Education News

An academic career opens up new ideas and worlds…

With thanks – Solidarity World By Dr Eugene Brink

Published: 16 July 2019


I’m glad I chose an academic career because to me it opened new worlds ─ ideas, problems, people and places.

So says Prof Deon Geldenhuys, renowned political scientist and emeritus professor of politics at the University of Johannesburg (UJ). He adds that the typical tasks of an academic include teaching, tutoring, research and publication, community service, as well as participation in departmental, faculty and sometimes also senate activities.

“I spent about 50% of my time on research and publications; teaching duties and what goes with it (tests, essays, examinations) took about 20%; post-graduate tutoring about 15%; other departmental, faculty and senate duties 10%; and the rest went to community activities. This time schedule could vary from quarter to quarter and from semester to semester as teaching duties varied.

“Another big variable was being head of a department, which could by terribly time-consuming.”

He says what stayed with him over the years, however, was the preference given to time spent on research (which included overseas study tours and participation in conferences) and publications. “In my experience the cherry on the cake was the freedom to set and manage my own research agenda and to get financial support for it from the university and the National Research Fund (NRF), and of course through the state subsidy on publications.

“I also had the privilege of working with eminent colleagues, people whose expertise and collegiality I greatly admire. It was also very gratifying to experience how good students performed, especially on the post-graduate level, and then to follow their careers.”

Geldenhuys’s academic career started in 1972 with a temporary junior teaching post in Political Science at the University of Pretoria (UP) while working on his master’s degree. “In 1975 I interrupted my doctoral studies at Cambridge for a year to come and do research for my thesis in South Africa and to take up a lectureship in Political Science at UP. After completing my PhD I was a lecturer in Political Science at the University of Stellenbosch (US) from mid-1977 to the end of 1978. After that I was a researcher at the South African Institute for International Affairs (SAIIA) in Johannesburg.

“I was astounded when, in mid 1981, I was appointed associate professor and departmental chair in Political Science at the Rand Afrikaans University (RAU). A full professorship followed in 1985. When RAU became UJ in 2005, I stayed on as professor in what was then called Political Studies. At the end of 2015 I reached the compulsory retirement age, but was offered a three-year post-retirement contract. At the end of 2018 this period expired and since then I have been an emeritus professor in Politics at UJ.”

However, not everything in academics is easy and desirable. “My worst frustration since the early nineties was the poor quality of undergraduate students, the tyranny of large numbers, and the pressure from above to increase the so-called “throughput” figure. UJ’s oversized, clumsy and often incompetent bureaucracy was a further frustration. The obsession with the decolonisation of the curriculum also made my hackles rise.

“Over the years the requirements for academic appointments at RAU and later UJ were made stricter ─ at least in a formal sense ─ and defined more precisely. The same applies to promotion requirements. Together with this the relevant processes, such as selection committees, have become increasingly formalised (and bureaucratised). However, two factors have undermined these prescribed processes: the insistence on transformation, i.e. representability, at the expense of deserving white candidates; and the tendency of senior managers to, so to speak, ‘dump’ on departments certain academics looking for jobs.”

What lies ahead? “The British comedian Stephen Fry says: ‘Old professors never die, they just lose their faculties’. As long as I still have my marbles, there are more than enough themes to research. My preference now is the fate of ethnic minorities,” concludes Geldenhuys.