads through various stages to a consideration of an application by a large committee that is chaired by the Dean of that faculty and includes the deputy Vice Chancellor, two outside Deans, and other members as determined by the Faculty board. Promotion applications are generally submitted via a consultative process with Heads of Department which sifts out those unlikely to succeed. Although exact figures are not available, most applications are therefore successful.
Considering itself a research-led university, UCT has historically emphasized the importance of research and publication, priding itself on its rank as the highest ranked university in Africa (www.uct.ac.za, accessed 14 May 2018). UCT has a “Research Office” which is charged with promoting and supporting research to increase research productivity and make the university globally competitive. In this process, the Research Office recognises the close connection between research productivity and the promotion prospects of individual staff members (Masango 2015). In 2001, UCT established the Emerging Researchers Programme (ERP) in part as a response to the National Plan for Higher Education “to produce good, sustained research and to make South Africa ‘a significant player on the global stage’” (De Gruchy and Holness 2007: 2). Its aim was to concentrate on “young and/or inexperienced faculty members” with the aim of supporting “researchers in the development of their personal research profiles” (De Gruchy and Holness 2007: 2). This programme grew steadily, promoting interdisciplinary research (Breier and Holness 2011) and expanding its reach into the continent (Holness 2015). Its success was evident in the funding the programme received and in the enthusiastic involvement of UCT academic staff in its activities as well as to their upward mobility in the university’s hierarchy.
Government requirements for demographic transformation added to internal calls for equity. In 2006, UCT implemented an Employment Equity Policy. Its policy stated the following: “Using the University’s recruitment policy and procedures as a framework, every reasonable effort will be made to appoint suitable internal and external candidates from the designated groups to vacant positions” (UCT 2006: #7).
These formal commitments did make a difference but not of the dramatic nature hoped for or increasingly demanded by some staff and students. This led to suggestions of insincerity and of institutional racism. The widespread impression that UCT was resisting pressure to “transform” was echoed in commentaries where a “key problem” was named as “the obdurately white and male character of the academic staff in the sector” (Soudien 2008: 667). The situation was certainly not unique to UCT with academic sociologists in South Africa arguing that many black respondents believed that “certain institutions [were] still grappling with issues of transformation and that racism [was] experienced as a form of institutional racism” (Rabe and Rugunanan 2012: 562).