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N Barney Pityana takes us through the current state of UNISA and offers some solutions to repair the damage… before it’s too late

The Principal and Vice Chancellor of the University of South Africa (UNISA), Prof. Puleng LenkaBula, is reported to have instructed the Head of the Human Resources Department at UNISA to authorise and ensure that her annual bonus payment was paid to her in an amount equivalent to that paid to her predecessor, Prof. Mandla Makhanya, a year before. Prof. LenkaBula, at this stage, had not yet completed a year in office while Prof. Makhanya had completed a 10-year tenure at the university and was due to retire when he received the payout. It seems she saw nothing amiss about both this cavalier approach to the resources of the university, as well as with this unfounded attitude of entitlement.

One can imagine that the Head of Human Resources did not know how to handle this clearly unlawful but sensitive instruction, given the complete lack of due process or the absence of an approved Performance Review signed by the Chair of Council. He thus delayed and prevaricated, whereupon the impatient VC approached the Head of Finance and demanded that her bonus had to be paid by 12 noon the following day. There is no way of knowing whether this unlawful command was executed or not, but it offers some insight into the manner in which the Vice Chancellor of UNISA conducted herself from the very beginning of her tenure as executive head of the institution.

Upon assuming office, she overspent the budget for the refurbishment of the official residence, ‘Cloghereen’, and she overspent the budget for the purchase of an official vehicle for the use of the Vice Chancellor. To date, the VC has not yet occupied the said official residence and the university is required to pay rent for the house that she currently lives in.

She persuaded council to populate her office with personnel more than three times the staff that she found at the office of Makhanya, many of which posts were non-existent and actually duplicated the jobs done by staff elsewhere in the university. She increased the salaries of a select number of staff, in one instance backdated to 15 years earlier. Due to fear of industrial action, the university felt compelled to provide commensurate salary increases for the rest of the staff. None of this was a budget provision. That was not by any means the only irregular instruction resulting in unbudgeted expenses for the university. Cash advances to purchase laptop computers for certain staff, completely at her say so, have come to light. This penchant for irregular and wasteful expenditure appeared to be becoming the signature tune of this Vice Chancellor. As far as can be ascertained, no disciplinary action was taken against her.

These are amongst the litany of management disasters that the Vice Chancellor of UNISA is accused of in the report of the independent assessor, Prof. Themba Mosia, published by the Minister of Higher Education, Science, and Innovation (The Mosia Report) recently. The report shows that in 2020 the council of UNISA appointed a chief executive officer whose qualifications and experience fell short of the profile published with the advertisement for the post. Her conduct since shows that she does not consider herself to be accountable; she has no regard for the policies and regulations of the university, let alone the prescripts of the government in the oversight of higher education institutions. Her practice and understanding of leadership in a university does not conform to the standards expected of a head of a centre of higher learning like UNISA. She swayed her power in the institution like a tinpot dictator writ large. More alarmingly, she has demonstrated that she has no regard for her colleagues, the academics, and administrative officials of the university, including women at all levels of the university.

It is worth bearing in mind that the Mosia Report is not an isolated incident that shines a spotlight on UNISA in recent years. In 2020, the minister appointed a task team led by the highly reputable scholar and businessman, Dr VT Maphai. It included equally reputable and influential experts from South Africa and abroad. The Council for Higher Education (CHE) has also undertaken its own investigation. All three reports flagged the same issues about the collapse of governance at UNISA—poor management, the collapse of good governance, and poor leadership ethics. In short, an institution broken by the shortcomings of its own executive officials.

Mosia points out that poor student services are the cause of a multitude of student complaints, covering the entire spectrum of student operations, causing students unabated frustration. The office of the Dean of Students has long ceased to treat students as if they mattered in the institution. One shudders to think what the situation in the examinations section might be. The security of the examination papers as well as the certificates awarded by the institution cannot be trusted to be safe from manipulation and corruption. Academics are at the end of their tether fielding seemingly insuperable issues, including the work overload, hundreds of unfilled posts, the lowering of academic standards, (un)fairness in the election of the professorate, research grants, among others. From the point of view of the Department of Higher Education, it has to contend with UNISA enrolments that are out of kilter with the then-approved enrolment plan and a throughput rate that is plummeting. The Senate, on the other hand, the guardian of the academic performance of the university, is divided, at times along racial lines, but also about a common understanding of academic governance, transformation, and the idea of a university.

