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Resisting the rise of anti-democratic authoritarian managerialism at University of Cape Town

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Jeremy Seekings is Professor of Politics and Sociology at the University of Cape Town and Acting Director of UCT’s Institute for Democracy, Citizenship and Public Policy in Africa. Nicoli Nattrass is Professor of Economics at the University of Cape Town.

The current crisis at UCT is not simply a story of personal misconduct or even of a chronic leadership crisis. These are the symptoms and manifestations of a more fundamental struggle over university governance, between democratic and collegial traditions on the one hand and authoritarian managerialism on the other.

The governing Council of the University of Cape Town (UCT) has resolved to appoint an independent inquiry into the controversial departure of one of the university’s deputy vice-chancellors earlier this year. The inquiry, we are told, will also consider “matters related to executive relationships and resignations within and beyond the UCT executive management team”.

Will the inquiry probe as deeply and widely as necessary to understand the university’s current crisis?

The immediate focus of the crisis is the possibility that the Vice-Chancellor, Mamokgethi Phakeng, and the Chair of Council, Babalwa Ngonyama, misled UCT’s Senate and perhaps also Council in order to facilitate Phakeng’s reappointment.

Predictably, one response has been to point fingers at a supposedly racist cabal attempting a coup. This might make for sensational reading, but it distracts attention from the underlying questions of university governance, specifically the rise of authoritarian managerialism.

A series of observers have interrogated changes in the governance of other South African universities over the past 20 or so years. Some emphasised the dynamic of corporatisation, as universities are increasingly run in the same manner as businesses (“corporate authoritarianism”).

Others emphasise the centralisation and then abuse of power in the hands of senior leaders (“kleptocratic autocracy” and “authoritarian management”).

Yet others point to shifts in power from academics to managers (“managerialism”) — sometimes defended in the name of “transformation”. These processes converge in the concept of “authoritarian managerialism”.

In a university context, authoritarian managerialism refers to the shift in power from academics to non-academic (or sometimes formerly academic) managers, the substitution of managerial hierarchies in place of collegial deliberation and decision-making, the erosion of transparency, the promotion of a cult and brand around a leader, and the silencing of dissent (including through the punitive use of institutional power to discipline critics and the rewriting of university policies to criminalise criticism).

The alleged axing of deputy vice-chancellors and others at UCT needs to be understood in the context of authoritarian managerialism.

The challenges facing universities

Authoritarian managerialism emerged in the face of real pressures facing South African universities. Two former vice-chancellors at South African universities (Jonathan Jansen and Adam Habib) have written about the difficulties facing vice-chancellors in balancing their accountability to the state (including for particular forms of “transformation”) while also addressing economic imperatives and nurturing academic freedom and excellence. Jansen has described how some vice-chancellors bristle when they are portrayed as corporate executives:

“If you want to sting a scholarly-minded vice chancellor, tell him or her that a university is nothing more than a corporate organisation in which students are merely clients, where research amounts to maximising subsidy-generating outputs, and in which teaching is nothing more than preparing young people to meet the demands of a market economy.”

Yet, as Jansen himself proceeded to note, vice-chancellors have faced a “perfect storm” of declining state subsidies (requiring universities to rely more on fee income) just as the number of students from poor families or with weaker educational backgrounds is rising, making it hard to raise fees whilst also raising costs. The imperative of “transformation” and dealing with sometimes violent student protests have imposed additional costs and strains on universities.

How vice-chancellors have responded has inevitably been shaped by their personalities, their priorities and the immediate challenges. Some have tried to protect the vestiges of collegial governance. Others have embraced authoritarian managerialism.

The rise of managerialism at UCT

UCT has, since the late 1990s, experienced creeping managerialism. Early signs included the appointment of “executive deans” who answer to the vice-chancellor more than to faculty boards. “Executive directors” were also appointed (for student affairs, communications and marketing, finance, development and alumni, human resources, information and communication technology, property and services, and research).

Over time, fewer and fewer of the university’s managers were professors, comfortable in the academic world of debate and deliberation. More and more managers came from the world of business schools and corporate boardrooms. In this increasingly corporatised environment, academics organised themselves into trade unions. The space for collegial governance shrank.   

