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Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng: The Inaugural Bristol Illustrious Visiting Professor

Press release issued: 20 July 2021

The University of Bristol are delighted to announce that Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cape Town (South Africa) and an inspirational leader, will be joining the University of Bristol as the first ever Bristol Illustrious Visiting Professor (BIVP) in autumn 2021.

Over the course of this year-long appointment Professor Phakeng will engage with our academic community in various ways and will also participate in a series of public lectures that will be recorded and shared online. By hosting Professor Phakeng we hope to learn from and be inspired by her knowledge, approaches, and ethos. We will work together to build on and enhance our research endeavours in mathematics education in particular, as well as developing our institutional partnership with the University of Cape Town (UCT) more broadly. Due to the ongoing global pandemic we anticipate that the majority of this Visiting Professorship will take place virtually; however, we are looking forward to welcoming Professor Phakeng to Bristol as soon as it is safe and practical to do so.

Professor Hugh Brady, Vice-Chancellor and President of the University of Bristol, invited Professor Phakeng to become the first BIVP in recognition of her exceptional and inspirational work in mathematics education and university leadership in post-apartheid South Africa. Professor Hugh Brady said: “The University of Bristol is delighted and honoured to welcome Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng as our first Bristol Illustrious Visiting Professor. She has established herself as an inspirational figure in maths education and university leadership in South Africa. I have already had the great pleasure of working closely with Professor Phakeng on our important Bristol-UCT Strategic Partnership and as members of the Worldwide Universities Network. It will be exciting to have our entire community benefit from Mamokgethi's expertise, energy and vision over the year ahead.”

Being appointed as the first Illustrious Visiting Professor at the University of Bristol is a great honour, not only for me on a personal level, but also for African scholarship. It’s an opportunity to share from the work that I have done in multilingual mathematics classrooms in South Africa. On a much wider scale, I believe this appointment will also strengthen the relationship between two great institutions of higher learning: the University of Cape Town, which is the highest ranked university in Africa, and the University of Bristol, which ranks among the world’s top 60 institutions of research and higher education. The landscape of education around the world, and more specifically the landscape of leadership in higher education, has changed a great deal in recent years and will change even more in the near future. I hope this new relationship will offer opportunities for me to share with my colleagues in Bristol from my own leadership journey. And I am excited to learn from them in turn.

Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cape Town

Professor Phakeng began her term of office as Vice-Chancellor of UCT in July 2018. Previously she had been serving as Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research and Internationalisation at UCT since January 2017. She holds a PhD in Mathematics Education from the University of the Witwatersrand and is a highly regarded B1 National Research Foundation-rated scientist with over 80 research papers and five edited volumes published.  She has been invited to deliver over 40 keynote/plenary talks at international conferences, and as a visiting professor in universities around the world. She has won numerous awards for her research and community work, including the Order of the Baobab (Silver) conferred on her by the President of South Africa in April 2016. In August 2014 CEO magazine named her the most influential woman academic in Africa; in August 2016 she was awarded the prestigious Businesswoman of the Year Award in the education category; and in 2020 she was included in Forbes’ inaugural list of the 50 Most Powerful Women in Africa.

Throughout her illustrious career she has broken new ground as the first woman in a range of prestigious positions, including being elected as the first woman President of the Convocation of the University of the Witwatersrand, leading the Association for Mathematics Education of South Africa (AMESA) as its first woman National President, and being the first black South African researcher to be appointed to co-chair a study commissioned by the International Commission on Mathematical Instruction. Professor Phakeng’s full biography can be viewed on our website.

This Bristol Illustrious Visiting Professorship will build upon Professor Phakeng’s existing relationship with the University of Bristol, where she was awarded an Honorary Doctorate in 2019 in recognition of her leadership role in mathematics education in post-apartheid South Africa. The orator for her doctorate, Professor Leon Tikly, outlined her impressive and equally successful dual identity of researcher and professional educator. He emphasised what a privilege it was to work with her, explaining how it is “her ability to work across communities, encouraging collaboration and partnerships, that has resulted in widespread recognition and admiration”, and describing her as a “role model par excellence”. The full oration is available on the University of Bristol website, and makes a truly impressive read.

Professor Phakeng is also the founder of the Adopt-a-Learner Foundation, a non-profit organisation that started in 2004 to provide financial and educational support to students from township and rural areas to acquire higher education qualifications. This further illustrates her intelligence, compassion, and tenacity, which have had vast and wide-ranging impacts across South Africa and beyond, and it will be an honour to welcome her to the University of Bristol as our inaugural Bristol Illustrious Visiting Professor.

Professor Phakeng will be the first award holder under the Bristol Illustrious Visiting Professorship scheme, a new initiative building on the University of Bristol’s proud legacy of bringing world-leading scholars into our institution from all over the world, hosted by our own prestigious academics. This scheme sits within the International Research Partnerships portfolio, which has a variety of schemes on offer for visiting researchers designed to support international collaboration at a range of scales.

This Professorship will comprise a mix of virtual and in-person activities. We hope to welcome Professor Phakeng to Bristol for an extended visit to engage with our researchers, our Senior Management Team, and our wider community. We will be formally launching the year-long Professorship with an online event in autumn 2021, with more information to be announced on our website in due course.

We hope that this Professorship will also serve to further enhance relationships between our two Institutions, which already benefit from a range of collaborative endeavours, including our bilateral dual-PhD cotutelle programme; the UCT-led Transforming Social Inequalities through Inclusive Climate Action research programme; and a high-level meeting between the respective Vice Chancellors and other Senior Management Team representatives in June 2020 to discuss strategic priorities and alignment for the two Institutions, exploring how we can further develop our partnership through initiatives such as the Worldwide Universities Network (WUN), the SDGs Africa Summit, and plans for a co-hosted global histories and collaborative research conference.