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13 December 2019
Leading & Learning Through Crises: UWC Registrar Nita Lawton-Misra On The Lessons Of #FeesMustFall

(Published - 13 December 2019)

“The #FeesMustFall (FMF) movement which began in 2015 and continued in 2016 was initially a call for free tuition, but soon grew to include substantial academic demands, quickly spiralling into violence and the destruction of property. This required university leaders to step into roles for which they were largely untrained and inexperienced – even for those who were once among the ranks of the protesting students.”

Nita Lawton-Misra has first-hand experience of the challenges of university leadership. She is a registered psychologist with a University Diploma in Education (UDW), Diploma in Specialised Education (UNISA), BA Degree (Majors: Education and Psychology) (UNISA), BEd Degree (UNISA) and an MEd Degree from Wits. She serves on the board of the Council of Higher Education, guiding higher education in South Africa. And as UWC’s Registrar, she has overseen institutional governance, registration and admissions - joining the University’s leadership team shortly before FMF got going.

“It’s not about pointing fingers - it’s about how we can do our jobs better, how we can learn from our challenges, and how much of a difference we can make when we continue developing ourselves,” Lawton-Misra notes. “The readiness of a university leader to respond to a crisis is a relatively new concern, an area of responsibility that is still not typically considered as part of the role of the South African university leader - but it is fast becoming one of the most significant.”

Her thesis ( titled Crisis leadership at South African Universities: An exploration of the effectiveness of the strategies and responses of university leadership teams to the #FeesMustFall (#FMF) protests at South African Universities in 2015 and 2016) explored crisis leadership at South African universities, using #FMF as a backdrop to examine how prepared our university leaders are to lead in a crisis.

“Neither the operational systems nor the personnel had ever conceived of or anticipated such an unprecedented revolt, and the leadership had to summon all their intuition and acumen to navigate it, deciding whether to merely defend their institutions or to concede to students’ demands,” Dr Lawton-Misra says. “Did they manage the moment or lead it, and did they steel their institutions against similar future confrontations?”

Interviews were conducted with participants from six universities, and the data was analysed through the lens of leadership, and chaos and complexity theories - a novel lens to explore the topic. 

“It became clear that it is not the type of crisis but rather the nature and magnitude of the crisis that makes crisis leadership complex, and the fact that this was a national crisis dictated its complexity,” she says.

The findings revealed that South African university leaders were not adequately trained to lead during crises.

“University leaders had no special training in crisis leadership, and each led intuitively based on previous experience, individual contexts, and personal leadership styles,” Lawton-Misra notes. “Further, it was found that traditional top-down leadership styles were ineffective in the crisis, and that some training in communication, collaboration, and a more dispersed manner of leading may be more effective during crises.”

That’s the bad news. But there’s hope.

“University leaders were unprepared when the FeesMustFall crisis broke out in 2015,” Lawton-Misra notes. “But I also found that when confronted with the same crisis in 2016, leaders changed their strategies and collaborated as a system more effectively.”

Leaders began to employ a more evidence-based approach, and improved their collaboration and communication with other stakeholders. And once the DHET took an active role in responding to the crisis via the NECF, university leaders were able to step back and crisis-lead.

There’s still a lot of room for improvement.

“Leaders should be open to allowing individuals at various points of expertise to jointly lead,” Lawton-Misra says. “The involvement of various stakeholders, and the need for a coordinated approach during a national crisis, are essential for its successful resolution. And leadership-enhancement programmes need to be developed to include this component in the training of future leaders for the higher education sector.” 

A Lifelong Leadership And Learning Journey

Born in Durban, the youngest of four daughters of working class parents, Lawton-Misra hails from humble beginnings.

“I was the first person in my entire extended family and community to attend a university, and that is what gave me the edge in life,” she says. “All I have achieved in my life is due to that decision - a decision my dad encouraged, as a strong and progressive advocate for education. I know that he would be extremely proud that I haven't stopped educating myself.”

She left Durban shortly after her dad passed away and moved to Johannesburg, where she lived for almost 30 years before moving to Cape Town, joining UWC at the end of January 2015.

“Studying while working for anyone presents challenges, but working within the higher education environment provides the appropriate setting and motivation to study further,” she says. “It also has the benefit of seeing the value of lifelong education. It's all about creating the correct balance and prioritising values.”

Lawton-Misra lives out her beliefs in balance.

“It’s important to take time out to enjoy life. I enjoy hiking, yoga and Netflix bingeing, and I'm very blessed to live close to the Sea Point promenade, so I walk a great deal,” she says. “And it’s difficult being away from my two beautiful children, but when they visit, we enjoy fine dining at the wide range of restaurants that the Western Cape provides.”