Narratives of Black Vice Chancellors on becoming and being leaders of public universities in South Africa: contributory factors and challenges experienced.
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South African universities have undergone significant transformation since the demise of apartheid and an important part of this transformation process is university leadership, both in who leads universities as well as the kinds of leaders who can drive the broader transformational changes needed within higher education. This study undertakes an examination of the narratives of black university Vice Chancellors with a view to exploring how they account for and make sense of their position, which they hold or have recently held. This study, more specifically, explores how they construct and make sense of their achievements in the South African higher education system, in relation to their professional, political, personal and historical influences on their journey to becoming VCs at universities in South Africa. There is an abundance of literature on leadership in education, but little is known about university leaders, especially that of VCs. This study focuses on this dearth of knowledge on VCs, especially within a transforming context that requires large scale systemic, institutional and social redress changes. Current research on leadership does not only focus on the individual leader, but rather on the individual leader in relation to colleagues, followers and the leadership context (Avolio et al., 2009). The literature which informs this study looks at university VCs, bearing in mind that there is a dearth of rigorous academic research on this subject. This study employs a qualitative research approach because it is steeped in personal and collective stories and histories of participants. Qualitative research is based on meanings, subjectivities and interpretations. As such, a narrative inquiry methodology was chosen as an appropriate research methodology for this study. Casey (1995) suggests that narrative inquiry provides an important space through which the experiences of those who are marginalised can be valued. In this study, participants create stories as they recount their experiences of being and becoming a university VC. The narrative inquiry methodology allowed me to understand the participants’ perspective on becoming and being a black VC as they make sense of their trajectory across their biographical contexts, their academic and other achievements and their experience of being black VCs within a transforming context. Interviews were conducted with 9 of the 17 black VCs. As a narrative inquiry, less interest was focused on breadth; and more on depth of experience and the rich thick constructions of meanings was deemed more appropriate for this study. This study provides an analysis of critical influences that shaped the career paths of the black VCs and on being VCs of universities within a transforming context. The key findings relates to how their biographical beginnings influenced their trajectories into leaders of, initially, their disciplinary interests as academics, and later as possible candidates to lead public universities. The key findings also suggests that transformational opportunities contributed to their rise to university leaders. Being a leader of a university requires one to be agile, transformative and strategic. These key findings are relevant to aspirant VCs as well as institutions of higher education in their search for appropriate candidates to take on university leadership.