So rapid and comprehensive has been the departure of skilled administrators and senior academics from UNISA that by 2020 when Prof. Makhanya was to retire, he was the only executive in place who was at the institution that I left in 2010. The aforementioned are the reasons and frustrations that caused so many to leave the university. Others were simply purged and with that the university lost many years of experience. The work so meticulously undertaken in institutional research and planning by the likes of the late Professors Baijnath, Subotsky, and Ms Liana Griesel (now Joubert) could never be recovered once they were pushed out precipitously. Formidable and valuable professionals like the then Head of the Legal Office, the Internal Audit Executives, and the Chief Information Officer were simply discarded. The university has been paying the price for such recklessness ever since. No wonder then that student numbers have ballooned, and the university seems disinclined to tackle the pressure from students to make of this ODeL university a poor cousin of its residential and in-contact counterparts. This pioneering OdeL institution has lost its leadership and expertise that it for so long occupied the cutting-edge and uniqueness as a modern and progressive instrument for the advancement of higher education. The university almost seemed at times to be apologetic and ashamed of its own pedigree.

There can be no doubt that leadership, management, and governance have been at issue at UNISA, according to Prof. Makhanya, since a cabal at the university staged an effective coup d’etat in 2015. All systems of management and governance were taken over by under/unqualified and inexperienced people, some of whom were recent student activists at the university. Some key departments and colleges were simply taken over: Human Resources, Student Affairs, ICT, SCM, and Council itself. The then newly appointed University Council set about its task equating itself to the boards of corporate bodies in then private sector, demanding equivalent board fees. Mosia discloses that the UNISA Council met for 85 times in one year!

Much has been said about the dominance of the Black Forum and the extent to which in the name of transformation the concept of a university was trashed. The Colleges of Law and Accounting seem to have become the epicentre of these counterfeit ideas that caused a particular site of dissent, discord, contestation, anxiety, and fear among staff to be felt across the university. Some of us raised the alarm bells about the deteriorating prestige of the College of Law, and the fact that for successive years what was once one of their best performing Accountancy schools in the country has been performing so dismally that SAICA had to intervene.

I wish to place it on record that I count myself among so many well-meaning people who expressed, formally or otherwise, their concerns about the goings-on at the university. None of us had any joy. The university that we knew so well and loved so much had become deaf to reason. In October 2021, I was so alarmed by the stories that UNISA had become a degree factory; that UNISA degrees no longer had value in the market-place; that it was common practice for students to hire ghost writers, that assessments of essays went unattended for long periods, and the supervision of post-graduate students lacked diligence and rigour, that I decided to write directly to the Chairperson of Council to express my fears. The letter was copied to the Vice Chancellor. Having received a defensive response from the Chairperson of Council, I had a sense that the university was not amenable to this kind of concern about the gravity of this matter that I wrote back in utter exasperation to the Chairperson of Council to say the following:

On this occasion my issue had to do with the reputational damage that is being done to the integrity, quality and standards of the UNISA qualifications.

I called on the Council and the Vice Chancellor to resign. Silence. I recall this only to make the point that my voice was one among many voices who sought to save UNISA, alas, to no avail.

That said, I make three observations about UNISA and its future, bearing in mind also that 2023 is the 150th Anniversary of the University of South Africa since it received its Charter in 1873 as the then University of the Cape of Good Hope. To the shame of our generation, and for the first time in its history, there is a rising, well substantiated crescendo of voices appealing for the university to be put under administration.

Firstly, Prof. Mosia is partially correct to state that Prof. LenkaBula took up her appointment in a university that was already broken to a degree, but I would suggest that she did not seek to reverse the trend that she may have found, but rather continued contributing to its further disintegration. In that sense she failed in becoming a transformational leader.

Secondly, Prof. LenkaBula’s academic discipline is Theological Ethics. It is fair to expect of such a leader not only to be steeped in her discipline but also to allow that discipline to inform her conduct. She failed to conduct herself as an ethical leader, instead it appears that she is focused inordinately on her benefits and her prestige. However, from some of her numerous speeches she gave, I can concede, that they are replete with the soundbites from the avant-garde ideas on an African, anti-colonialist university academic rhetoric. We are yearning to hear more practical applications of such ideas. I have the idea that as Vice Chancellor she brooks no dissentient voice thus undermining the character of a university as a universe of contesting ideas.

