Good, rather than skilled human beings make better university leaders, Professor André Keet says

Published On: 28 November 2022|

When good people get into executive leadership positions in universities, it erodes their goodness and their capacity for self-awareness flies out the window.

Professor André Keet (left) was speaking at the recent virtual summit that was hosted by the Higher Education Leadership and Management (HELM) programme in collaboration with the Council of Colleges of Arts and Sciences (CCAS), a representative association of Deans of Arts and Sciences in the United States of America from 15 to 17 November.

The HELM Summit 2022 was convened to explore innovative strategies in leadership development for sustainability and change in global higher education. The summit also considered practical implications for leadership development in the context of disruption, complexity, change, and pursuit of the truly Engaged University.

“I don’t know what it is about the positions — whether they come with certain characteristics. But when I cast my eye over the system, it seems to me that good people in university executives are not in abundance,” said Professor Keet.

Mentioning self-obsessed university leaders who rely on regulatory rather than dynamic leadership to get the work done, he said there are, of course, outliers and exceptions. A good example was his mentor, Professor Sibongile Muthwa, the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of Nelson Mandela University. “I could not have asked for better,” he said.

Keet is the Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Engagement and Transformation, and Research Chair for Critical Studies in Higher Education Transformation at Nelson Mandela University. He said his views came from 10 years of experience in advisory roles to vice-chancellors and in his own executive posts, which included a tenure as Director and Deputy CEO of the South African Human Rights Commission.

He made these remarks during a session on Enabling Institutional Cultures, alongside Ms Zetu Makamandela-Mguqulwa, Managing Director of Mindshift, a consultancy facility, and Africa Region Chairperson of the International Ombuds Association. Until January 2021, she was the University of Cape Town’s Ombudsman, the first such incumbent at a South Africa university. Dr Bernadette Johnson, Director for Transformation and Employment Equity at the University of the Witwatersrand, moderated the discussion.

HELM and the interplay between institutional culture and leadership

Professor Keet said he was personally drawn to leadership development initiatives that focused on “whether the people have the capability to cultivate their own humanity and human goodness” rather than those focusing on leaders’ skills.

He said that the ability to cultivate personal integrity in the context of just relationships and solidarity “is not something that happens automatically within the university space”. He reiterated that the advancement of a good, inclusive institutional cultures is not dependent on skillful or experienced leaders, but on good human beings in leadership positions.

The connection between leadership and culture is profound, he said, adding that a university ombud could be a formal expression of this connection — of what should not happen in good leadership.

What is an ombud?

Makamandela-Mguqulwa (right) said the mention of an ombud tends to draw blank stares, even in organisations where they exist. “It is an old profession, but it’s underutilised and not well understood,” she said. In South Africa, people are familiar with the office of the Public Protector, which is a legislative type of ombud that uses a classical approach.

She described an ombud as “an authorised person who receives complaints, concerns about omissions, alleged acts, improprieties and broader systemic problems within their remit”. The ombud then listens to understand, to help address the problem, and give feedback. That is the ultimate value, what she referred to as the “upward feedback”. For example, an organisation promises “XYZ” to employees. The ombud reports back: “X is not part of the mix. People are complaining X is non-existent. And Y is not as fully implemented as you promised. Please fix.”

Why organisations such as universities needs ombuds

The practice worked because the ombud office is a “safe haven for most people who would otherwise be afraid to come out and talk about how displeased they are with decisions, or with how processes are being delivered for their concerns”, she said.

She said it was a valuable resource that anyone in the organisation could turn to. “Any organisation that values its members, their voices, their choices, and the ethical culture of the institution itself, should have an ombud because, in my experience, ombuds are the conscience of their appointing institution,” said Makamandela-Mguqulwa. The conscience is about reporting back to say: “This is what you may not hear about you because you are that powerful. People want to run away rather than speak to you as the institution”.

Another reason ombuds play such a valuable role is that leaders are not specialists in every area. Ombuds have the expertise and understanding to deal with conflict communication, which makes the ombud a partner of leadership, leaving them free to deal with other problems.

“In my experience, the issue of confidentiality and independence from the University were the reasons that my visitors came to talk to me about their problems. So, if people come because I promise confidentiality, and because I’m not part of the formal system, then it means there are trust issues,” said Makamandela-Mguqulwa.


Dr Johnson asked the questions shared below, some edited for brevity.

Question: What do you understand by a good person?

Professor Keet: A Google search engine will give traits of a good person. I think it includes the respect and advancement of human rights, the capability to be highly self-aware and self-reflexive, and to have integrity. Good people are committed to social justice both inside and outside their own spaces. They have high levels of empathy, especially if the cultivation of humanity becomes part of leadership training within the university space. The idea of their own humanity would, of course, contribute to a more productive institutional culture.

Question: To what extent does an inward-looking institutional culture limit a university — for example, the tendency to ignore executive experiences gained from other institutions — both private and public sector?

Keet: This is a very crucial dilemma in our university sector. In my experience, people who have been at universities for 20, 25, 30 years do not make good leaders within universities. I support that it should be a requirement for university leadership to have leadership experience outside of the sector itself.The more diverse experiences you bring into the executive space, the better.

Question: Having an ombud is a benefit, but it’s also an opportunity cost that could fund an academic position. So how can the cost-benefit approach be used as an argument for the Ombud’s position?

Makamandela-Mguqulwa: Would you rather do payouts because you are found wanting when employees take the institution to the CCMA (Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration)? Would you rather have people take ill because there was no outlet and they walked away, afraid? Or would you rather your institution acquired a reputation of not welcoming, not listening, and not valuing people? Remember, people quit people; it’s rarely about the institution. If you look at that in terms of cost, it is costly and risky not to have an ombud.

Question: What are your greatest learnings about leadership and its impact on institutional culture?

Makamandela-Mguqulwa: Not wanting to do it alone. When you win together with people, you win better. Universities can operate in silos but have leaders that are planted everywhere. If you leverage that and use that to your advantage when you are the overall leader, it’s to your benefit. Then the load is not on you alone. Shared leadership. And the capacityto listen, to engage in conversations and reflect.

Keet: if you look at the top leaders of the previous decade in South Africa, they always put forward the challenge of institutional culture as one that put their leadership to the test. So, leaders are acutely aware of those interfaces as well.

Question: If we must have an ombud in an institution, is it indicative of the complexities or weaknesses in leadership?

Makamandela-Mguqulwa: Yes, it is. Once you agree to have an office like this, you open yourself up to scrutiny. And you agree that ‘I may not have capacity to see everywhere. I may not be perfect as an institution or even leader. Therefore, I’m open to advice, to counsel, to hearing more’. Another option is not to have an ombuds office if you are not ready. If so, I would be the first to say that you are cheating the people who require the service. It can’t be a latest fad; it can’t be a ‘nice to have’. If you have it, then be open to what it will deliver. Half the time, it is value that will enhance the culture of the institution, enhance the experience of the people within the institution, and propel the institution forward.

Keet: Given that a university is a massive and complex space, given the social dynamics it generates, the different sets of interests it generates, the intellectual cabals and networks it generates, the administrative and financial net it generates, the cultural and social networks it generates, and the interplay between governance structures, one would not expect executive leadership to be able to process the entirety of its challenges.

All universities should have institutional ombuds, as per the recommendations of the transformation oversight committee, to assist the university to function and to assist leadership.

HELM is one of universities’ support programmes at Universities South Africa, founded in 2002 to develop leadership and management capacity in universities’ middle managers. The programme is mainly funded from the Department of Higher Education and Training’s University Capacity Development Programme.


Gillian Anstey is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.