Narcissistic, thin-skinned, unprofessional, threatening, intimidating and abusive on social media; with an inclination to create and exploit racial divisions. These are some of the descriptors used by an independent panel chaired by Lex Mpati tasked with looking into failure of governance at the University of Cape Town (UCT) applied to the former vice-chancellor, Mamakgethi Phakeng. The chair of Council, Babalwa Ngonyama, also comes in for severe criticism, particularly relating to failures of fiduciary duty.

In Phakeng’s malevolent care, UCT descended to the level of soap opera; extraordinary when you consider that the university regards itself, rightly or wrongly, as the premier university of South Africa (or even Africa). Phakeng claimed that she was the only real black person on the Executive on account of her hair texture. (Take a bow Dr Verwoerd and your pencil test.) And echoes here, too, of Mzwanele (Jimmy) Manyi’s ‘too many coloureds at the Cape’ syndrome. But perversely she humiliated other black women she regarded as rivals. There was allegedly a little black book and it was widely agreed that UCT was run in an atmosphere of fear.

One consequence was an exodus of senior staff, many of them forced to sign that emblem of contemporary censorship, the no-disclosure agreement. Complaints about Phakeng were lodged just two months after she assumed office, highlighting another of the panel’s significant concerns. Why on earth was she appointed in the first place when the selection committee decided that she required a mentor? Who mentors a university vice-chancellor? It’s a contradiction in terms and former chair of Council Sipho Pityana has a great deal for which to answer.

Under Phakeng and Ngonyama, UCT seems to have embraced a culture of lawlessness. The Registrar was commanded by the former to lean on newspapers to reveal their sources of information about UCT; and required by the latter to doctor minutes sent to the Department of Higher Education. Failure of governance seems understatement and Norman Arendse, current Council chair, fully endorsed the panel’s report and issued an unreserved apology, a welcome and rare occurrence in South African public life. Jonathan Jansen, reflecting on recent crises at UCT and the University of the Western Cape, has commented that universities do not understand their own rules. More to the point, many of those in influential positions clearly do not appreciate the purpose and character of a university.

This is all the more extraordinary because nearly twenty years ago events at the newly merged University of KwaZulu-Natal demonstrated the fragility of higher education institutions and their vulnerability to ulterior agendas. UCT’s circumstances and dynamics were markedly different, but there were sufficient commonalities to act as very vivid red flags.

The role of universities is straightforward enough: to create new knowledge that advances the state of humankind through an integrated process of teaching, learning, research and publication. This is enabled by the conventions of academic discourse that require respectful consideration of opposing points of view and the application of evidence, reason and logic to debate. Arguments and points of view may be far apart, but persuasion is the keyword.

It goes without saying that these conventions require a calm atmosphere of peace and quiet. Constant organisational upheaval and uncertainty are inimical to the academic enterprise as is any form of violent disruption. Indeed, the sorts of protest seen on South African campuses adds absolutely nothing to public debate or common understanding. They simply harden attitudes and degrade universities. It is in the quietest, most stable of circumstances that the most innovative, even revolutionary, ideas are likely to emerge. Think, for instance, of Karl Marx in the British Museum reading room.

Each university has its particular characteristics. But those that have experienced periods of intense dysfunction or even disintegration have something in common: a failure of custodianship, an inability or unwillingness by those in positions of authority to appreciate that they are temporarily responsible for a national and local asset to be handed on intact to the next generation.

Instead, certain university vice-chancellors have simply used their five-year contracts to conduct short-term grandstanding to earn themselves their next promotion. Often this will involve organisational disruption that endangers the academic enterprise. This is commonplace, but worse has been experienced. Some vice-chancellors have regarded themselves as akin to CEOs with their Executives equivalent to boards of directors. Combined with the managerialism that has afflicted universities since the late 1980s, the result has been to reduce teaching and research staff to academic serfdom.

Others, like Phakeng have acted out bizarre parts of their personalities to disastrous effect. Yet others, and the newly merged UKZN was a victim of this syndrome, have used their institutions to experiment with ethnic social engineering. Under such circumstances the new phenomenon of the disciplinary university has flourished; with the use by vice-chancellors of heavy-hitting and expensive lawyers to persecute dissident staff with limited resources and little more than their staff associations to fall back on. In the past many such issues would have been settled over a cup of tea and with a handshake.   

The calm and creative institutions of the past where academic rule prevailed and staff elected the deans of faculties are no more. Instead, the atmosphere on some campuses has become so toxic that the idea of teaching in higher education once so prestigious has been abandoned by many. Thirty years ago, the suggestion that the culture of universities could be perverted so easily would have been regarded as recklessly pessimistic. But in that time, we have seen many national institutions eviscerated. As Raymond Zondo’s commission established beyond any doubt the state itself was captured by racketeers and gangsters calling themselves a national liberation movement.

Universities cannot expect to escape such vast and disruptive currents in national life. For instance, at University of Fort Hare there was an assassination attempt on the vice-chancellor and his bodyguard (yes, bodyguard) was killed. A criminal trial is underway. In this climate it is perhaps surprising that a few universities have managed to stay on the rails.