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Lessons from Mpati Report on UCT – Part Two: The restoration of collegial governance


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 Mpati Report documents in detail how Mamokgethi Phakeng abused her power to punish anyone suspected of dissent or disloyalty, undermined collegiality, fermented a toxic and racialised culture, and compromised UCT’s core activities of teaching and research.

Read Part One here

The Mpati Panel’s recent report on the leadership crisis at the University of Cape Town (UCT) is centrally concerned with issues of university governance. 

In the panel’s assessment, the crisis was the result of the flawed leadership of the Vice-Chancellor (VC), Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng – but it was only possible because UCT’s Council (comprising external appointees as well as individuals within the university) repeatedly failed to exercise its responsibilities of oversight.

While the Mpati Report provides important recommendations on the roles of university councils, it is largely silent on a second aspect of university governance that also contributed to the leadership crisis: the shift from collegial to managerial forms of governance within the university.

At UCT, managerialism took a particularly authoritarian form (see Daily Maverick, 17 October 2022), characterised by shifts 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 Mpati Report assumes the importance of collegiality. It refers to “collegial” four times, “collegiality” thrice and “colleague” or “colleagues” no fewer than 36 times. 

While it is clear that the VC saw the deputy vice-chancellors (DVCs), deans and other senior leaders as her subordinates in the hierarchical manner appropriate or at least commonplace in corporate contexts, the panel was clearly reluctant to use such language. Indeed, in its recommendations, the panel refers to the “principle of collegiality” included in UCT’s “Statement of Values”.

These references to collegiality in the Mpati Report concern, however, collegiality in the narrow sense of treating one’s colleagues with respect – something that Phakeng was often unable to do.

In a university context, collegiality also means respecting, collectively, one’s colleagues, primarily through the institution of Senate, which comprises senior academics and representatives of other constituencies. Collegiality is fundamental to the governance of the university, not just to the relationships between individuals.

The report recognises that universities, unlike corporate organisations, “have a dual governance structure, shared between Council and Senate”. While Council is responsible for the overall governance of the university, Senate is responsible for academic matters. The Vice-Chancellor is accountable to both Council (in his or her capacity as chief executive officer of the university) and Senate (which he or she chairs as first among equals).

The panel found that neither the chairperson of Council nor Phakeng had engaged with Senate honestly and appropriately. 

The most serious misconduct was misleading Senate over “the rot that had developed in the senior governance structures of UCT” in order to bamboozle Senate into supporting the reappointment of Phakeng as VC for a second five-year term. 

More generally, the VC’s leadership is described thrice as “authoritarian” in the Mpati Report.

Undermining collegial governance weakened one set of checks and balances within the university, making it easier for a rogue VC to avoid being held to account. The panel’s recommendations therefore correctly include that “Council must understand and give effect” to the university’s “dual governance structure”.

The Mpati Report does not, however, consider how the checks and balances inherent in collegial governance must be restored.

The key institution of collegial governance is the university’s Senate. Under Phakeng, repeated attempts were made to restrict or silence Senate. First and foremost, therefore, restoring checks and balances within the university requires clearly and forcefully insisting on the right of Senate to discuss the conduct of the VC, DVCs and other senior officers of the university.

When Senate did so in late 2022, some of the university’s non-academic managers tried to shut down debate. 

This attempted deployment of managerial authority constituted the subversion of the collegial governance that forms one pillar of the university’s dual-governance structure. The panel rightly deplored this as “wrong”. The job descriptions of senior university officials should specify an obligation to be transparent and accountable to Senate.

Restoring collegial governance also requires acknowledgement that all of the senior officers of the university are accountable to Senate with regard to academic governance. 

Phakeng’s authoritarian leadership was able to continue unchecked in part because the DVCs and other senior officers chose to limit their protests to private complaints to the Ombud and the university’s Council, and not share them with Senate.

