Having read the executive summary of the report, I thought that it was a lost opportunity in light of the broad challenges confronting the Higher Education sector. After all, from my experience, UCT has among the best policies and governance frameworks in the sector which have evolved over the years and carried it through. They are undoubtedly not without their shortcomings.
My successor, Ms Babalwa Ngonyama, has taken the report on a legal review while the Portfolio Committee on Higher Education has called on Minister Blade Nzimande to appoint an independent assessor to essentially review the report and advise on how to proceed.
On the other hand, Council was quick to adopt the report and undertake to implement its recommendations.
Separately, I had written to Council to register my concerns with respect to those aspects of the report that are within my personal knowledge where glaringly erroneous conclusions were reached. The Council had already received and adopted the final report.
Here, I address only one of those glaring errors and unfounded conclusions. This pertains to the appointment of Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng to the position of Vice-Chancellor effective July 2018. I was the Chairman of Council at the time and led the selection process.
I was invited to make a submission to the panel, not because I was asked to respond to any specific adverse statements that may have been made against me, but in order to assist in providing an understanding of certain themes that were the subject of the inquiry. I was happy to make myself available on this basis.
Disappointingly, when the panel became aware of adverse testimony or conclusion against me, it did not deem it fair to afford me an opportunity to respond to these or comment on its draft report, as is common practice.
In my submission to the panel, I fully addressed the matter pertaining to Prof Phakeng’s appointment to the position of Vice-Chancellor.
I must point out that some of the evidence I presented to the panel and the records to which I referred seem to have been disregarded. Instead, the panel relied on the evidence of two individuals who, ironically, were part of the Selection Committee (SC) that unanimously resolved to recommend Prof Phakeng’s appointment.
I have no doubt that had the evidence I presented been taken into full consideration, the panel might have come to a different view on some of its conclusions.
It is these basic procedural breaches and a number of blatantly subjective conclusions that have undermined the panel’s very important assignment.
The appointment of Prof Phakeng as Vice-Chancellor in 2018
The Council of UCT voted 85% in a secret ballot that Prof Phakeng was suitably qualified for appointment to the position of Vice-Chancellor. She was not done a favour by anybody – including myself. She was appointed on merit, even though some might still find this difficult to accept. To suggest otherwise is patronising and offensive.
The processes followed in her selection were in line with established UCT policy. These included the determination by Council of the suitability criteria, the appointment of an SC, a transparent recruitment process, thorough reference checks, verification of the process by the Institutional Forum (IF), a vote by Senate and ultimately Council.
The SC, which I chaired, was made up of about 20 members drawn from various stakeholders including Council, Senate, Deans, SRC, alumni, academics, professional and administrative staff representatives and employment equity representatives elected by the IF.
In its extensive and transparent search process, the entire university community was urged to encourage potential candidates to apply, in addition to a reliance on the formal recruitment.
Although a large number of applicants took an interest, a number of targeted senior and experienced executives from the broader university sector could not be persuaded to apply.
Prof Phakeng would have been with the UCT for just under two years at the time as the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (DVC): Research and Internationalisation. This followed a lateral move from a similar position at a comparable institution and a track record in senior executive roles at other universities. She is a B-rated scientist with an impressive academic track record.
She was already the most senior executive in the university’s succession framework even though this was never a guarantee for the role. Her formal performance assessment showed that she met the exerting requirements of her DVC role in the country’s top research university.
Prof Phakeng was nominated by one of the country’s most illustrious and highly respected scholars who was a Dean of a faculty at UCT. There were nonetheless others at the university, including, according to the report, the former VC Dr Max Price, the Black Academic Caucus (which might surprise some) and perhaps others, who were clearly opposed to her candidature.
Despite all this, and her impeccable credentials, the panel’s report, without pointing to any objective evidence that may have been presented to Council, concludes that “it was apparent in Prof Phakeng’s tenure as the DVC that there were concerns about her leadership”.
Disappointingly, the panel reached its damning conclusion on the selection process based on untested evidence from two colleagues who were on the SC, according to the report.
This suggests that Prof Phakeng’s qualifications, experience, professional performance track record and achievements should have been completely ignored and reliance placed on corridor whispers, rumours and innuendos.
Fortunately, the SC chose to follow the course of principle, fairness and equity. The idea that the SC should have been guided in its decision by the opinion of one person at the university, regardless of his position, would have been wrong. This is especially true in light of the known animosity between Dr Price and Prof Phakeng.
