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We urgently need positive disruptive leadership to turn SA’s public universities around


Prof Chengedzai Mafini is Executive Dean of the Faculty of Management Sciences at Vaal University of Technology.

The typical academic leader is sandwiched between unloving critics and uncritical lovers. To negotiate these complex scenarios, leaders should possess a unique mix of disruptive attributes that enable those they lead to excel.

Public universities in South Africa have over the past few years experienced challenges of monstrous proportions. The media is awash with reports on problems that include financial instability due to declining funding and corruption, ageing infrastructure, a lack of skills, almost omnipresent intra-institutional conflicts, supply chain inefficiencies, persistent student unrest and a host of other headwinds experienced across the sector.

Unfortunately, a discussion that is often side-stepped relates to how practical leadership competencies can be harnessed to address the turbulence bedevilling the country’s public universities.

The starting point in resolving the challenges these institutions face is to address the quality of academic leadership, given that those in charge determine the long-term direction of each university. Leaders are required at every level of academia who are competent and willing to disrupt the existing negative trajectory and set their institutions on a new course of excellence and long-term success.

Need for business-minded leadership

First, leaders within this sector need to demonstrate a firm grasp of business fundamentals. Higher education should be regarded as business, with the same principles applicable in commercial enterprises also applying to public universities.

The status quo, in which many institutions rely on government grants and subsidies for funding, should be revised in the long run and so requires disruptive interventions. While the assurance of government support through grants and subsidies is undoubtedly necessary for public universities in the present South African context, it, however, tends to breed managerial complacency, inadvertently becoming the millstone that is progressively dragging public universities down into the abyss.

Comparatively, successful private higher education institutions in South Africa and elsewhere have applied models that support academic and business excellence, managing to survive and sometimes achieving financial sustainability and reputability without accessing most of the monetary support enjoyed by public institutions.

That renders a similar appreciation of business models, commercial logic, financial prudence and micro- and macro-economic fundamentals within public universities essential. Applying this worldview, coupled with zero tolerance towards unethical practices — especially financial impropriety — will yield better outcomes for public universities.

Autonomous leadership

Disruptive leaders need to appreciate the power of autonomy and decisiveness in decision-making. However, effectiveness in such areas often depends on the leader’s predisposition to consult relevant stakeholders where necessary. To excel, academic leaders should understand that they are not the sole custodians of knowledge and have much to learn, unlearn and relearn. To be jacks of all trades is to choose to be masters of none.

We learn from multiple sources that shape the contours of our identities. Internal stakeholders are among the most effective sources of the necessary intelligence and advice in any academic setup. A prudent leader would certainly consult some of the readily available resources within their environment.

Sadly, in most cases, the internal academic environment is marred with poisonous institutional politics that hinder the necessary consultative engagements. Leaders should then be able to operate above these toxic politics and polarisation, prioritising institutional well-being ahead of self-interest and allowing for university-wide consultations.

Externally, numerous individuals and groups are available for consultation. The itineraries of noted academic leaders who served their universities illustriously in the past should be packed with requests for consultative engagements in various universities. The experiential knowledge of such influential leaders must be shared, even using cameo appearances in meetings whenever their availability is limited.

At every level of academic leadership, there are external resource persons who are willing to contribute if given the opportunity. Nurturing a culture of consultations, augmented by the willingness to implement sound advice acquired from others are important input factors in the bid to improve the performance of institutions.

Policies and compliance

Disruptive academic leaders are typically well-vested in the legislative and policy frameworks within which their institutions operate. Leaders should be able to develop relevant policies where these are non-existent and to apply or operationalise them, fostering institutional compliance.

A common practice is for specific management committees to set aside time, such as fortnightly, for policy analysis. Such exercises facilitate improved familiarisation with policies while helping to identify their inherent shortcomings or obsolescence, creating opportunities for further amendments.

To achieve this, disruptive academic leaders have to be avid readers of documents and should be able to pay attention to detail. But caution should be exercised to avoid breeding institutional bureaucrats who are ultra-policy-bound at the expense of common sense. Disruptive academic leaders are those who, besides cherishing compliance, also possess the wisdom to develop and apply policies judiciously and thoughtfully.

Development of human resources

Human resource problems have become a topical issue for most public universities. For instance, a benchmarking exercise of remuneration levels in public universities in South Africa will reveal mind-boggling differentials that seem to be dictating staff mobility within the sector currently. Extrinsically motivated academics, and these are many, can easily double their remuneration by switching to other universities that offer higher packages.

Underprepared institutions that are slow to respond to these developments have been reduced to training institutions where staff develop skills and competencies that enable them to switch to higher-paying institutions once such opportunities arise.

The push for remuneration parity within the sector is coupled with other pressing issues such as diversity management, employee wellness and retention, transformation and labour relations, among others. Disruptive leadership in public universities will accordingly ensure that institutions are agile enough to respond appropriately to these dynamics.

Flexible working schedules are standard in most academic environments. We are also fortunate to live in the digital era, where virtual platforms enable work to be performed remotely. Even within the area of teaching and learning, the benefits of blended learning to both academics and students have now gained widespread recognition.

