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Dr Bernadette Johnson (Director Transformation and Employment Equity (TEEO) Wits University) asserts that citizens must demand more from the stewards of Universities in SA

Caroline Du Plessis



We must Demand more of our University Leaders

Universities are a microcosm of society. Several issues continue to bedevil universities. Governance issues at UCT, urination incidents and intoxication at Stellenbosh University, a SIU investigating allegations of corruption and maladministration at the University of Fort Hare, administrative issues and claims of bullying of senior and junior staff by the executive at Unisa. The latter has led to Minister Blade Nzimande appointing Professor Themba Mosia to conduct an independent assessment of Unisa. The Vaal University of Technology (VUT) chairperson of council, Refilwe Buthelezi, recently resigned following concerns over the behaviour of vice-chancellor and principal, Professor Dan Kgwadi and at Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University was subject to a parliamentary probe into its vice-chancellor Professor Peter Mbati. Over and above this, South Africa’s student debt has snowballed from R3.2-billion to more than R16-billion since 2011. This could lead to universities crumbling under the weight of debt.  

Universities are mimicking what happens elsewhere in society, yet we must demand better from our universities!! These are unusual and special places where great minds from across the globe meet and so must offer and present the best society has to offer. When this all happens, it begs the question is this the best we have to offer? 

Universities are one of the few social institutions in with government does not have direct control. These are autonomous institutions and have councils which govern the university. Being able to distinguish the role of the council and the role of the management of the university has bedevilled the relationship between council and university management, where councils have become too involved in the daily management and running of the university. Being decisive has been the challenge of both council and management and remaining in their own lanes cannot be taken as an offence by either chair of council or Vice Chancellor. Council appoint Vice Chancellors and members of the Senior Executive of Universities without recognising that not everyone can be nor have demonstrated their capacity to lead a university. 

In fact, a candidate may have a clear history of not being able to lead and yet is appointed as Vice Chancellor. Why does this happen? Have we created new “white boys clubs” in the university? Even if members of councils are fully trained, there has to be an understanding of the kind of leaders universities need. University leaders need to show that they can listen, understand, respond to and engage with diverse stakeholders and interest groups in ways that consistently upholds the central mission of universities which is to develop great thinkers. Most importantly university leaders need to be comfortable with being disagreed with and being surrounded by colleagues who will point out their blind spots and critically and rigorously engage with them. They must be able to take an intellectual beating but if egos are too large and wounds to deep, the danger is leaders surround themselves with their same. After all one would have expected provocation to be the central business of university which is to disrupt and foster disagreement to arrive at consensus. 

When incidents of discrimination re-emerge consistently within an institution, then the intervention and consequences for intolerable behaviour has not been established. How are leaders kept accountable? How are leaders accounting to society for their hot beds of discriminatory behaviours? 

Let’s remind ourselves, universities have not suddenly arrived at this place. There have been many other incidents of corruption, maladministration, and violence over the past 30 years. The current mess we find ourselves in, is perhaps and opportunity for self-interrogation. If truth be told – perhaps we have all been complicit. While intellectuals like to demand accountability of government, we also need to demand accountability of ourselves. We like to blame government and of course they are deserving but we must blame ourselves too. How are we keeping ourselves accountable? When Vice-Chancellors misbehave, why are academics and other stakeholders quiet? When the senior management are unable to resolve intolerable matters of discrimination, why are we silent? Where are the critical voices of our intellectuals?  Even more worrying what has happened to our communities’ voice? It seems no community expresses it disdain with what happens in universities. Corruption cannot define the relationship between universities and their communities. How do we keep from cleaner to Vice Chancellor accountable?

 It is time that communities and society claim universities and says to its leadership and authorities what it wants for its collective well-being and futures. No parent wants to witness universities beset with corruption, bad behaviour by its Vice Chancellors and remain proud that their child attends that university, despite its stunning views. South Africa only has 26 universities, and it needs every one of them. We need leadership that looks way beyond its own personal self-interests and egos and extends it gaze beyond the now and immediate to what matters to future generations of youth and especially South African and African youth. Leadership is a privilege and must only be bestowed on those who can lead with humility and care for all. 

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