From education to activism, Max Price leaves a remarkable legacy

  • MaxPrice
It is the end of an era, as Dr Max Price leaves the University of Cape Town (UCT), where he has been Vice-Chancellor for the past 10 years. Though he concluded his tenure last month, this dynamic doctor and educator left an indelible mark on the university, having achieved so much in such a short time.
by TALI FEINBERG | Aug 02, 2018

Price has taken the university through a tough and fascinating period.

Behind the scenes of what was often a scenario of high drama, Price worked to improve UCT from every angle. Under his tenure, the university grew 25%, with 6 000 more students than when he began his tenure ten years ago. Research output more than doubled, and fundraising trebled. “We raised nearly a million rand every day,” Price says. Much of this goes towards scholarships for poor and lower middle class students.

Price also introduced new teaching initiatives, and incentivised leadership and volunteer programmes to produce well-rounded graduates. He facilitated a number of new institutes, from the School for Design Thinking to the Nelson Mandela School of Governance, and his Vice-Chancellor Initiatives focused on schools improvement, climate change, crime and violence, and inequality.

Selecting him for the position of Vice-Chancellor a decade ago, he says, was “an unusual choice”, but he was put forward as a “transformation candidate”, emphasising that “you don’t have to be black to enact transformation. It can and should also be the job of whites”.

Price found the biggest challenge in this arena to be the subtle, institutional culture of stereotyping, discrimination, and alienation – “micro-aggressions that are so unconscious and pervasive, they are the most difficult to eradicate”.

For example, some of the art at UCT portrays scenes of black misery or white power. While an exhibition would explain the art was created in the context of condemning the effects of apartheid, simply adorning the walls of public spaces with these artworks could make a black student question if they belong there. In meetings, it is often white males who lead discussions. The implicit message is sometimes that “excellence has a colour – and that colour is white”.

This is why Price was not surprised when the Rhodes Must Fall protests began – he had raised the issue of the Rhodes statue before then, but it was not seen as urgent. He understood that the “pride of place” of the Rhodes statue on the campus could misrepresent the values of the institution and the need for a more inclusive environment.

He is proud that the questioning of such symbols has spread from UCT across the globe. For example, in the United States, universities and colleges have questioned their association with slavery. However he is also quick to point out that the violence and vandalism that followed with the Fees Must Fall movement crossed a line, and must be condemned.

Price believes his path has been influenced by Jewish values. “I attended King David Schools, but I was Reform, which put me in conflict with the prevailing Orthodoxy there,” he recalls. However, this did not lead him to turn away from Judaism, but rather to delve deeper into it to access a tradition of questioning the status quo.

Furthermore, the progressive Jewish values of egalitarianism and social justice really appealed to him. Seeing his rabbi, Arthur Super, speaking out against the National Party’s racist policies showed him that “Judaism required us to reject apartheid”, and he did just this in student activism.

Both Price’s parents came to South Africa from Europe, his mother escaping from Germany in 1936, and both losing relatives in the Holocaust. This also had a profound impact on him, with his parents reminding him to speak out against discrimination and oppression.

He studied medicine at Wits University, and was exposed as a young student to Baragwanath Hospital and Alexandra Clinic. “Coming from a sheltered suburb, seeing the conditions that people lived in was a real shock,” he recalls, further motivation to join student politics.

He became President of the Wits Students Representative Council in 1977, and while organising the first anniversary commemorations of the Soweto Uprising, he was arrested and detained in solitary confinement at John Vorster Square for 12 days. Although he was not physically harmed, he describes the experience as frightening and formative.

His involvement in the anti-apartheid struggle led to him being barred from working with black patients, as the authorities feared it would provide more opportunities for his activism. He spent three years in England on a Rhodes scholarship at Oxford University, before returning to work in rural hospitals, training nurses in primary healthcare.

At Oxford, Price made the surprising choice of completing a Politics, Economics, and Philosophy Degree. “I know most people would expect a doctor to do a post-graduate, career-related qualification, but I found that I was ill-prepared to participate in political debate with other activists – I had little education in history, politics, economics, and so forth.”

The degree gave him a more extensive education, which he says turned out to be very useful in future leadership positions. This decision also had a profound impact on Price’s views about education, and many years later at both Wits University and UCT, he put in place a number of programmes to produce more well-rounded cohort graduates.

A further qualification followed in Public Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine with a focus on health policy and economics, and Price then joined the newly established  Centre for Health Policy in South Africa in 1988. Its primary focus was to envision post-apartheid health policy, since the health system had been fragmented and distorted by the apartheid system.

In 1994, he headed a ministerial commission on financing healthcare. “But then, ironically, with the Mbeki government’s AIDS denialism, I found myself in opposition to public health policy. I was a participant in one of the TAC [Treatment Action Campaign] court challenges to the government – so the activism continued, but in a different way.”

In 1995, while on sabbatical at Harvard, Price was approached to apply to be the Dean of the Wits Faculty of Health Sciences, and was appointed. “It was an unusual choice, as deans of medical schools are usually senior specialist clinicians that have risen up the ranks, and I was only 40 and from public health. I think my appointment was to make a decisive break from the past.” This he did.

In 1997, the faculty made a submission to the TRC (Truth and Reconciliation Commission) and also held an internal reconciliation process, inviting black alumni to express how they had experienced training as doctors under apartheid. At the end of the process, a sculpture was erected to mark an apology, and pledge by the faculty, in an act of healing and moving forward.

This process, so unique amongst institutions at the time, foreshadowed the challenges that defined Price’s tenure as Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cape Town, which was – as mentioned – also not an obvious choice.

Now that his Vice-Chancellorship has come to a close, Price will take a sabbatical in England with his wife, Professor Deborah Posel, and will be writing a book about his time as VC.

He feels that over time, the South African Jewish community has become “more inward-looking and isolated, and this is a mistake. I encourage South African Jews to embrace active citizenship”, he concludes.

1 Comment

  1. 1 William Gild 04 Aug
    What a lovely story! But, what a myopic characterization of Price's tenure as VC.  I believe that he has occasioned indescribable and irreversible harm to UCT, if only ( and there are many other examples) with regard to legitimizing violence, property destruction, and terrorism in the name of Black protest.  His leadership during the past three years has been feckless and irresponsible, and he has earned nothing but contempt by the Fallists, as well as by many others who care about higher education and the rights of students and faculty to be, and feel, safe.


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