Max Price paused for a moment in Friday’s interview to consult a book by acclaimed Russian Africanist Apollon Davidson.

There was a telling insight in Davidson’s narrative - if he could find it, and it took a minute or so of rifling to pinpoint the page - which turned out to be a brief and curious parable by the novelist and thinker Olive Schreiner. In his account of 1984, Cecil Rhodes and His Time, Davidson presents Schreiner as a credible witness (“few have exposed Rhodes so unmercifully”) who, in turn, presents Rhodes as a not easily contained figure of history.

“It came to pass,” her parable goes, “that Cecil Rhodes died. The Devil claimed him. However, the gates, doors and windows of Hell proved all too small to take Rhodes in. The Bon Dieu, hearing the commotion, asked for the reason. The Devil explained that he had tried every way but could not get Cecil Rhodes into Hell: ‘He is too big!’ ‘Ah,’ said the Bon Dieu, ‘then, I suppose Cecil must come here after all.’”

Price took the trouble of reading this small passage aloud not to suggest that Rhodes was in any way godly, but - like much else about UCT in 2015 - large, complex, and requiring considered critical appraisal, for our own perhaps more than for his sake.

Implicitly, taking Rhodes seriously is a condition of taking ourselves, and our history, and, therefore, our future, seriously. The figure himself, no less than his monument, cannot be flippantly subtracted, not least because the emotions and sentiments associated with it go wider.

“What has shifted is the outpouring of hurt, and the way in which, once people start articulating it, it becomes self-exacerbating … because they think to themselves, ‘Yes, that’s why I feel like an outsider, and I feel this is a white university, and, as a black student, I am just a visitor here.’

“It’s become a lightning rod for that protest, and we are trying to respond in a way that doesn’t say it’s ‘business as usual’. We are trying to say that (the sense of exclusion and hurt) is a not-inappropriate feeling. And if we take that seriously, we cannot just take a unilateral decision, but can put in place a special process to deal with it.”

Price did not say as much, but it must have seemed ironic to him that not once in his seven-year term has the SRC or the university council put the Rhodes statue on the agenda, and that, in fact, he was the one to put it there last October in outlining transformation plans for 2015.

The Rhodes Must Fall campaign overtook the first of a range of events in this programme (a session with Heritage Western Cape last Monday on dealing with listed national monuments, such as the statue, and how to “tamper” with them).

If the programme had been interrupted, Price had no regrets that the campus was experiencing “an enhanced or enlivened student activism”.

“I have often complained that the good old days of activists and causes had been replaced by a kind of apathy and more concern about career paths and personal issues.”

Other campaigns have come and gone, but “not any that have really got students excited. To me, this is about active citizenship - so I think this is good.

“Some think we are overreacting and capitulating to the mob, but I think those people do not appreciate that this is not a political rally mobilised by outsiders, say - this is the real feelings of students that have surfaced.”

Price was also pleased that the campaign was not starkly racialised, the ranks of Rhodes’s detractors including many white students, and, this week, an effort by a grouping of white students to examine their experience and attitudes in the context of privilege and advantage.

This is the terrain of the deeper and more difficult transformation issues.

“I hope those students do not drop that. It’s not just about the statue. That’s only the beginning of it.”

White students especially - “and I include myself” - have to confront pervasive stereotypes “that manifest in subconscious ways” and “reinforce views of the other which, though it may not be racism in the sense of thinking less of a black person” can have the effect of undermining the confidence or sense of belonging of black students.

“We need to work on this. It’s part of the institutional culture that students and staff experience. Dealing with the statue is one thing, but dealing with changing people’s deeply embedded expectations, which are perceived as racism, is much harder.”

There’s an almost ironic structural factor at play which the university cannot overlook, he argued.

“In order to promote affirmative action, we admit black students from disadvantaged schools, but very few whites from disadvantaged schools - they compete on marks alone. So black students will get in because we take their background into account, judging that they are talented and would have flourished at a better school (and will flourish at university). But they would fail on campus if we did not give them additional support (extended programmes of bridging, writing or supplementary work).

“The result is that most of those programmes which are trying to compensate for educational disadvantage are almost entirely black, and what students see is that, oh, it’s only black students who need this. The risk is that this reproduces the stereotype that white students are excellent, black ones need help. The point is, even attempts at redress can compound the transformation challenge.”

UCT, he said, had made good progress in changing the student demography and in keeping pass rates up. Simply swelling black student numbers without providing academic support amounts to “trickery” - he fingered other universities for boasting higher enrolment figures when, in fact, they had drop-out rates of up to 70 percent.

“We have made good progress in getting students through. We have also been successful in transforming our administration and support staff (between 72 and 75 percent are black), but changing the academic staff has been largely unsuccessful.

