[DEBATE] : (Fwd) More yet more on UKZN
pbond at mail.ngo.za
Fri Dec 12 08:10:24 GMT 2008
Statement on UKZN suspensions
COSATU statement on the unfair treatment of UKZN academics
The Congress of South African Trade Unions reaffirms its commitment to
the constitutionally enshrined principle of the right to freedom of
expression, which applies to all South Africans, including those at
tertiary educational institutions.
The federation reiterates its concern at the University of
KwaZulu-Natal’s attempts to take disciplinary action against physicist,
Professor Nithaya Chetty, and mathematician, Professor John van den
Berg, on charges of "failing to take due care in communicating with the
media, breaching confidentiality and dishonest and/or gross negligence",
after they expressed public criticisms of the University’s record.
COSATU wishes to clarify that it is not suggesting that the university
authorities acted illegally, when it charged the two professors. UKZN,
like any institution, has the legal right to protect its reputation from
unfair attack. But we believe it was ill-advised to resort to
disciplinary measures to deal with disagreements on policy matters,
which unfortunately raises legitimate fears that the university is
attacking free speech and employees’ rights.
We believe that these matters could and should have been resolved
through discussion, and in order to facilitate this, COSATU offers its
services as mediators to bring the various parties together to resolve
matters round the table, rather than through disciplinary action.
The federation further reaffirms its view that we still have to complete
the transformation of the tertiary education sector, so that it is
representative of South African society and more responsive to the needs
of the majority of the people. A vital part of the transformation
process has to be to create an atmosphere in which the whole academic
community feel free to raise their concerns publicly without fear of
disciplinary action or dismissal.
Patrick Craven (National Spokesperson)
Congress of South African Trade Unions
1-5 Leyds Cnr Biccard Streets
P.O. Box 1019
Tel: +27 11 339-4911/24
Fax: +27 11 339-5080/6940/ 086 603 9667
E-Mail: patrick at cosatu.org.za
A crisis of confidence
December 12, 2008 Edition 1
I HAVE been watching the events unfold at UKZN over the past couple of
years and been increasingly concerned about what I have read in the
press and by talking to many academics at UKZN and beyond.
The present crisis triggered by the Nithaya Chetty/John van den Berg
prosecution seems to me to represent a serious challenge, not only to
UKZN but to the tertiary sector as a whole.
I have also, over the years, had the privilege of working with numerous
individuals, mainly in the administration sections of the university, on
a variety of projects aimed for the main part at improving the operation
of the institution.
Through this work and experience at other tertiary institutions, I have
some sense of the many challenges faced by these complex institutions of
Although there is some disagreement about the exact nature of the
problems at UKZN, at heart they seem to rest on the constitutionally
enshrined rights to freedom of speech and expression, and the place of
these rights in the broader context of institutional change
(transformation). The core area of contestation is in respect of the
right to criticise and express divergent views in terms of how the
university is run and what it aims to achieve.
It is claimed by a growing number of staff that attempts to express
contrary views in relation to the operation of the university result in
intimidation, disciplinary action, heavy handed (and costly) legal
interventions and so on.
The response from the administration and the vice-chancellor, in
particular, is that compliance with internal rules and dictates is
essential to the orderly running of the institution and that resort to
public debate of internal matters is, for the main part, not appropriate
and runs the risk of bringing the university into disrepute.
Whatever the merits of these respective views, the bottom line is that
UKZN is unquestionably facing a serious crisis of confidence and its
reputation is being affected. Numerous letters of concern from eminent
academics around the world, from unions including Cosatu and from within
UKZN, testify to a crisis of legitimacy.
Correctly, minister of education Naledi Pandor has stated that UKZN
therefore needs to restore internal and public confidence in the
The addressing of this issue must, of course, begin at the highest level
of the institution with the council of the university, which is
responsible for overall governance.
Recognising and taking steps to deal with problems is, however, not an
overwhelming strength in SA's body politic, witness HIV/Aids and
Zimbabwe. Closer to home and more pertinent is the Durban University of
Technology, which all but had to implode before a caretaker
administrator was installed and thereafter a very competent
vice-principal, in the form of Roy du Pre, appointed. We will probably
soon wake up to the implosion of Mangosuthu University of Technology.
It is therefore imperative that the council at UKZN clearly indicates
that it does recognise it has a problem and brings confidence to the
general public that it is, indeed, dealing with things in an effective
It would be tragic if the institution were to have to plumb to great
depths of disrepute before the council decides to act decisively in
terms of the minister's expressed wishes.
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In addressing the problems it faces, the council would be assisted by
the excellent commentary in The Mail & Guardian of December 5-11 by
Pumla Gobodo-Madikezela, where she focuses on "creating a collegiate
environment that encourages dialogue in our institutions instead of
silencing it (so that) we can learn to respect one another and treat
each other with dignity".
One of the obstacles to creating a collegiate environment is the
labelling of those who have been brave enough to speak out as
"dissidents", "racists" and "baboons". The fact is that these
"dissidents" are established, and in many cases exemplary,
world-renowned academics. Moreover, a large number of them were at the
forefront of anti-apartheid struggles for a just and democratic South
It is imperative that the council encourages a climate at the university
in which the various complex components that give it life are given the
space to breath and shape their respective domains. In the context of
higher education, this means allowing academics the space to determine
matters academic and the administration to make the calls on matters
administrative. Great universities have got this balance right. So what
does this mean practically?
UKZN has enormous internal resources and should be given the opportunity
to bring these to bear to find solutions to the present challenges it
faces. Only if it demonstrates that it is manifestly incapable of going
this route should outside intervention be considered.
From the perspective of effectively managing the period ahead, it could
be useful for the council to consider the following steps:
# A public acknowledgement that it recognises there are issues of
confidence both internal and external;
# The appointment of a credible internal task team composed of
representatives from academics, management, trade unions and other
interests to address issues pertaining to the freedom of speech and
expression in the university;
# Calling on members of the law faculty to take responsibility for all
internal disputes and giving them authority to seek negotiated
settlements through mediation and conciliation without incurring costly
# Requesting the vice-chancellor to nominate a representative to serve
in his stead on the senate for a period of time to allow the academics
in this body to make their mark on academic decision-making; and
# Calling on its entire staff to respect the processes above and to
allow these to run their course in a genuine effort to re-position the
university into its rightful place.
These or similar steps would undoubtedly build public confidence that
the present challenges are being responsibly addressed, and that the
collegiate environment based on dialogue and the mutual respect of which
Gobodo-Madikezela speaks is indeed being restored.
# Geoff Schreiner is a director of Performance Solutions Africa, which
focuses on institutional performance improvement and change management
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