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Strong emotions as UCT confirms Mamokgethi Phakeng’s exit

Images: World Economic Forum [CC BY-NC-SA 2.0], Mike [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr

Controversial vice-chancellor departs South African university after torrid final six months

Researchers at the University of Cape Town have responded with mixed emotions to the news that the institution’s embattled vice-chancellor Mamokgethi Phakeng will leave her post this week.

On 1 March, UCT council chair Babalwa Ngonyama confirmed that Sue Harrison, deputy vice-chancellor for research and internationalisation, is serving as acting vice-chancellor while Phakeng (pictured) is on leave until her last day in office on 3 March. Harrison will continue in the role until an interim vice-chancellor is appointed.

Phakeng has been at the centre of a leadership crisis enveloping the South African university since October, when allegations surfaced that she had misled the university’s senate about the departure earlier that year of Lis Lange, deputy vice-chancellor of teaching and learning.

Phakeng has also come under fire for her leadership style. The university’s former ombudsperson Zetu Makamandela-Mguqulwa said she had received reports from staff that Phakeng had bullied them. Phakeng has denied wrongdoing—denials she repeated on a South African TV chat show on 1 March. “I can tell the senate members watching: I never lied,” she told the Power to Truth show screened on eNCA.

In November, UCT said it would appoint an independent panel to investigate the allegations against Phakeng and the wider leadership crisis. However, rumours of her possible suspension began to circulate last month after reports that a legal counsel approached by the university council had found a prima facie case against Phakeng based on allegations against her.

While Phakeng confirmed that she had been notified of a possible suspension, Research Professional News understands that she then agreed to an exit settlement that will see her vacate the vice-chancellor post this week, while remaining at UCT as an academic on sabbatical for the next 12 months.

UCT’s council will start work on appointing an interim vice-chancellor next week.

Mixed feelings

The future is unclear for the four-member panel investigating Phakeng’s conduct and the wider leadership crisis at UCT, led by Lex Mpati, former president of South Africa’s Supreme Court of Appeal.

On 3 March, a UCT spokesperson told Research Professional News that UCT council had decided on 21 February to review the constitution and mandate of the panel to "enable it to consider and investigate issues of governance that have affected and are affecting the university—without specifically considering or investigating the conduct of the vice-chancellor". 

Most researchers at the university have stayed quiet on the matter of Phakeng’s exit. This week, two researchers spoke to Research Professional News on condition of anonymity. Their responses illustrate the wide range of feelings held by people at the institution about what has happened over the past six months.

One researcher said there had been very little communication about the negotiations around Phakeng’s departure. That lack of clarity is “even more reason for an independent probe to press ahead”, they said. “Because part of its remit is to figure out what went wrong in UCT processes around her appointment and continued bullying behaviour.”

However, another researcher called Phakeng’s departure “a huge loss” for the university. “UCT changed fundamentally under her leadership. I found the atmosphere of change and transformation she brought welcome, refreshing and exciting,” they said. “It’s very sad things have ended like this.”

The first researcher added that the university’s next vice-chancellor would need to learn from the debacle and aim to reverse what they described as the result of successive changes that have turned the university from a “bottom-up community organisation” to a “top-down managerial business”.

“UCT will rise again, but the new vice-chancellor will do well to respect their core assets—the staff who teach and research. In an ideal world, a vice-chancellor would represent us—not manage us,” they said.

This story was updated on 3 March to reflect new comment from UCT about the future of the panel investigating the leadership crisis.