Without transformation, research excellence is unsustainable - Mamokgethi Phakeng

16 November 2016 | Story by Newsroom
Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng.
Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng.

Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng, UCT's incoming Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research and Internationalisation, has delivered the key note address at the 2016 UCT Annual Research Function, at which the university's latest research report, Research & Innovation 2015-16, was launched. Below is a transcript of her speech:

Good evening!

I feel very privileged to be part of this occasion and to have had an opportunity to work with Professor Danie Visser for the last four months. I don't know if Danie will remember, but in 2011, when I was appointed as Vice-Principal for Research and Innovation at Unisa, I sent him an email requesting to come to UCT so that I can spend time with him as an apprentice. That never happened, and I blame it all on the rebelliousness of my diary. But I am glad that I finally got the opportunity to work closely with Danie before he retires, and he has been generous with his knowledge and experience. Danie, thank you very much for your outstanding leadership. You are a legend! I wish I could make a promise to fill your boots, but they are way too big and I like stilettos anyway! I wish you everything of the best.

The launch of UCT's annual research report is a celebration of success and I am delighted to be part of this celebration. Delighted as I am, I am very aware that what brought us to this success, may not be sufficient to get us to our next success, because we live in a world of national and international uncertainty and unrest. From chemical weapons in Syria to suicide bombings in Brussels; from the insecurity of global warming to cooling of bilateral relations between Russia and the USA; from the hopeful chants of the Arab Spring to the aspirations of the Economic Freedom Fighters; from a shocking vote for Britain to exit the European Union to the even more shocking news of Trump's election as President of the United States of America; from the call for the fall of Rhodes to a national call for free decolonised quality education for all. Did I mention the continuing regulatory and public funding uncertainty, as well as austerity measures in our own university? Well, the world is wobbling on its axis, spinning with unfathomable challenges. The old certainties – good and bad – are unravelling. What we thought we knew, we no longer know. We can be confident only that in the coming decades we will encounter a world of rapid and almost unimaginably profound change. And a question that we might consider tonight is how we, as UCT researchers, could possibly be prepared for the multiple and unforeseeable challenges that await us. My view is that to cope with this uncertain future that we face, we are going to need three things: an unrelenting commitment to excellence, an exceptional focus on transformation and the courage to do things differently.

There is no doubt that UCT is one of the top universities on the continent – this is visible in our research performance as well as in international rankings where we regularly show up in the top 200 universities in the world. So excellence is not new to UCT; in fact, many will argue that excellence is what UCT is known for. So if excellence is our game, why do I want to talk about it on an occasion such as this? There are two reasons:

First, it is because it is time for us to think differently about the excellent work that we do and how we can ensure that it is sustainable. I can almost hear some of you say, “Why change or think differently when things have been so successful?” Well, this is the tough question to answer when you're already a successful institution. If we were a poor performing, less-than-stellar institution, then the case for change or doing things differently wouldn't be a massive leap for anyone to accept. But creating a case for change and a dissatisfaction with the status quo can be somewhat difficult if all you have known is tremendous success. Even when the ground beneath your feet is shifting, if success is all you know, then change will remain difficult to accept. But truth is that what made us excellent yesterday, is no guarantee that it will make us excellent tomorrow. To continue in our trajectory of excellence requires the keen ability to manage the change and master adaptability.

The second reason why it's important to talk about excellence is that excellence is not innocent, especially in a country such as ours, with a history of discrimination and oppression. Excellence always has a context. There are contexts in which someone like me will never be excellent, no matter how hard one works, simply because the only way to be excellent is to move away from who one is. We need to celebrate all ways of excellence, the many ways we rise, our skill at thriving and surviving despite our difficult past. Excellence, when it is too rigidly defined, leaves us valuing certain stories over others, leaves us assimilating instead of reaching towards newer and better ways of being.

As much as we need it, we have to realise that excellence is complex and can be controversial. It is not surprising, therefore, that one of the most provocative questions I was asked during my presentation, when I came here for a job interview in 2015, was whether I believe in excellence. I thought the question was provocative not only because it was asked by someone who I thought knows me reasonably well and had watched me grow as an academic from the time I was a postgraduate student, albeit at a distance, but also because there was an interesting response to the question from at least one member of the audience. So my answer was, “Yes I believe in excellence. If not excellence, then what?” Having been here for a few months, I now appreciate the importance of the question even more. So let me say it again, tonight, that I believe in excellence and, despite its complexity, I remain convinced that, in a business such as ours, excellence is non-negotiable.

