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
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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 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. 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, deciding whether to merely defend their institutions or to concede to students’ demands. Did they manage the moment or lead it, and did they steel their institutions against similar future confrontations? This study used an interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA) approach to answer the primary research question, and to understand the lived experiences of the participants, which aligned with the interpretive paradigm. Leadership theories and chaos and complexity theories were employed and provided the lens through which the data was collected and analysed. Semi-structured interviews were used as data collection methods with 29 participants. University leaders and staff who did not belong to the leadership band of universities, from six universities participated in the study. The findings revealed that South African university leaders are not adequately trained to lead during crises, and that leadership-enhancement programmes need to be developed to include this component in the training of future leaders for the higher education sector. It further revealed that the Department of Higher Education and Training should take a proactive role in training and supporting university leaders, as well as developing a national communication strategy. This research makes a contribution towards crisis leadership in the South African higher education sector by providing insights for both university leaders as well as the Ministry of Higher Education and Training, as well as proposing a model of crisis leadership.