These officers might have protested in private, but in public, they conducted themselves as if they were mere subordinates of the VC and members of the “Exec”, not as members of the broader academic community. 

When their positions became untenable and they left the university, they signed “non-disclosure agreements”. To some extent, therefore, they thus acquiesced in the deepening of authoritarian managerialism.

The DVCs and other senior officers not only failed to share with Senate their concerns over Phakeng’s leadership from 2018 onwards, but they also remained silent in the face of attacks on the Ombud when she denounced Phakeng’s bullying of colleagues in 2020.

Most egregiously, they remained silent when the chair of Council and VC lied to Senate in early 2022, leading Senate to believe that they supported the reappointment of the VC when this was not true. 

They were thus complicit in the deception of Senate and Senate’s consequent and erroneous support for the VC’s reappointment.

As members of Senate, DVCs and other officers had a responsibility to ensure that Senate was sufficiently informed about the leadership of the university so that it could deliberate fully and fulfil its own responsibilities for academic governance. The DVCs and other officers failed in this.

It was only when one DVC broke her silence in late 2022 that the “rot” at the highest levels of leadership was finally revealed to Senate, leading to revolts in Senate and then Council, the appointment of the Mpati Panel and the departure of the VC.

The Mpati Report does not discuss – presumably because it fell outside the panel’s terms of reference – other incidents in which DVCs and other senior officers of the university were complicit in authoritarian actions at UCT. The panel rightly explains how DVCs and others were intimidated by Phakeng (without effective interventions by successive chairs of Council).

Perhaps because they were intimidated, DVCs and other senior officers lost sight of their broader collegial responsibilities and to some extent became complicit in the managerialist erosion of institutional checks and balances as well as the unjust treatment of individuals within the university.

The office of the Ombud is another key institution in collegial governance, allowing for informal efforts to reconcile colleagues when their relationships break down. 

The Mpati Panel rightly deplores the attacks on the Ombud by Phakeng and the Chair of Council in late 2022, recommends that the university offers what is in effect an apology to its former Ombud (Zetu Makamandela-Mguqulwa), and reviews the Ombud’s terms of reference. The panel should have taken a stronger position on this.

The position of Ombud remained vacant at UCT for more than two years after Makamandela-Mguqulwa’s departure at the end of 2020. For the second half of Phakeng’s time as VC, when the university needed an Ombud, it did not have one. 

UCT needs immediately to restore the authority of the Ombud and recommit to defending the Ombud against any abuse and intimidation.

Under Phakeng’s rogue leadership, several of the university’s administrative departments were weaponised to defend her from criticism and accountability. These included Human Resources (HR).

The Mpati Report acknowledges (and deplores) some instances of the politicisation of HR, but might have taken this further. 

Under Phakeng, some managers in HR and other departments repeatedly protected the VC against criticism. They proposed new or revised disciplinary and other policies that would have both empowered senior university leaders to punish critics and protected these same officers from accountability.

And they repeatedly sought to remove policies and practices from the purview of Senate. The implementation as well as the making of policy became less and less transparent. Some of the university’s managers were thus active or complicit in the erosion of collegial governance. A change of direction is clearly needed.

Finally, the university needs to roll back its practice of covering up problems through non-disclosure agreements (NDAs). 

NDAs, which Phakeng’s supporters defended as “standard corporate practice”, were the mechanism through which the university bought off senior leaders with inside knowledge of the crisis. 

The Mpati Report refers to NDAs no less than 39 times, but without stepping back and condemning explicitly this practice in the non-corporate context of a university.

The lesson should be clear: there is no place in universities for NDAs that silence discussion of misconduct within the university.

The Mpati Panel rightly applauds the efforts of members of Senate and Council to hold the VC and the chair of Council to account. Had they not done so, the panel argues, “the consequences could have been calamitous”. 

Eventually, Senate and Council reined in rogue leaders.