We should guard against a tendency to downplay excellence in favour of mediocrity, which is usually done unwittingly in interactions and considerations about equity, transformation and capacity development.

In the same way, we should challenge the perception that excellence resides only in one group of people or a particular section of our society. We should also challenge the view that we cannot deal with issues of equity, transformation and capacity development at the same time as we encourage, pursue and recognise excellence.

The complexity of excellence means that it always has a context – it means different things to different people. This is the reason why, when I talk about excellence, some people ask, “excellence for whom?” and, when some people hear that I am committed to supporting excellence, they misguidedly think that I am only interested in supporting academic indulgence. And, so when I say "if not excellence then what," they ask, what about the pressing challenges facing our society? What about Africanisation? What about decolonisation? And what about transformation? It is as if by supporting excellence, one is necessarily against the decoloniality project, Africanisation and transformation.

There is a narrative that argues that there is a trade-off between excellence and transformation. According to this narrative, is the believe that inherent in the idea of transformation is a lowering of standards for the instrumental purpose of allowing more women and black Africans into the academy and up the professorial rank, without letting them be measured against the objective standards of a meritocracy.

When others hear that I am committed to supporting excellence, they think that I want to use our resources to support the elite at the expense of everyone else. And then they ask: what about using UCT's full potential? What about black researchers? What about the young and emerging researchers?

My vision is to ensure sustainable excellence in UCT's research performance, and this includes creating an enabling environment for all UCT researchers to conduct research that can contribute to society and the improvement of the lives of people; and helping to create a sustainable future. So, I am committed to excellent researchers, who are passionate about the work that they are doing. These are researchers, who do not just do research simply because it is indicated in their job descriptions, but those who do it because they love it!

I am committed to the development of excellent researchers and making sure that those, who are already excellent, stay there. So, under my leadership of UCT's Research and Internationalisation portfolio, we will continue to support UCT's best researchers, because they are in a global competition with better resourced rivals and with new rivals emerging every day. However, to be able to do so, we must all be committed to transformation, because without transformation, our excellence will be unsustainable.

The research landscape is not flat – peaks of excellence can spring up anywhere. But excellence cannot be everywhere. This is as true for any university, faculty, department and individuals within universities as it is between universities. But this does not mean that we should have only a few excellent researchers or research entities that succeed at the expense of others.

Excellence doesn't develop on its own. It requires nurturing and resources. And that is why supporting capacity-building, especially for black African South African women researchers, is an important part of my vision. It cannot be correct that in 2016 a university such as UCT has only one black African South African woman full professor. It is time we ask ourselves difficult questions. Don't get me wrong, I am not suggesting that black African South African women should be promoted to full professor level even when they do not deserve it. Rather, I am asking why is it that 22 years after democracy we have only one black African South African woman full professor. The fact that she was appointed from outside UCT is even more serious. I know we have excellent research support programmes for emerging researchers, so the question is, what is it that we are not doing to ensure that more black African South African women get to full professor level?

More than resources, excellence requires the right philosophy – a commitment to transformation; a willingness to identify particular strengths and opportunities that may mean difficult choices as part of our research strategy. Excellence also requires a willingness to work to build up the right conditions and practices over many years.

Colleagues, we have done exceptionally well in the past years, however, in this intensely competitive and increasingly unpredictable academic world, we need to start doing some things a little differently in order not to stagnate. We can only do that if we work together. And I think it's fair to say, after what we have been through in the past two months, that hasn't always been exactly the case. The past two months have been a testing time for all of us at UCT. But we all have lessons to learn and a responsibility to do things differently and work together more effectively, especially during difficult times. My view is that we have far more in common with each other than things that divide us. Let that essential truth guide us as we come together to face this uncertain future with courage.

We have an opportunity to build a sustainable research enterprise that works for every one of us and to do that on our own terms. But we have to act now, because if we don't, then others, who pay for our services, will step in to do so. There are signs that they have begun to do this. So, we must act quickly. We owe this to our students, our disciplines, our country and ourselves.

The challenges that we are facing are a test of our willingness to act together. I am convinced that, if we act together, we will achieve more together, for everyone at UCT and for everyone in the country.

Thank you.

Read the research report...
Research & Innovation 2015-16


UCT Research and Innovation

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