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Faithful Presence

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Faithful Presence

Dr. Chris Warton reflects on 20 years of democracy as a lecturer at UCT. These have been very challenging times for the university – as for the whole country – but Chris is of the opinion that we have a great deal to be thankful for to the Lord. Read his interview as Chris reflects on university culture, secularization, student attitudes and more.

How long have you been on faculty at UCT?

I started working at UCT in the middle of 1980 and have been teaching students in the Faculty of Health Sciences almost exclusively over that time. For that reason, I will be talking about my experience at the Medical School rather than the University as a whole.

How has the Institution changed over the last 20 years?

Around 1994 there was a good deal of insecurity about what future held. There was a loss of morale in our faculty because of this. The government was seeking to establish good policies but by the nature of the circumstances were learning the ropes of running the country and many feared that inappropriate decisions would be forced on us. For example, there was a strong move to merge the medical schools at UCT and Tygerberg, which in the end did not materialise. Likewise the thoroughly correct concern to get health care delivered to rural areas led to concerns that the medical schools and teaching hospitals would be seriously underfunded. That situation has now settled considerably. Our faculty is strong, stable and vigorous and my perception is that there is a confident positive attitude. There was a fear that UCT would lose its international standing, but in fact last year it was ranked 113 in the world in the Times Higher Education World Ranking. The Health Sciences Faculty is likewise highly ranked.  

What demographic changes have you seen over the last 20 years?

The demographic profile of the university has gratifyingly changed dramatically over the last 20 years. Obviously the process needed to be carried out as expeditiously as possible, but at the same time it has needed to be managed in such a way that the university can grow stronger in the process. It is of no benefit to previously disadvantaged people for the demographic transition to be accompanied by the wholesale loss of previous expertise.  It’s my conviction that this extremely difficult task has been handled with great wisdom. I am personally enormously grateful that I have been able to continue to work at the university over this time serving an ever changing group of students. At no point have I sensed unpleasantness or rejection because of my “previous advantaged” race or gender. The mindset of the university as it seeks to serve the whole of Africa with its academic riches is quite wonderful. We have an enormous amount to offer the continent. I find it delightful to see the quality of students that twenty years ago would have been seriously academically disadvantaged, but now are excellent students both academically and personally. It gives me much confidence for our country’s future. When I see some of their spiritual vigor there is much reason to praise the Lord.  

Considering the transformation that UCT has had to undergo, how have student attitudes changed, if at all?

Given South Africa’s history, I am also immensely grateful for the attitudes that I see in the students that I teach. Twenty years ago, when there was the first major influx of black African students into UCT, it must have been very difficult for some to know how to fit in. As a result of our history there had been so little positive contact between people of different races – how should one relate? What response would they expect from the academic staff? The warmth of relationships now is enormously gratifying. I do hope that the students feel that this is ‘our’ University. My impression is that generally they do. I cannot speak for upper campus, but I love the warmth and friendliness that I experience from the students in my classes.

UCT is known as a “secular” university – would you say this is an accurate description or would you add certain nuances?

Because of the radical secularization of western universities, there has legitimately been a real fear that UCT will go the same way.  This surely is happening in some areas. Strangely, however, my own experience has been the opposite. When I joined the university in 1980 I think I was the only professing Christian among the half a dozen anatomists in our department. I believe 4 of the 5 now are professing Christians. Our department is the largest in the University, and I understand that about a third of our academic staff are evangelicals. I know of many evangelicals with senior positions in our Faculty, and for many years have not experienced any unpleasantness for being a Christian. UCT has always honoured the position of religious freedom in principle. This is generally the official position in the west, but is  being eroded in practice. At UCT however – at least in my experience at the medical school – the various religious viewpoints can be expressed freely and unrestrictedly. My impression is that since our commitment is to Africa, rather than the secular West, there is greater practical spiritual freedom at UCT than there used to be. Our challenge as Christian academics is to use this opportunity to develop a vigorous Christian African ethos and not simply swallow the secularism that drowns so much of Western academia. Atheism has always been foreign to Africa. In the West it was disseminated frequently through the universities. Our role as Christian academics at UCT and the rest of Africa is to share out the enormous blessings that a university can provide while still worshipping the Creator and not succumbing to the untruth that good science is godless. My impression from contact with academics elsewhere in Africa is that there are many fine Christian academics on the continent. Radical secularism is a Western, not an African phenomenon. Let’s keep it that way.  

Would you say there is a homogenous university culture? How is medical school different from upper campus, for instance?

The Health Sciences Faculty is and always has been a different world from upper campus. All the students and academics on the campus are involved in a health profession or health related sciences. I believe this has a substantial influence on the cultural atmosphere. Our students are certainly very gifted and have a wide range of interests, but I suspect there is much more political and cultural debate on upper campus than there is at the medical school. I’m not for a moment saying that our students don’t have opinions, but there are very few organisations on medical campus built around individual cultural or political viewpoints. Perhaps it’s because the campus is smaller, perhaps because our academic disciplines are far more homogeneous and focused, or perhaps it may be related to the kinds of students who want to enter the health professions.  

Lastly, Chris, what has your experience been as a Christian faculty member at UCT?

I’ve often heard of the discomfort of being a Christian academic in a Western university. Some departments at UCT seem to have the same ethos. But this has certainly not been my experience in recent years in the health sciences. This does not mean that there are no secularists or atheists in our faculty. There is a full spectrum of religious viewpoints. I sense, however, generally a positive and relaxed interaction and collegiality. There may be debate and discussion, but I honestly don’t experience bitterness. In a university there should be debate and discussion. It’s what we need, it adds life and it’s a sign of a healthy community.

Interview by Liesl Warton

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