Universities ‘complicit’ in racism and sexism, says Cape Town v-c

Mamokgethi Phakeng says universities often ‘part of the machine’ that perpetuates white privilege and exploitation of Global South

September 2, 2020
University of Cape Town (UCT) vice-chancellor Mamokgethi Phakeng at the Leadership and Management Summit, City University of Hong Kong, 18-9-19

Universities are “not innocent” when it comes to perpetuating racism and sexism and may be “part of the machine” that contributes towards social injustice, a leading vice-chancellor has warned.

Mamokgethi Phakeng, vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town, told the Times Higher Education World Academic Summit that institutions needed to show more “reflection and humility” around their own “complicity” in exacerbating inequalities and might be judged, in part, on whether their leadership teams are diverse.

“We must never assume that universities are innocent in all this discrimination and marginalisation of the other – in a way, universities have been part of the machine that reproduces inequality,” Professor Phakeng told the virtual event held on 2 September.

“In some instances, the university – by which I’m saying the university in general terms – is not innocent in the reproduction of racism and sexism,” explained Professor Phakeng, who has led Africa’s top-ranked university since July 2018. “As long as we think we are innocent, we are not going to do a good job [in tackling these problems],” she added.

The lack of diversity within the leadership teams of many universities indicated how they were “complicit” in the “unequal, racist and patriarchal world in which we live”, argued Professor Phakeng, whose university now has an all-women academic executive team.

“You just have to see who are running universities, who is succeeding at universities and who is not,” she said on how universities might be assessed in their commitment to these agendas.

If universities were serious about producing “global citizens” who would tackle social injustice, they should “approach this issue with great reflection and humility because we are not innocent”, she said.

Universities could also do more to stop the “exploitation of the Global South” by richer, Western nations, Professor Phakeng claimed.

“It doesn’t start somewhere in the street – it is there and happens in the universities as well,” she explained, adding that some scholars viewed countries from the Global South as “places of data” to be studied, rather than equitable research partners.

University teaching should also change to tackle these social inequalities, which included the “exploitation of women in favour of the power of masculinity”, said Professor Phakeng.

Scholars should consider “how does this play out in the environment where we are [and] what is the position of women” and “how do we make sure this filters into what we teach”, she explained.

“It is a challenge but it calls on us to start critiquing ourselves and functioning differently,” said Professor Phakeng, who said this was a difficult task because the “power of masculinity and white privilege was totally entrenched”.

“The truth of the matter is the leader who faces these issues upfront and deals with them honestly will not necessarily get out of there unscathed – this is a difficult thing to handle,” said Professor Phakeng, who said Cape Town had recently had an institutional commission into some of these issues.

“We are grappling with these issues and it is not easy to [do this]…but we have to face them,” she said.


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Reader's comments (1)

"Universities could also do more to stop the “exploitation of the Global South” by richer, Western nations, Professor Phakeng claimed." For a lot of Africans the Western nations seem to be places they'd prefer to live, and with the Chinese taking control of many of Africa's resources and all too often using extreme violence https://edition.cnn.com/2020/06/27/africa/zimbabwe-mine-shooting-intl/index.html that's unsurprising, though the veiled attack on the West no doubt plays well with the Chinese and the Confucius Institute at UTC http://www.confucius.uct.ac.za/...