More recently, the powers of managers have extended into areas in which academic staff have historically played more important roles. Human resources “business managers” have outsized voices in who can and who cannot be appointed to teach or to conduct research, implementing policies in ways that have not been discussed or approved in Senate (comprising primarily academic staff).

Managers argue that various university policies need not be approved by Senate. Managers intervene in Senate debates to try to censor discussion on the grounds that the topics are the sole and exclusive responsibility of managers. Managerial decision-making becomes less and less transparent — while the financial costs of management and administration rise steadily. Rumours of managerial corruption and scandal circulate without public scrutiny or even any comment from the university leadership.


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Many of us working in universities experience managerialism in terms of an apparently endless parade of forms to be completed in minute detail: job descriptions and individual performance are reduced to and assessed in terms of “key performance indicators” (comprising easily measured “outputs” such as journal articles or graduate students supervised to completion).

Academics become “line managers” and colleagues become subordinate “human resources”. Research projects are subjected to “log frames” that specify precisely what will be achieved and when, what processes are to be followed, and the indicators used to mark progress. Few managers are interested in whether the quality of teaching and research can be codified in this way.

Universities, like any large institution, need to be managed. Managerialism, however, is an ideology that goes far beyond management. Managerialism assumes that all large institutions can be managed in the same way, and indeed by the same people, without any adaptation to the specific context. The managerialist error is to assume that universities can be managed without significant attention to the specifics of teaching, learning and research — and the collegial governance that these require.

Autocracy and authoritarianism at UCT

The authoritarian trend at UCT was slower to emerge, primarily because UCT’s leaders remained unusually committed to collegial governance well into the 2010s. It was only when faced with violent protest and divisions among academics in the mid-2010s that the then vice-chancellor, Max Price, resorted to unilateral measures. For the most part, however, Price defended collegial governance and was generally a strong champion of transparency.

Since 2018, autocracy has become institutionalised, not as an emergency response to exceptional challenges but rather as an everyday practice. Under Vice-Chancellor Phakeng, the university has become increasingly authoritarian. This is manifested in three main ways: intolerance and punishment of dissent; attempted institutional reforms to reduce transparency and accountability as well as to discipline academics; and the energetic promotion of a leadership cult.

A defining feature of authoritarian leadership is that the leader expects to be obeyed, regards criticism as disloyalty, and acts vindictively against perceived opponents. This inevitably creates a landscape of fear, suppressing debate and curtailing the space for collegial governance. UCT’s Ombud pulled back the curtains on authoritarian leadership at UCT when, in her report to Council at the beginning of 2020, she reported the wide extent of complaints against Vice-Chancellor Phakeng. Subsequent leaked reports from Council showed that even members of the senior leadership team felt demeaned, disempowered and threatened by the vice-chancellor.

It is now alleged that the vice-chancellor has effectively pushed out two deputy vice-chancellors — and perhaps other senior officials also — for being insufficiently subordinate.

Authoritarianism requires the erosion of transparency and accountability. At UCT, the position of Ombud has been vacant for almost two years. Non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) have been introduced to cover up conflict within the university’s leadership. The vice-chancellor and senior managers have attempted to curtail the authority of Senate by diminishing the right of members of Senate to pose questions and by removing policies from Senate’s purview.

Repeated attempts have been made to revise the university’s policies on research ethics, disciplinary procedures and bullying in ways that expand the power of managers to discipline academics — powers that have become widely used in the US, for example. Managerialism is appropriated for authoritarian purposes.

Finally, there can be little doubt that online media and the university’s own publicity machine have been used to promote a leadership cult.

The current crisis

The current crisis is a stark symptom of the rise of authoritarian managerialism at UCT.

UCT’s Senate is central to collegial governance. Appointments of the vice chancellor and deputy vice-chancellors require the support of Senate. The chair of Council comes to Senate to motivate for appointments and seek Senate’s support.

The reasons for the premature departure of deputy vice-chancellors and the subsequent explanations given to Senate by the vice-chancellor and chair of Council are therefore of deep concern to Senate. Senate faced the possibility that the chair of Council had misled it with the objective of influencing its support for the reappointment of the vice-chancellor and that both the vice-chancellor and chair of Council had covered up the axing of an apparently efficient deputy vice-chancellor.

