University leaders need sabbaticals too, says Cape Town v-c

Mamokgethi Phakeng describes journey from guilt over taking time out to learning to relax into a much-needed break

October 3, 2022
Mamokgethi Phakeng University of Cape Town
Source: University of Cape Town
UCT vice-chancellor Mamokgethi Phakeng

When Mamokgethi Phakeng started her first proper sabbatical last month, she knew it was long overdue.

The University of Cape Town (UCT) vice-chancellor was about to embark on a five-month period of time off – the longest she’s ever taken out of her job, aside from a three-month reprieve years ago during her time as a professor.

“I was running on empty,” she recalled. “I thought, I cannot start the second term feeling as bruised and exhausted as I am – I’m human, I have my own life with its own challenges.

“I needed time to heal, reflect, rejuvenate, to read and to look back at my first term and say: ‘What has worked, what hasn’t, what am I going to do differently?’”

Personally and professionally, the preceding months had been tough. In February, not long before she was appointed vice-chancellor for her second term, her son was diagnosed with cancer.

But even before that, it had been a bumpy road, with Professor Phakeng having arrived at Cape Town in the wake of the Rhodes Must Fall and Fees Must Fall protests, and then leading the institution through the Covid-19 pandemic.

She established the Institutional Reconciliation and Transformation Commission, seeking to chart an inclusive way forward for the institution, and has reshaped the senior management team.

When the university’s senate voted in favour of her second term earlier this year, Professor Phakeng knew that she had to recharge.

“I started the year saying: ‘I hope there’s no crisis,’ and I thought, if there’s no crisis, I will need to take a break,” she said.

Professor Phakeng described being unable to stop checking her email or feeling “like I’m letting my university down or my team down” at the start of the sabbatical, but now checks her emails only once a week.

“The last day before sabbatical I did an auto-response to anyone with a UCT email address to say, when I come back, I’m going to delete all the emails that were sent during my sabbatical…it was an excellent move, because after two weeks, people stopped sending me emails,” she recalled.

Her priorities during the sabbatical include sleeping more than five hours a night – her usual when working – and taking a transformative leadership course at the International Institute for Management Development (IMD) in Lausanne. Professor Phakeng, previously Cape Town’s deputy vice-chancellor for research and internationalisation, is also writing a memoir.

She encouraged all university heads seeking a second term to take time off, highlighting that, while her university has a sabbatical policy for faculty, and academics tend to take advantage, this isn’t usually the case for senior administrators.

“It’s a tough job being vice-chancellor. You can’t just keep going – we take care of people, encourage them to take care of their mental health; we should do the same,” she said.

She acknowledged that there’s a fear that “things might go wrong” during your absence and that “people might make decisions that you have to live with when you come back”.  

But she cautioned against a reluctance to give up power.

“I always say, beware a leader who doesn’t want to be away from their institution – that may be the beginnings of a dictatorship.”


Print headline: Campus leaders need sabbaticals to recharge, insists Cape Town v-c

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Reader's comments (2)

Although we all need some downtime, it is not compulsory to be a VC. Most of us have never had an interest in the job for precisely the reasons outlined - the only advantage is the salary and if that is your driver, you would not be an academic. Rather a pointless article from someone who is probably paid far more than most of us will ever be.
Well, this piece is completely out-of-date. Prof Phakeng’s sabbatical has been cut short, after the publication of a damning piece of investigative journalism, which implicates the chair of the university council well. “Interesting” times for my institution, unfortunately.