The Mpati Report documents in detail how the VC defied all forms of formal and informal accountability, repeatedly eschewed conciliation and opted instead for intimidation and confrontation, abused her power to punish anyone suspected of dissent or disloyalty, undermined collegiality, fermented a toxic and racialised culture within the university and thus compromised the university’s core activities of teaching and research.

Removing the VC was therefore a necessary first step. 

The next and equally important step is to reverse the institutional corrosion that made it possible for a VC to go rogue for so long.

Not only must Council fulfil its responsibilities of oversight, but the authority of the institutions of collegial governance within the university must be restored.

Fealty to the VC should never trump responsibilities to collegial governance. DM


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  • Con Tester says:

    Come now, let’s be a bit more forthright about this. Phakeng’s paranoid ego and megalomania aside, this shift from collegial to managerial governance is the direct, inevitable result of refocussing tertiary education away from learning and the free exchange of ideas towards it being a business whose primary role is as a source of income. More students equals more income. Lower admission- and passing standards equals more students. You do the maths. All universities in SA that ever were names on the international stage have been weakened and compromised by this malaise to the point where many of them are now a procession of pointless jokes.

  • Loyiso Nongxa says:

    The authors of the article either are blissfully unaware of the vast literature on the regulatory framework on governance of South African universities, or are of the view that these provisions should not apply to UCT. In that framework, there’s emphasis on ‘cooperative governance’ and no mention of ‘collegial governance’. UCT is governed by an Institutional Statute that was approved by Council, one assumes after consultation with the university community. And there should be a plethora of institutional rules that regulate a whole host of activities UCT. One finds it rather shocking that the UCT Senate is described as being unaware of what is highlighted in the report and needed DVCs to give Senate members that information. “The right of Senate to discuss the conduct of VC and DVCs and other senior officers of the university” is not mentioned in the role of Senate described in the UCT Statute. The membership of Senate is spelt out in the UCT Statute and it’s concerning that the authors appear to disparage the membership of “non-academic managers” by describing this as “This attempted deployment of managerial authority constituted a subversion of the collegial governance …” Collegial governance, amongst other things, sometimes result in academic committees appointing people who look like them, share their beliefs or graduate of the same institution ostensibly because they’re more meritorious.

    • T'Plana Hath says:

      Surely you meant, “Collegial governance, among other things, sometimes results in academic committees appointing people who look like them, smell like them, and taste like them?”

  • John Cartwright says:

    The fact that universities worldwide have been corporatised and their ‘products’ commodified does not mean that this should not be resisted. Governance is not only about rules but equally importantly about attitudes, which in this context may be summed up as the collection of values that we call collegiality.
    An excellent article by colleagues who actually understand what makes universities special

    • Loyiso Nongxa says:

      At least there’s an acknowledgement that this is a ‘worldwide’ phenomenon not just a localized UCT issue under the leadership of a ‘rogue’ Vice-Chancellor. A debate about ‘commodification ‘, or ‘marketisation’ has been around for at least two decades and using the Judge Mpati Panel report as a prop shows a lack of imagination. Collegiality? “Academic politics is the most vicious and bitter because the stakes are so low”.

  • Jonathan Rash says:

    Many of the issues described in the Mpati report – such as in particular the silencing of debate in the Senate – echo the abuses of power of the Makgoba era at UKZN. These were well documented in “The Struggle for the Soul of a South African University” by Nithaya Chetty and Christopher Merrett (2014). Did South African higher education learn nothing from this experience, or did UCT simply believe “it can’t happen here”? Perhaps they forgot the warnings Nithaya gave in his TB Davie Academic Freedom Lecture at UCT in 2009.

    • FFnon None says:

      It’s disheartening to see the citation of a book that was ethically problematic. Resorting to such a source signals a level of desperation in supporting one’s argument. I recall a retired UCT academic attempting to discredit Phakeng’s leadership using the same dubious book, a publication that no credible publisher was willing to endorse.

