Overcoming toxic culture at tertiary institutions and the servitude required to combat it

The furore over Professor Gray and the role of academics in the response by the South African government to the novel coronavirus pandemic reminded me that in late 2019 I was asked to speak on the institutionalized culture of discrimination at the University of Pretoria by the UP Head of Department: Political Sciences.  My reflection then as now is in line with the South African Human Rights Commission 2018 ‘Transformation at Public Universities Report’ that the perpetuation of exclusionary academia, be it by language, funding models or lack of sufficient curriculum and  faculty transformation continues to be a challenge. Embedded in the ivory towers of higher education is the missing link to communities that they should serve. The more I mull over academia without a community constituency, the more I realize that it’s symptomatic of a societal failure – to serve.

How many academics have significant work experience outside of consulting, writing and lecturing? How many lecturing on public policy have worked in government or developed an actual public policy besides critiquing it? How many PhDs are successful outside academia and beyond research roles? How many universities insist on practical experience hours, volunteered or compensated, be undertaken to continue academic work? Why are we not asking whether it’s in students and broader public interest to be taught by those out of practice with workplace skills and a holistic education that modernizes quicker than books? When tertiary institutions fail to transform and modernize to an ever adapting world, it does not simply fail as an institution. It fails the graduates, the faculty staff development, the organizations that take on board our graduates and most importantly the communities it’s intended to serve. 

In South Africa, higher education hallways remain by and large a remnant of the colonial and Apartheid institutional constructs, which were not fully dismantled post-democracy. Literally like colonialism it mines knowledge to transport via journals, conferences and secure consultancy work; churns out graduates like a factory mill, not taking into account whether South Africa or Africa actually requires those type of graduates and linked whether the graduates leave with skills that work places require. Academia generates a lot of paper, entrenches silos, talks a lot about how much the system works by championing particular collaborators but at the end of the day, how much has it positively changed the issues it champions? In the crisis of COVID19, South African academics have a meaningful opportunity to practically contribute to a new norm where horizontal governance is a standard because sector trust is strengthened by goodwill partnership. From the side of academics, it will mean a move from lecturing those with practical experience that they often lack, an approach that teaching is a two-way process that promotes active citizenry and where students potential to contribute is developed not unearthed for a lecturer’s research ratings. Such a path is hindered by the 250 academics who signed to support Professor Gray, in essence continuing this practice of the sector not being held to the same scrutiny as most professions by virtue of academic freedom.

To address the challenges, we need to stop making parts of the discussion taboo. Why are our African academics not as prominent in discourse? The look towards the female in the room to take minutes irrespective of her standing. The basically indentured labour of the PhD and post doctorate students to keep the numbers ticking overThe ‘mature’ student, no matter how much work experience, who has no opportunities because everything is 35 under. The individualism that is advocated but not applied when it comes to the tertiary institution you graduate from –irrespective of personal circumstance and effort, we prefer to look at the name of the printer of the degree. 

If we start to honestly reflect on these biases – conscious or unconscious – we can start to understand that there is indeed an individual within the broad strokes of academia and some of them, student and staff are bearing the brunt of academic gatekeeping. Continuous exclusion or being forced to conform to a standard not reflective of local realities can lead to stress, anxiety and major depression. These in turn can manifest in physical burnout, chronic illness leading to regular sick leave or absence to treat the symptom but not the cause. It can lead to poor performance and a defeatism that sees individuals just do the minimum, not realizing full potential. The irony is that it reinforces in those who actively sustain this patriarchal and traditional culture, the notion that the sick are actually just lazy and were not committed or capable from the onset – tokenism if you will. The vicious and toxic cycle of discrimination continues not only by those perpetuating it but by those who prefer to not actionably overcome it for fear of further ostracization. 

