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