      This book, authored by disgruntled academics, reflects their resistance to embracing change and a new vision for a South African university distinct from an English university in South Africa. Their discontent stems from their perception of being sidelined in Makgoba’s vision, which did not guarantee them their privileged status (yes, including Nithaya). It’s unfortunate that such sources are still being invoked to critique leaders like Phakeng.

  • Notinmyname Fang says:

    Sociology of Higher Ed 101
    Take it somewhere else, there are more important issues in the world we need to be informed about

  • Hugh Amoore says:

    I was surprised by Loyisa Nongxa’s response, in part as I regarded and regard him as a colleague. Yes, there is a vast literature on the current regulatory framework in South African public HE,but so, too, is there a vast corpus on why collegiality is an essential characteristic of academe. For me, collegiality entails cooperative interaction among colleagues; collegial carries with it the idea that colleagues take collective responsibility for their work, and show mutual respect. The Higher Education Act contains one (and only one) reference to co-operative governance; the preamble declares that “it is desirable to establish a single co-ordinated higher education system which promotes co-operative governance”. And, yes, for this system to flourish, there must be co-operative governance (A) at the level of the system (Ministry, civil service (DHET), advisory and regulatory bodies (eg CHE, SAQA) the the higher education institutions, public and private) and (B) within the institutions (Councils, Senates, SRCs, Institutional Fora, SRCs and – often ignored in the literature- faculty boards and departments). Preconditions for effective co-operative governance within institutions, I would argue (and I suspect that Professor Nongxa would agree), are accountability and mutual respect, characteristics of collegiality.
    The legislation gives due recognition to the role of professional, administrative, support and service staff, and their elected representatives sit in councils and senates. This has entrenched a welcome and proper acceptance of their importance in their institutions. But it has not changed the essentially administrative staff role of “non-academic managers” (of whom I was one for over three decades, though I did not use the term “manager”). These staff have a primary responsibility to create and sustain an environment in the institution in which every academic, not least those perceived as “difficult” can do good work. They are, in the best sense of that word, servants of the institution.

    • Loyiso Nongxa says:

      You have missed my point and it would take more than 1500 characters to explain why. UCT has an institutional statute and one wonders what aspects of this would need to changed in order to restore collegial governance? Possibly have different rules of participation in Senate by different members or remove them from Senate? The former would be anti-democratic and the latter would violate the HE Act. We may have different experiences of collegiality in practice and some of the pernicious outcomes of abuse of collegial governance. One is exclusion, marginalization or silencing of some academics. Sometimes because of their gender or their race. From a distance one observes and reads about some racial laagers under the mountain and very little of what is described as the meaning of collegiality. The spelling of my name is not Loyisa.

  • jeremy seekings says:

    Collegial governance, as John Cartwright and Hugh Amoore have pointed out, is about mutual respect and collective responsibility. These are values and norms. Thus, when Professor Nongxa asks what ‘rules’ in Senate we wish to change, and who we might want to exclude, he is missing the point. We do believe that some ‘rules’ might usefully be revised, including the job descriptions of senior officers to make more explicit their responsibilities to Senate. But our focus is on the norms and values underlying governance. In our assessment, the reason why a rogue vice chancellor was able to wreak havoc at UCT for too long was because a different set of (racialised and authoritarian) norms and values became institutionalised. In one instance, powerful non-academic managers sought to prevent Senate discussing the executive dysfunction that was threatening the core academic business of the university. This, as the Mpati Panel found, was wrong. In our assessment, what transpired was a struggle between proponents of authoritarian managerialism (those seeking to frame UCT’s executive function as an ‘HR issue’ that Senate had no business discussing) and the vast majority of Senate. Fortunately, collegial governance prevailed. But it is fragile, and requires ongoing attention to the social institutions of mutual respect, collective accountability and the primary role of academics in driving teaching and research. – Jeremy Seekings and Nicoli Nattrass

    • Loyiso Nongxa says:

      Your first article came across as expressing concern about racialisation of UCT while your article, in my view, contributed to that racialisation. Namely by highlighting race as a major finding, whereas my reading of the same report was that the report emphasized (a) governance failures; (b) infringement of some people’s basic rights; (c) violation of certain laws of our country. One cannot ‘legislate’ mutual respect, it’s a gift that people bestow on each other. A report I once read in the early 2000s about how Black people experience UCT revealed that Black people felt that they had to conform to a racialised set of norms and values. And UCT is not unique in this. To describe someone as a ‘rogue Vice Chancellor’ is, with due respect, disrespectful. My understanding of Senate is that it doesn’t have a ‘management function’. I found it mind boggling that you assert that Senate members were not aware of some of the things mentioned in the report. And seem to put the blame on senior executives for not informing Senate. On two occasions, the majority of UCT Senate voted to in favour of Professor Phakeng’s Vice-Chancellorship. In one’s assessment, from a distance, what has transpired at UCT is a struggle about who wields power and influence and this sadly has taken racial dimensions. And your first article, in my view, contributes to that racialisation.

  • Hugh Amoore says:

    First, my apologies Loyiso for misspelling your name. My error. Please accept my apology.
    Secondly, I for one would not wish to suggest any change to UCT’s Institutional Statute, nor is the solution to the restoration of collegial governance to be found in the Statute. Nor would I contemplate different rules of participation in Senate by different members or remove them from Senate. My point about the role of “non academic managers” does not relate to the role performed by those elected to Senates or Councils (where they become members of the body concerned and are not “representatives” and have equal status with other members), but about the role “non academic managers” play qua managers. That role is an an administrative one, not a governance one.

    It is in my view the responsibility of the Chair (of Senate or Council as the case may be) to guard against abuses of collegial governance or the exclusion, marginalization or silencing of some academics. This is especially the case where these abuses are based on gender or race, But it also applies where the person targeted expresses unpopular views that do not equate to hate speech or similar.

  • FFnon None says:

    Despite a ‘thorough’ examination, I find it challenging to identify a specific flaw in Phakeng’s leadership. I have the same problem with the DM’s ‘analysis’ of the Mpati report and the report itself.

    To be clear; the authors rightly highlight the long-standing shift in South African universities from collegial to managerial governance, a transformation that, as they argue, became particularly pronounced during Phakeng’s tenure. This shift is indicative of the broader trend in higher education institutions, responding to stringent state measures, toward a more managerialist, productivity-driven, and task-oriented leadership. Failure to do so will lead to collapse of SA universities.

    The Mpati report, unfortunately, falls short of expectations, especially for those who bought into the media-driven narrative, perpetuated by some lowly ranked SA ‘academics’ who consider themselves ‘stars’ in the confined SA higher education sector.

    Overlooked in the discourse is the commendable aspect of Phakeng’s leadership. Both the Mpati report and the detractors of Phakeng won’t mention a single quality of Phakeng’s positive leadership at UCT. This is telling.

    She has proven to be a competent leader, with the Mpati report and other detractors focusing disproportionately on her personality rather than her actual key performance areas. This fixation on speculation and personalized sentiments detracts from the real issues of governance. The Mpati report echoes the tradition of baseless speculations observed in the previously celebrated UCT Ambuds report
    A crucial lesson emerges: South African academics, particularly those who claim academic status only within the country, must recognize that globally, our universities and academics are perceived as complacent and unproductive. That has a lot to do with poor leadership at the VC position.

    Disrupting this culture of laziness in SA universities would challenge the complacency of our academics.

    A quick look at other English universities in South Africa reveals the consequences of weak leadership, where personalities (e.g being nice) rather than actual performance has resulted in the gradual drop of their ‘productivity’ as depicted in the annual SA Higher Education research output reports. Strong leadership is imperative for South African universities to thrive in this competitive global landscape, and Phakeng’s assertive drive, despite causing fear among some, is a necessary catalyst for progress.

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