This prompted an unprecedented revolt. Senate resolved to appoint a committee to consider how Senate should address this possible abuse of power. One 153 members of Senate voted for this. Only six members of Senate voted against. This was not a “coup” by a small “cabal”.

Behind Senate’s outrage over these specific issues is its frustration with the chronic turmoil within the university’s “executive” and, underlying this, the rise of authoritarian managerialism. The recent introduction of NDAs symbolises the underlying problem.

Managers defend NDAs as “standard corporate practice”. What NDAs do, of course, is cover up conflicts within the leadership of the university and allow for misinformation or deceit. While senior appointments may be transparent, departures are not. NDAs have come to symbolise the erosion of transparency and accountability that has characterised the rise of authoritarian managerialism.

Faced with rebellion in Senate, the defenders of authoritarian managerialism respond in predictable ways. They accuse Senate of being unprocedural while they themselves leak letters to the press and speak out as unnamed “senior sources”. They refer to “instability” within Senate as if Senate is deranged.

They invoke race in an attempt to discredit Senate and delegitimate its concerns, disregarding the fact that anger in Senate transcends “racial” categories. Rather than discuss their failings, they propose that the conduct of Senate be investigated.

Authoritarian managerialism is being resisted — within Senate and by the Academics Union.

UCT’s Council appears to have belatedly recognised the severity of the crisis. But has Council recognised that the crisis raises these fundamental questions of university governance, including Council’s own acquiescence in the rise of authoritarian managerialism? DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Miles Japhet says:

    All part of the fools mission of the ANC in pursuing the NDR.
    Instead of building on the past, there is some ideologically driven madness that thinks that if you destroy and then rebuild this is both achievable and noble. History says otherwise.
    Cry the beloved Country.

  • Stephanie Brown says:

    Clearly, there are a lot of problems and a lot of anger within UCT, and this feels to me like a one-sided defence of the past works – a bit of we know best and we don’t want to change. UCT is not the only organisation that has had to deal with these sorts of conflicts. It’s a time of enormous change and this creates conflict. It’s now in the open and that’s a good thing. I do think the analysis that the authors present is well argued, but ignores the wider context. It’s hard to see clearly when you are in the eye of the storm. I have no doubt UCT will move beyond this and may it be sooner rather than later.

    • Jeff Bolus says:

      Deep-seated insecurity and narcissism prevail at the highest level. Glossing over the problem will solve nothing.

    • Ed Rybicki says:

      One-sided?? You haven’t been reading the “articles” that have come out recently trashing UCT Senate and certain members of the Executive, have you? These smack of being hit pieces, solicited by people with a personal stake in the hassles. If you REALLY want a one-eyed, racially charged view of what has happened, go no further than the M&G!

  • Cunningham Ngcukana says:

    The authors have in a very erudite manner dissected the issues facing our academic institutions and the history of the problem that they are pointing out at UCT. For the first time in very clear terms they have pointed the nub of the problem at the university as the style of governance and its effect on the academic institution. The moment in an institution of higher learning you have a problem between the structure that represents the academics and the university management it is a disaster. The Senate represents those who are responsible for teaching, learning and research in the university and the quality, integrity and
    credibility of the products of the university that are its academic programmes, research and contribution to the development of the country. They have laid bare the issues rather than speak in parables with the exposition of the authoritarian managerialism and how it expresses itself. A university has indeed to have collegiality amongst its academics to advance knowledge and management has to facilitate this rather than stifle it and a university is not a corporate entity. These basic issues have to be grasped by the university council. However, collegiality, academic freedom should not be a source for delinquency and ill – discipline within a university. A fine balance has to be maintained because in the end there ought to be management of processes and accountability and not hide behind these concepts. I hope the writers will see the need for the balance.

  • Gerrit Marais says:

    Dunning-Kruger stepping to the line again.

  • John Cartwright says:

    Exactly right – ‘creeping managerialism since the late 1990s’, accelerating and becoming increasingly racialised over the last few years. There are few universities that have escaped this disease.

  • Ed Rybicki says:

    Thanks, UCT and Senate colleagues, for a very reasoned and logical account of where we at UCT find ourselves now. Let’s hope what appears to be a concerted and cynically solicited campaign in various online and print media does not derail the investigations that have been set in train.

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