“My view is that it’s a national and structural problem. But let’s look at the data; the number of South African-born black female professors in the country is 34. There are 25 universities, the biggest of which, Unisa, is 10 times the size of UCT. If the available professors were spread equally, we would have one. At the moment, we have none. We have quite a lot of black women professors, but none are South African-born.

“It is not surprising, then, that when we advertise, we find few candidates. Equally, if you think about an academic career, it’s a long trajectory to become a professor - 10 or 20 years, perhaps. It means you can’t just create professors. It has to start with good schooling and university training, people committing to PhD programmes and an academic career, which is not always the first choice, given the huge demand (and better pay) for research jobs in everything from medicine and pharmaceutical research to energy and research and development. So a small proportion of black and white graduates opt for academic careers - but, because there are 10 times as many white as black graduates, the pools will be different.”

However, UCT was “not sitting back throwing its hands in the air”. Price welcomed Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande’s dedicated PhD programme through which universities can commit to creating posts, mainly for black and women students, as an incentive to graduates to choose an academic career with more certainty.

UCT also has a programme to stimulate academic careers by providing time away from teaching, and support for young researchers to work and publish and develop their profiles. More than 600 graduates have benefited from this.

He acknowledged that UCT had a “particular problem in that we think our standards of promotion are high - they are internationally determined and are higher than in many other universities.

“For someone coming up through the ranks, being offered a professorship, we would think prematurely, elsewhere might mean they will leave.

“There is also a perception among some of our young black academics that there is subliminal institutional racism that is holding them back, and these claims we have to investigate case by case.

“It’s quite conceivable there is discrimination that differentially impacts on their progress. I don’t think it’s widespread but it’s there, because they feel it.”

UCT was determined - through a range of special offices and committees - to address this carefully. “So I hope they don’t feel the door is closed. We take seriously individual cases. Sometimes we think they are wrong ... we go through them carefully, and in most cases, we have thought the judgement of the original committee was right.

“I think the transformation of the academic staff profile will take a generation”.”

Price was convinced the application of high standards and rigorous measures is a boost to transformation, because it obliterates the notion that transformation means a lowering of standards.

“Standards are high, and that contradicts and breaks the stereotype. All staff, against the odds often, meet the same criteria and we will maintain that. One vital consequence is that we are succeeding in changing what I could call the ‘colour of excellence’; excellence is not ‘white’, and that’s hugely empowering for students.”

These, then, are the debates and questions that lie beyond and around the bronze form of Cecil Rhodes, who, in a sense, is every bit as complex.

This is part of the reason why Price favours keeping the statue on campus - moving it from its place of dominance, but placing it elsewhere and giving it a different, fuller context.

Reducing Rhodes to a caricature, he suggested, risks understating the scale of his impact.

“I do believe there is a risk of simplifying Rhodes. Even at the time of his death people thought of him as a villain, yet it’s important to examine why he came to be viewed as a great man. He was a great man… but what does one mean by that? He did not inherit wealth or come from an upper-class family, or graduate from Oxford before becoming what he was. So, in many respects, he was self-made, though he had the empire behind him to help him make it. He was a businessman, diplomat and prime minister of the Cape, a military strategist, and a philanthropist very committed to education, and in all these things he was successful. But his values and his ruthlessness, and his willingness to take the view that imperial ends were justified by any means - massacres, expropriation of land, invasion, duplicity - were appalling, along with his attitudes about white superiority, and his view of the role of whites as being to civilise the rest of the world.”

Recontextualising the statue offers the opportunity for a “very significant symbolic rupture with the past” which will “facilitate other debates about transformation”.

“So I would not like the statue to leave the campus. It’s part of the university’s history. Rhodes did give all the land, a massive gift, to the country, and the continent - it is the best university in Africa - and we should always recognise that generosity and philanthropy, and his commitment to education.

“But I feel it should be moved to a site that invites or facilitates a contextualisation. There could be a permanent exhibit around it, combining narrative and iconography from which people can learn what was great and what was, I would go so far as say, evil about Rhodes.

“He may have wanted a white, male university, but the university is majority female and black. His legacy did not turn out the way he wanted it to be, but we should understand what he wanted, and why, and see him as a man of his time. ”

A new site could be a venue “to surface other heritages and histories, which the university already does in the names of buildings and places (including, for instance, Steve Biko, Dullah Omar, Cissie Gool, Hoerikwaggo), but which can be expanded”.

For the moment, the brooding and, variously, anachronistic or even satanic, figure of Rhodes is dominant. And the virtue of that, Price insisted, is that it compels everybody to deliberate on the larger questions of a changing university in a changing society.