On Monday 6th June 2022, the Vice-Chancellor (VC) of the University of Cape Town (UCT), Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng, delivered a public lecture as part of the Education Excellence Lecture Series University of Ottawa. Although it took place at 22:00 South African time, the online portion of the event was well attended by UCT staff and students.
Entitled “Walking a Tightrope Between the Lecture Hall and the Picket Line: Reflections from a Transformative Academic Leader,” the lecture focused on Professor Phakeng’s experiences since becoming VC of the leading institution. of higher education in Africa in 2018.
Since taking office nearly four years ago, Phakeng has been focused on driving a radical transformation agenda while ensuring that UCT remains the best university on the African continent. However, this has not been without difficulties, as the institution has faced a major crisis every year since. “In this talk,” Phakeng said, “I will share my experience, focusing primarily on what it means to be a courageous and transformative leader. I will also share my vision for the future.
Leadership as a balancing act
Phakeng began his speech by reflecting on his journey so far as UCT’s VC. She pointed out that while the challenges are not an extraordinary event for leaders, the difficulties can be exacerbated by the global perception of African women leaders.
“To be a black African woman leader in a world previously dominated by white men is an act of disruption.”
“Leadership is tough at the best of times. It is even more difficult in this time of uncertainty. It’s hard whoever you are, but being a black African woman leader in a world previously dominated by white men is an act of disruption.
“When my appointment as VC was announced to the various constituencies, I received congratulatory messages from people I considered to be on opposite sides of that line. This set the stage for the challenge.
“At one end are the people on the picket line; marginalized people who were representative of those who seek change – and with good reason – and saw themselves as those who could bring about change. At the other end of the tightrope, the boardroom represents the systems that uphold the values of the “old guard” – the beliefs that an institution’s excellence depends on respect for tradition. »
Understanding the natural dichotomy between these two points of view, Phakeng knew that it would be impossible to always satisfy everyone. Despite this, she says, she understood that her mission as a leader was a balancing act that would require an attitude of determination and determination.
Transformation: an emotional issue
While the critical lens through which leaders are viewed can be hard on anyone, the VC pointed out that it can be especially hard on women — and women of color in particular. The criticisms notwithstanding, Phakeng believes it’s time to harness the power that this diversity brings.
“I believe in diversity in leadership, and I think it’s time for female leadership. The time of male power is over; in fact, the world is where we are because male power has not delivered. If we were fair and open and honest, we would say, “Well, we’re here because the world has drawn its leaders to one side of the spectrum,” she said.
“Transformation is a conversation from the heart, not a conversation from the head.”
Phakeng pointed out that it can be difficult to drive the transformation of institutions that will ultimately lead to better results. This is largely due to the microscope under which many women and other leaders of previously marginalized communities are observed by those resisting change.
To implement meaningful change, the VC noted, leaders must overcome resistance to change by changing the perceptions and conversations held by an institution’s staff.
“There is an obsession with the idea that if we transform, we will lose excellence. There are people who are convinced that if we change the status quo [we’re] will fail. We cannot overlook the individuals involved in the transformation process because it is the people who have the conversations and interactions that make the change.
“Transformation is a conversation from the heart, not a conversation from the head. People know they need to transform, but for some reason they don’t. Changing that will not come from education, knowledge or wisdom, because transformation is as much an emotional issue as it is an academic one People are happy in their comfort zone – and transformation is uncomfortable.
“What transformation means is a distribution of privileges. People want to keep this privilege that they have always enjoyed, because if they give it up, life might be harder for them. They are likely to face more opposition and competition. So it is very difficult for people to engage in transformation,” Phakeng explained.
Excellence, transformation and sustainability
Reflecting on how she handled the challenges that serving as Vice Chancellor has brought, Phakeng noted that her main commitment has been to stay true to her values and allow them to guide her decisions to unlock potential. human at UCT.
“If you’re never criticized and never sued as a leader, you’re not doing a good job.”
“When I took office, I introduced three pillars that would define my vision for the university to help us deal with the challenges we were facing. The first pillar is excellence. The second pillar is transformation. The third is sustainability,” she said.
These pillars, Phakeng said, are meant to work in concert with each other to help UCT reach its greatest heights.
According to the VC, excellence cannot be achieved while someone is marginalized, because an institution can only “win” and continue to do so in a sustainable way when all of its employees have a fair opportunity to participate.
However, she acknowledged that this approach has not been without its critics, which is part of walking the tightrope. “I never expected to make someone happy all the time, but the decisive leader will always be criticized. You have to know that if you make decisions, you will be criticized. If you are never criticized and sued as a as a leader, you are not doing a good job,” she noted.