Thirdly, Prof. LenkaBula simply does not understand what leadership in a university ought to be, nor what effective management in a constitutional democracy entails. At its best the university is a community of peers who hold each other in respect and who, each in their own rights, are gifted with knowledge and intelligence. The task of a leader is to understand the gifts each brings to the collective will, to articulate a common pursuit of that ideal, to persuade and influence colleagues to buy into that idea rather than to impose one’s will, and to shape it together and give it substance. In that sense nobody is more important than another. I often stated this as leadership by presence.

This means that one must understand that in a university we cultivate idealisms and excellence. At their most advanced, universities cultivate this idea of a university and make it work for as many members of the collective as possible, for ever mindful that the university ultimately does not exist for itself. It is very difficult to be a bully in a well-managed and operated university. Power in a very real sense is diffused and accountable. Every university has its unique features, identity, and branding. It creates in academics, staff, and students and graduates a peculiar form of loyalty that shapes the mind. I like the idea that the university is devoted to the art of making us more human, and it serves “to unleash the potential of every person”, as stated in the Preamble to our Constitution. The Vice Chancellor is a driver of a vision for the university. But what happens when the Vice Chancellor is without a vision? Evidently, Prof LenkaBula is not a visionary educationist.

That said, there can be no gainsaying the truth that Prof. LenkaBula was largely let down by the Chairperson and members of Council, her putative employers. It was in their own interest that they failed to rein her in when they should have. It is true that she should not be carrying this burden all by herself. Council must take responsibility.

My final point is to state what I regard as obvious, and that which Prof. Mosia might have been coy to state up front, namely, that UNISA has been an institution under the capture of special interests since 2015. Nothing that happened since then was by mistake. The institution set about re-purposing the university to satisfy the avarice, the wanton and insatiable greed of a cabal that was hellbent on profiting corruptly from the resources of the university, as well as to access any opportunity it provided for unearned power and influence.

It was not without purpose that a bunch of inexperienced and under-educated people were drafted in to hold sway at Council and elsewhere in the university. It was not a mistake that the former Chairperson Sakhi Simelane was virtually ‘ruling’ the university as if he was the Vice Chancellor. It was accordingly not for nothing that a Vice Chancellor was appointed under the aegis of such as Simelane in the face of many objections and the general sense that the appointment was underwhelming to so many people who cared about UNISA and its future.

I was not among them, although I bemoaned the indecent haste with which the appointment was made at a time when the MTT Report was on the table awaiting action by the minister. There was none of the care with which Dr Mathews Phosa, then Chairperson of Council at UNISA in 2010, took the responsibility for succession planning as I was coming to retirement. Council had identified Prof. Mandla Makhanya as a potential successor. He was appointed Pro Vice Chancellor some three years before my departure, and then the university paid for him to undertake an advanced Senior Executive Management Course at Harvard Business School.

What could be the way forward? The obvious imperative is to accept and act on the recommendations of the Mosia Report. This means that without wasting much time, the Council must be dissolved and the Vice Chancellor must be put under disciplinary process. An administrator must be appointed who will bring gravitas and purpose to the institution. Ideally, the administrator must bring a team of experts with a mandate to restore the mission of the university, including its character as an ODeL institution among the mega universities of the world. Ideally, such a team should have expertise in the areas of acute challenge to the university with a targeted approach, where priorities and sequencing of interventions is key. The administrator must be guaranteed at the least three to five years to end the current institutional malaise and restore it to its former glory, in particular, in the field of distance and eLearning education which it proudly pioneered.

The first task of the administrator then must be to take disciplinary action against the Vice Chancellor, undertake a forensic investigation of the university, including, as is necessary, persuading the president to issue a proclamation appointing the SIU to undertake any investigation necessary to render all present and former members of the Executive, of Council, and staff of the institution accountable for their actions.

There is a conversation that South Africa is yet to conduct meaningfully about the role and place of a university in national life. There is reason to believe that we have lost our way somewhat. If one gauges the goings-on at various higher education institutions and the challenges that society has to contend with, then one realises that a renewed vision of higher education is urgently needed—one that goes beyond that of the 1995 Commission on Higher Education (which has become much corrupted). A new National Commission on Higher Education has become imperative.

Lastly, in the era of the post-industrial revolution, smart technologies, and a knowledge society and economies, universities have become vital for human resource development and innovations to solve our complex developmental challenges and save our common planet. Our competitive and complementary edge largely depends on the health and positioning of our universities. Many studies indicate a close correlation between general performance of universities and development indicators. A learning and a knowledge society captures the imagination and is rooted in culture, morality, and values.

N Barney Pityana GCOB FKC is the Professor emeritus of Law at the University of South Africa.