The University of Cape Town has released the findings of an independent inquiry panel established to look into the tenure and death of Dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences, Professor Bongani Mayosi.
Mayosi took his own life during a battle with depression in July 2018.
His death brought into sharp focus the role that mental health, student protests, as well as transformation at higher education institutions, played in the lives of high-profile black academics.
In its 157-page report, the panel – chaired by former deputy vice-chancellor Professor Thandabantu Nhlapo – criticised UCT’s handling of the news of Mayosi’s death, calling it “on the whole, poor, fragmented and, on occasion, ill-considered”.
“The public statements that were made and widely reported in the media, especially the accusation that the tragedy was directly attributable to the student protests, are regrettable and overly simplistic, as the matter was much more complex,” it found.
“These statements divided the university community and led to heightened levels of anxiety among students and staff, at a time when they should have had the opportunity to mourn together as a community.
“This compounded an already problematic set of divisions on campus and in the wider UCT community and beyond, resulting from the earlier protests. It also went against the spirit of the plea by the Mayosi family, that they be allowed to mourn in peace.”
Attempts to resign rebuffed
Mayosi had attempted to resign from his position, but had been persuaded to withdraw it “after mechanisms to ease his burden were promised”.
According to the panel, his attempted resignation and a promise of redeployment were linked.
The “well-intentioned promise” by the UCT Executive to redeploy him as Pro Vice-Chancellor, heading a Centre of Excellence, “was not pursued with consistency”.
“…The very same pressures that led to Professor Mayosi’s resignation from the deanship would possibly have been alleviated if the offered redeployment to a senior research post had succeeded.”
Mayosi’s “increasingly urgent desire to shed his deanship duties”, and his attempts to resign, appeared to point to a phenomenon that appears quite prominently in the literature on diversity and demographic representation, the panel found.
“This refers to the situation where the institutional need to maintain an impressive demographic profile for purposes of compliance reporting often leads to the temptation to retain incumbents from designated groups in high-profile, high-pressure posts even when this is at variance with the actual needs or aspirations of the individual staff member.
“This may happen even in institutions where the ideal of diversity is genuinely embraced, if there is no conscious will to show sensitivity to individual needs and feelings as well. While the evidence is scanty, this may explain in part Professor Mayosi’s failure to extricate himself from the deanship over many reported attempts.”
‘Source of rupture’
According to the panel’s findings, the unprecedented “intensity and sometimes confrontational nature” of the UCT student protests were a “source of rupture”, causing divisions among staff members and management as well as within the student body.
“Two narratives emerged from the interviews. One was that Professor Mayosi maintained on the whole a good relationship with students in his faculty despite the difficulties and acrimony of #OccupyFHS [Faculty of Health Sciences].
“On the other hand, there is evidence that on occasion the students showed an incredible amount of disrespect, both in face-to-face encounters and in numerous electronic communications with him. People interviewed described how deeply this distressed him.”
According to the panel, that Mayosi could “go through a period of mental unwellness, and be known by many people to be so afflicted, without the matter formally reaching the executive leadership is problematic”.
“It is especially concerning that it was not detected in a faculty of specialists in the health sciences. While there is enough information that he was adept at putting up a brave front, there is also abundant evidence that, at some point, his unwellness was evident and openly discussed, which makes the failure to take decisive action all the more concerning.”
When Mayosi took up his position as dean, no induction programme existed.
“The fact that he was plunged into a new role, with little institutional support at the same time as the outbreak of the student protests is an important factor in assessing his performance in the role.”
‘Dilemma’ for black leaders
Many senior black staff interviewed by the panel had described how their positions exposed them to “being seen as champions of transformation by the black constituency, and perceived as a threat to the status quo by some white colleagues”.
“There is often little understanding of this dilemma faced by black leaders at UCT. Especially potent in this mix is the potential for backlash from either side, especially if the leader concerned is perceived as being sympathetic to the other. Hovering above all this is the Executive with its own demands on the dean, expecting him or her to be a team player.”
Observations about Mayosi’s performance and impact were also “contested terrain with some academics, especially black colleagues, praising his transformative and visionary leadership as demonstrated during his tenure as the head of the Department of Medicine”.
“But others find fault with his leadership style, perceived lack of decisiveness and avoidance of direct conflict. It is interesting to note how fluid and often contradictory these accounts are, especially when considering how those who claim he was incompetent as a leader tend to position other leadership attributes such as driving genuine transformation, raising significant research funding, identification and nurturing of talent, as being outside the definition of leadership.”
The panel had difficulty pinning down perceptions regarding support for Mayosi from his colleagues, the report reads.
“The pronounced lack of consensus among the panel’s interviewees on the question of whether or not Professor Mayosi, as dean, had the support of his colleagues in the faculty points to the existence of a worrying tendency at the FHS (and in UCT in general) for people to split along racial lines over how they see or interpret the same set of facts.”
The UCT Council at a meeting last week considered and resolved to accept the report.
According to the Daily Maverick, Mayosi’s bereaved family are considering the 157-page report.
‘Could have been avoided’
UCT’s Black Academic Caucus (BAC), meanwhile, said the findings showed that little was done to support Mayosi.
The collective, in a statement, said Mayosi had faced an “excruciating situation that could have been avoided in the institution”.
The BAC said that, in its call for an inquiry, the blaming of students and the protests was one of the key issues it had raised.
“The report correctly points out that it would be injudicious to consider the student protests, which happened two years prior to 2018, as the main cause of Professor Mayosi’s anxiety and depression.
“We are disappointed, however, that the report tends to over-emphasise the ‘rudeness’ of students during the specific extenuating period of the protest, but falls short on explicating to the same extent the relentless and pernicious disrespect from staff.”
The report shows there was an “undue burden on black academics”, the caucus charged.
“In this toxic context, black academics who excel and are placed in leadership positions find themselves pitted between stubborn conservative paternalistic agents and the students and staff advocating for transformation,” it said.
“There is an inherent antagonism that positions transformation as a ‘burden’ to be carried by black scholars rather than something that can be productively realised.”
It said the report was of national interest and encouraged the UCT Executive to “announce a plan for public engagement”.