Technological advancement and innovation

However, questions arise regarding how remote leadership approaches based on technology can be applied within the South African higher education sector. While it is possible to perform some roles remotely, it is necessary to determine whether the South African higher education landscape has achieved the digital maturity required to accommodate such approaches.

It may also be essential to consider the unique context and culture of each institution when applying remote leadership approaches. Further, the dosage or mix of virtual and face-to-face interactions between leaders and staff requires attention.

Paradoxically, the failure to adapt to technological advancements can be catastrophic for higher education institutions, given that their very mandate includes the promotion of innovation. The world has changed drastically. And so must we. Disruptive leadership is required to discern these technology-inspired trends and determine how institutions can benefit from them without compromising standards.

Notably, leaders in both academic and support roles should understand how the academic sector operates as this facilitates the seamless exchanges that embody the higher education ecosystem.

However, the typical trend in many public universities is that academics struggle to access the same funds they generate. Access to these funds, once they are deposited into the university treasury, characteristically becomes a frustrating exercise as firewalls are erected to prevent easy access by users. Questions are then raised regarding the extent to which those appointed in strategic support positions appreciate how the academic project is powered.

Funding and provision

Leaders and management committees within universities have to recognise the boundary between austerity and investment. If either policies or cost-containment measures prevent academics from accessing the funding that is necessary for investment into the core academic business areas such as teaching and learning, research and community engagement and others, academics may respond by limiting or withdrawing their efforts, which is detrimental to academic standards and the expected productive symphony. Ultimately, the same institutions would then be unable to generate more income and revenue apart from that which they are already safeguarding.

Higher education is a resource-intensive trade, and academics should never be found begging for nourishment. Disruptive leadership should then extend to those appointed in support positions within public universities, striving to improve their understanding of how the academic project is funded and to develop strategies for streamlining the mobilisation and access to resources by all users.

Disruptive leadership requires a range of soft competencies, without which leaders cannot be effective in their responsibilities. Academic leaders are generally expected to demonstrate the ability to appreciate and even enjoy uncomfortable conversations.

Soft skills and communication

However, many academic leaders tend to prefer feedback which endorses their ideas, yet the reality is that academics are intellectuals who never think alike and tend to question almost everything. Ask a group of academics to air their views about a simple concept, and you will get a mishmash of dissimilar if not contradictory, perspectives. To expect a homogeneity of thoughts or symmetry and validation in academic minefields is to suffocate oneself, for this is not easily attainable.

An essential skill for contemporary leaders is the ability to bring differently-minded individuals and groups to a point of convergence or consensus. The academic leader must then be able to navigate this delicate terrain, using tact coupled with precision and firm determination to ensure that the anticipated outcomes are achieved.

The typical academic leader is sandwiched between unloving critics and uncritical lovers. To negotiate these complex scenarios, leaders should possess a unique mix of attributes that enable those they lead to excel.

On the one hand, saboteur attitudes and counterproductive behaviours such as arrogance, egocentricity, intolerance of divergent ideas, feeling threatened by subordinates, quarrelsomeness, pride, and trigger-happiness should all be eschewed.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Independent report spits fire at UCT’s recent leadership, blasting Mamokgethi Phakeng

On the other hand, attributes such as agreeableness, altruism, assertiveness, authenticity, calmness, deep listening skills, diplomacy, emotional intelligence, empathy, humility, integrity, optimism and patience, among others, are linked with influential leadership.

Academic leaders should also be open-minded enough to promote the academic freedom and creativity required in educational frontiers. Mastery of such skills will enable leaders to win the loyalty of their subordinates, coupled with the ability to de-escalate the internecine conflicts that have become commonplace in our institutions.

In most cases, the effectiveness of leaders is more dependent on their ability to demonstrate these soft competencies than the technical or hard skills they may possess.

During appointments to managerial positions within academia, selection panels should be vigilant enough to spot red flags such as anger, resentment, disrespectfulness, immaturity, narcissism, pride, or any other masked personality disorders that may impede academic progress. It is easier to avoid appointing people who manifest these traits than it is to implement post-appointment corrective action.

Each seemingly elementary issue discussed above provides fertile ground for further deliberations focusing on the undercurrents within South African public universities.

The call then is for all stakeholders to contribute to this discourse and provide disruptive solutions, forming a vital input factor into transformative higher education in South Africa, which sets the nation on a path of exponential growth and progress. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Trenton Carr says:

    Seems like a long LinkedIn post.

  • Peter Smith says:

    Thanks for the lecture Prof. One of the fundamental issues was not mentioned. By providing free education, students study what they want and not what the country needs. This exasperates the skills shortages at businesses and government hampering economic growth. Without addressing this issue, the money to fund institutions and students is wasted. Ironically, when students pay for their own education, they are more likely to invest in qualifications that have higher returns due to higher demand. Free educational removed that mechanism. Internationally, it is common practice to provide bursaries for those areas where skills are in demand.

  • James Webster says:

    This article contains a plethora of words but says very little. It also neglects to mention that the appointment academic leaders based on merit as opposed to demographic would go a long way towards resolving the issues so prevalent in South African universities.

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