When Hellicy Ngambi began her academic career as a lecturer at the University of Zambia in 1984, she successfully challenged the university’s policy of providing faculty housing to married men, but not married women.
"They said, 'Our policy says they can only give accommodation if you’re not married; if you’re married your husband must give you housing,' " she recounts. The couple had just returned from a stint in Indiana, where Ngambi had earned her M.B.A. at Ball State University, and her husband wasn’t working yet. "I said, 'How do you suppose he can give me accommodation?' They said, 'That’s our policy.' I said, 'O.K., the solution is very simple.’ I wrote them a very nice letter."
She wrote: "Thank you for acknowledging that I‘m a married woman because from now on I’ll come to work at 10 or so because as a married woman I must cook for my husband. Then I’ll leave work at about 3 because I must be at home to greet my husband. And I will not teach the full load: I’ll only teach only one course, maybe two, because I must attend to my husband. Thank you for acknowledging me as a married woman."
"They responded and said, ‘O.K., fine, give her accommodation,’” says Ngambi, who speculates that her strategy worked because it was a way of using reverse psychology and nonviolent communication to underscore the unfairness of expecting two people of different genders to perform the same work under different financial terms.
"Sometimes you have to use the same strategy to appeal to people's logic that they are using against you to show how ridiculous and unreasonable the policies they formulated to suit themselves at the expense of others are," she says.
Ngambi, the newly appointed vice chancellor of Zambia’s Mulungushi University, has been a pathfinder her whole career. Now the first woman to lead a public university in her home country , she previously was the first black, female executive dean  of the 145,000-student College of Economic and Management Sciences at the University of South Africa (UNISA). "The funny part is I’ve never really worked hard to be first,” Ngambi says. "That has never been on my agenda."
"What has been on my agenda is adding value in every place that I am. How can I make sure that other people are benefiting from my leadership approach?”"
Ngambi brings to her new post a leadership philosophy she calls RARE: responsible, accountable, relevant and ethical leadership. The RARE model is premised on the following four values:
- "Responsible behavior of leaders, employees and citizens towards one other and all stakeholders, not at the expense of others but in mind of the future state of the institution, nation and the continent at large."
- "Accountability to each other and the other stakeholders, taking ownership of decisions and avoiding the blame game and scapegoating and making excuses for toxic behavior instead of owning up to the consequences of choices and decisions."
- "Relevant engagement in a value-adding way towards one another and all stakeholders, and being of service to the community."
- "Ethical behavior that advocates honesty, integrity, openness and trust."
Ngambi argues that the framework is particularly relevant in Africa, which is resource-rich but remains poor. "It is my view that without leaders and managers who exhibit RARE character, we will remain poor despite our wealth," she says.
At UNISA, Ngambi introduced a required course on "Sustainability and Greed" for all students in the College of Economic and Management Sciences. She hopes to either obtain permission to teach the course at Mulungushi or to create something similar there. "At the end of the day, you want to have a graduate who thinks about the consequences of their actions," she says.
Mulungushi, which enrolls 3,500 students in online and residential programs, became one of three public universities in Zambia in 2008. (It was a college before.) The most recent United Nations Development Program Report for Zambia, from 2011 , describes large challenges confronting the education system, including a startling lack of capacity in the higher education sector. While the estimated number of young people who could potentially participate in tertiary education exceeds one million, Zambia’s higher education institutions only take in about 5,000 students per year. The report also notes that the quality of higher education suffers from a shortage of skilled professionals.
Ngambi cites the skills shortage as one of her greatest challenges – that, and her mandate from the Ministry of Education to bring the university to financial self-sufficiency. Mulungushi's students pay fees: about $4,500 per year for residential students (a figure that includes tuition, room, and board), and $1,400 per year for distance education students. Ngambi also expects to be active in fund-raising. She concedes that this will be a challenge in Zambia, which lacks a tradition of private giving to higher education, but says she will be drawing on what she's learned from U.S. higher education in this regard.
Before coming to Mulungushi, Ngambi spent 18 years in faculty and administrative positions at UNISA, and previously lectured at the Universities of Botswana and Zambia. She holds a doctorate in business leadership from UNISA, as well as master’s degrees from Ball State and the University of South Florida. In 2008-9 she completed a fellowship in university leadership with the American Council on Education, shadowing M. Lee Pelton, then the president of Willamette University, in Oregon. (Pelton has since moved on to the presidency at Emerson College, in Boston.)
"She has a distinct leadership quality about her," Sharon A. McDade, the director of the ACE Fellows program, says of Ngambi. “She has a demeanor that makes you realize that she really sees the big picture, and she has a way of communicating her passion about the big picture and the values of higher education.”
“I think that she could be president or chancellor at any college or university in any country,” adds Pelton. “I could only say that about a few people.”