The substantially debated science of COVID19 is showing us that there are alternatives in a time where information changes at a faster pace than can be taught or published. Early insight indicates that a changed approach and culture within institutions of higher education is feasible.  One which is more inclusive, where expertise is understood as a fraction of a collective framework, acknowledgement of a team approach being more solution orientated and not mistaking advisory capacity with that of policy or decision making.  Ultimately that science must serve humanity and be flexible to respond to the public good as opposed to the individual interest. 

The in progress momentum for structural change to overcome the grossly inequitable divide that is the South African reality should be seized by Vice-Chancellors to change institutional culture beyond paper and impose it if need be.  Universities like the public service need to urgently incubate a culture of Batho Pele in actionable service delivery. Faculties across the sciences must understand that their curriculum, research, lecturers & student mentoring including supervision must serve the needs of what South Africa requires, not their academic interest. Choice, yes, but when you sit with crippling unemployment, we cannot justify the economics of not aligning choices to community necessity. Now sooner than later, those in this space need to iteratively ask how they are going to serve South Africa as opposed to merely joining a long queue of educated extractors. 

A new kind of scientist

I had some time to reflect on my career after the Science Forum South Africa meeting at the CSIR in December last year. Before I began my postgraduate journey, I thought that pursuing a PhD was all about equipping me with the skills I needed to do a job or more specifically to be a scientist. Back then I didn’t understand what a scientist really was.

While the movie Outbreak did give me an idea, some of my teachers and even my dad painted a completely different picture. To them, a scientist worked in a lab, wore a white coat and did really complicated experiments to test hypotheses. Scientists didn’t venture out, they only cared about publishing and, where they could, they stayed away from the limelight. Over the years I have met some scientists like that but there weren’t many.  Was this the career I really wanted to follow?

Yes. My love for science and the need to satisfy my curiosity overpowered any stereotypes that might have discouraged me. Fortunately, as I started on this journey, I learned very quickly that a scientist was nothing like what was described to me—unless you wanted to be that kind of scientist. Being a scientist was so much more.

Why was I thinking about this after the Science Forum? For anyone who hasn’t been to one, I encourage you to attend. It really is something special. The forum brings together scientists, journalists, policymakers, business people, etc., from around the world, to discuss the importance of science, technology and innovation for development of the African continent. It also seeks to unify the African science community so that we can work more closely together to build a better continent for everyone.

The scientists I observed at the forum weren’t wearing lab coats, they weren’t hiding in their labs, and they weren’t sitting in a corner huddled over a laptop. The scientists I met were leading panel sessions and science talks. They were asking questions of other scientists, policy makers and business people. Some scientists weren’t scientists anymore — at least in the strict sense — they were starting their own companies, managing others, running communication firms, doing PR, advising ministers and so on. These scientists were different.

While the training of scientists hasn’t changed too much over the years, there are a number of critical skills, general and field dependant, which one will acquire. Outside of science, companies have found many of these skills useful for other tasks. Ever analysed large amounts of information with some comparative work? You might want to look at becoming a market research analyst. There are many more examples where training in STEM can be used for a variety of jobs—old and new.

Mulalo Doyoyo: an engineer and researcher from Limpopo who is a business owner, inventor and lecturer

Mamphela Ramphele
Mamphela Ramphele is a South African doctor, struggle icon, academic, top business woman and author.


Elon Musk
Elon Musk is a South African-born Canadian American who studied Physics and became a business magnate, investor, and philanthropist.


As scientists we are rather lucky. There aren’t many careers which offer the same kind of flexibility and allow you to diversify. Being a scientist is not a dead end (nor is the path there straight). I have found that as a scientist— a microbiologist, in my case—I have been given more opportunities than I could have dreamed of. Yesterday, I took part in a science communication competition. Today, I have written a blog piece. Tomorrow, I will lead a discussion inspiring young scientists. The day after that, I will carry on my experiments. In a few years, I might lead a panel discussion on policy change in Africa at the Science Forum as CEO of my own private consulting firm; or perhaps I will be on a tropical island somewhere celebrating my Nobel Prize(!). As a scientist, we don’t need to keep our science in the lab, there’s a wide world out there that needs a new kind of scientist.