One of the unique features of a university recruitment process is an invitation for candidates to address a Council-determined forum, including a public presentation which is live-streamed to enable the broadest participation. This is intended to allow candidates to share their vision for the university. Through this forum, the university community interacts with the candidates, including a question and answer session. Notes from these sessions including comments and questions are then shared with the SC and form part of the interviewing process.
Not even her worst critics would challenge that the vision for the university that Prof Phakeng presented in this forum was a compelling proposition. She undoubtedly stood head and shoulders above her competitor for the role, even though the SC still had to interview her further.
In its interviews, the SC was satisfied that she was best suited for the role, but was concerned about Prof Phakeng’s allegedly difficult interpersonal skills. The SC appointed a few among its members to meet with her to understand better the feedback it had received.
Invariably, this feedback was obtained informally, a common practice in UCT’s selection processes. The intention behind such an engagement – which I facilitated – was to try to be fair and balanced and avoid condemning a candidate without hearing their side of the story.
Following a frank and open engagement with Prof Phakeng, the sub-committee recommended her to the full SC that was, on all other suitability criteria, already satisfied. The selection committee therefore unanimously resolved to recommend her for appointment to the position of Vice-Chancellor.
In line with its statutory responsibilities, the Institutional Forum, which was represented on the selection committee, confirmed that the process followed met with the recruitment and selection policy and procedures of the university and thereby also supported the appointment.
The report of the SC had also served before Senate, the majority of whose (over 200) members are professors whose professional standing is largely dependent on their research and interaction with their international peers.
Prof Phakeng’s DVC position would have exposed her to this important constituency, which has an important voice in any decision to appoint senior executives at UCT.
The concerns regarding her allegedly difficult interpersonal skills were transparently shared with Senate, who, by an overwhelming majority, endorsed her recommendation by the SC to Council for appointment.
The panel’s conclusion that trusted representatives, elected by their various constituencies at the university to participate in the SC, merely “yielded to Pityana’s recommendation to appoint Phakeng” can only raise serious doubts about the credibility of the inquiry and the true motives behind its establishment.
This clearly flawed conclusion insinuates that these representatives did not apply their minds on as weighty a matter as deciding the Vice-Chancellor for the institution whose leadership was set to impact their careers and other prospects.
With due respect, a generous interpretation of this is that it demonstrates a lack of understanding on the part of the panel, of UCT’s transparent and inclusive recruitment and selection policy and procedure.
The panel relies on wild and untested speculation that I may have been desperate to appoint Prof Phakeng following my failure to support the candidature of Prof Elelwani Ramugondo for the DVC: Teaching and Learning role, where Prof Lis Lange was preferred instead. The report alleges, without any facts whatsoever, that I feared a backlash from black people who were alienated by my decision.
I can say without equivocation that the considerations that went into decisions surrounding the two appointments were separate and independent. These suggestions in the report are therefore baseless and without foundation.
No Chairman of Council at UCT has the kind of authority the report insinuates. No such behaviour, as asserted in the report, ever happened.
The considered decision to appoint Prof Phakeng to the position of Vice-Chancellor, whether it was right or wrong in retrospect, was that of the university and not that of any single stakeholder or individual irrespective of their position. In that, as a leader at the time, I remain satisfied that we dispensed our duty in this regard with responsibility, diligence and in the best interests of the university.
I dutifully pointed the panel to this record, which is readily available in the Office of the Registrar. It is unimaginable that such an esteemed panel would have come to such conclusions regarding Prof Phakeng’s suitability for appointment as Vice-Chancellor if they had properly considered it.
I welcome the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee’s recommendation that the Minister appoint an independent assessor to review the report.
One of the compelling considerations in this regard is that very few people at the university, who may have been wrongly and unfairly tarnished by its findings, will have the resources to challenge it through the courts. Even more important, is that it is in the public interest to do so.
The report has far-reaching consequences beyond higher education, which may be particularly detrimental to the limited workplace transformation gains the country has seen since 1994.
We need to ask ourselves whether it would be unreasonable to deduce from the panel report’s conclusions in this regard that African women, when being considered for leadership roles, are expected to jump a higher hurdle than their counterparts.
Such an injunction, even from as esteemed a panel as that led by respected jurists, is a betrayal of a nation’s vision founded not only on ending all forms of discrimination but also a realisation of a non-racial and non-sexist society.
To be clear, Prof Phakeng earned her appointment as Vice-Chancellor of UCT on merit.
If, in the course of the execution of her duties, she violated the country’s laws – including university policy – she should be held to account.
Any attempt to attribute such alleged transgression to processes governing her appointment can only be disingenuous and flawed. DM