Lebogang Ramma: reflections on becoming and being a head of department

13 April 2021 | Story Robert Morrell. Photo Robert Morrell. Read time 7 min.
Dr Lebogang Ramma
Dr Lebogang Ramma

In January 2019 Associate Professor Lebogang Ramma took up the position of head of department (HOD) of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences in the Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of Cape Town (UCT). Prior to this he had been with the department as an academic specialising in his field of audiology. Lebogang came to national prominence when, shortly after the 2010 FIFA World Cup, he showed that the loudly blown vuvuzela was injurious to the hearing of those in close proximity.

The department is made up of five divisions, training six different professions, and it is home to about 100 staff members and close to 1 000 students. In this story, Lebogang describes how he came to occupy the position as head of the department and what challenges he faced in preparing for and discharging the responsibilities of the role.

What wants to be an HOD?

Let’s face it, most of us can remember that one lecturer/professor who made academia look so appealing that it led you to consider that as a career path. Often, when we transition into the world of academia, most of us only know of two obvious roles of an academic: teaching and research. Academic leadership is a well-kept secret and often it is far from most people’s minds until the day you’re asked to consider “making yourself available” (about that later) to take up a leadership role. The scariest part of this is that universities generally do not invest as much in capacity building for leadership as they do for teaching and research. As a result, when you take up a substantive academic leadership role, your best bet is the tips you get from colleagues.

My road to headship

At the end of 2016, I had just completed a very successful sabbatical and I had my research plan ready to be executed. A few months earlier, I had been nominated, along with 34 other colleagues at UCT, to join the newly established Next Generation Professoriate (NGP) programme, and I had just been awarded a substantial research grant by an external agency to pursue a project that was very close to my heart. It was the moment I had been waiting for my entire career as an academic, and for once it felt like all the stars had aligned. I was ready to turbocharge my research career!

Unfortunately, that day was deferred. Earlier that year the Fees Must Fall protests rippled across the country. Student protests were intense and kick-started serious institutional introspection. In my department, one effect of the upheaval was a call for new leadership. Someone may have suggested my name as a potential candidate for headship of the department, because it didn’t take long before a few members of my department started persuading me to “make myself available” for the role of HOD. I honestly thought that it was a very nasty prank, and I remember laughing at the first few people who suggested the idea to me. But it didn’t take long for me to realise that this was no prank.

I did not feel positively inclined towards these approaches. All that I could think was, “I have already sacrificed so much serving as a head of division from 2012 to 2016,” and I could not bear the thought of serving in yet another academic leadership role (HOD). However, as the persuasive pressure of my colleagues continued to mount, I found myself having deep conversations with myself, and I started to wonder, “Why do my colleagues want me to lead the department at this point?”

Succumbing to persuasive pressure

In the back of my mind were the events of 2016. I remembered the issues that were raised by students that I so wished I could do something about: transformation of the curriculum, dismantling the notorious hierarchical order of the Faculty of Health Sciences, transparent assessment practices and giving a voice to students, especially Black students from rural upbringings. On top of that, we had a Black African dean of the faculty (Professor Bongani Mayosi) who had just started his tenure. He could sense my hesitation in accepting the HOD role, and he was quick to gently remind me that, “We’re building. Are you going to stand on the sidelines and be witness or are you going to be part of the building team?”

My experience as an HOD

I agreed to become an HOD (starting in 2017) so that I could be part of the “building team” that the late Professor Mayosi was referring to. I saw the HOD role as an excellent opportunity for me to contribute towards the new vision of transforming the faculty.

I approached the headship highly energised and was prepared to roll up my sleeves to get the job done. The biggest lesson that I quickly learnt was that as an HOD, you can only move as fast as your ability to persuade colleagues to come along with you. Progress depends a lot on your colleagues and not just on you.

It is very easy to internalise some of the uncomfortable moments and think that it is an attack on you as a person (well, sometimes it is), but most of the time it is just in the nature of the HOD job – it’s not about you.

Transformation was big on the agenda and we made significant progress. As a department we never shied away from difficult conversations, and we had plenty of those. The highest honour I received as HOD was being asked to extend my term.

Being HOD and an active researcher

I was very fortunate to be part of the NGP programme. The NGP gave me the lifeline that I needed to keep my research dreams alive: During the past four years, the NGP writing retreats became the only time that I could do any research-related work. Despite the constraints of my role over the past four years, I have managed to publish 13 peer-reviewed publications, organised and presented at several academic conferences (including two international conferences), produced two technical reports and successfully applied for a National Research Foundation rating.

The NGP programme became an outlet where I could literally escape from the grip of my very demanding role as an HOD to go and meet with like-minded colleagues, who became a true pillar of strength during this challenging period. It was during the NGP meetings and writing retreats that I could get counsel and advice from my colleagues on how to navigate some of the minefields that I had to go through. The organised talks that were given by experts like Dr Linda Price and Associate Professor Alan Cliff were often the fuel that I needed to walk the extra mile.

Free advice

I am left with a little under a year before the end of my tenure as an HOD; I consider a headship role to be a privilege that you’re afforded by your peers to lead them at a time that they choose and see fit. Challenging as this role is, this is an opportunity that should never be taken for granted. It is very important that you’re clear about why you would want to accept a leadership role at any given time. It certainly is not a career-enhancing role (and it can quickly turn out to be the opposite if you’re not careful). If I were to do it again, I would prefer to wait until I am a full professor.

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