This study explores the consequences for a historically black university (HBU) of the South African state’s focus on routine and strategic quality evaluation within a policy framework that views higher education as a lever for social change and economic development. It analyses the changing nature of academic work and probes the motivations and understandings of institutional managers and academics in an attempt to explain their responses to policy requirements. The theory of the Evaluative State is employed to examine the nature and consequences of overzealous responsiveness by a historically black university in transition in South Africa. It suggests that the changing relationship between state and university is characterised by contradictions and ambivalence, a result of the interplay between a strong sense of loyalty to the state on the one hand and a recognition of the failure of the state to recognise and reward achievements valued by the HBU. This study suggests that state steering, through the use of output evaluation and efficiency-directed performance indicators, has resulted in failure to achieve central policy goals of development, equity and social justice. The study is guided by one main research question: How do academics in a historically black South African university in transition engage with and implement internal and external quality assurance processes and policies? The literature review reveals significant gaps in understanding the consequences of the rise of the Evaluative State in higher education. A major limitation has been a lack of focus on higher education systems in developing countries and on the consequences of imposing neo-liberal frameworks upon local realities which require redress to remedy historically constructed economic and social disadvantage. The descriptions of academics and institutional managers that emerge in this study highlight stark differences between the two groups in perceptions of and approaches to quality improvement and university work. Significantly, institutional history, context and mission emerge as strong factors shaping academics’ and managers’ responses to change, factors that have largely been disregarded by state policy which focuses more on output achievement than on input variables.