[DEBATE] : (Fwd) UKZN crisis coverage (cont.)
pbond at mail.ngo.za
Tue Dec 16 05:55:13 GMT 2008
The campus debate
Negative publicity has dogged the University of KwaZulu-Natal in recent
weeks as management rules and procedures have collided with notions of
December 16, 2008 Edition 1
ON THE one hand is a growing body of opinion that academics at the
University of KwaZulu-Natal are not free to speak their minds; that
there is a lack of tolerance of dissenting views.
On the other is the adamant stance of the UKZN management that there is
no suppression of rights and that all recent controversies have been
orchestrated by a "minority" group opposed to transformation at the
In recent months dozens of UKZN staff, alumni and other academics have
spoken out and petitioned for change.
And there has been a national and international outcry against UKZN's
handling of disciplinary action against its academics, through letters
to its management and council.
The debate was sparked by disciplinary action against physics professor
Nithaya Chetty and mathematics professor John van den Berg for bringing
UKZN into disrepute by not taking due care while speaking to the media.
The professors had in February commented on a submission paper on
academic freedom which was perceived to have been blocked from being
tabled before the senate. The university denies this.
Van den Berg signed a settlement on November 20, in terms of a final
written warning, and remains employed. Chetty resigned just over a
More recently the university management announced that Prof Evan
Mantzaris, also a former union leader, announced he would take early
retirement in March. This followed his suspension since last year on a
number of charges, including that he had defamed UKZN and its
vice-chancellor, Prof Malegapuru Makgoba; and allegations relating to
poor supervision of postgraduate students which amounted to misconduct.
While the university believes it has been vindicated in both cases,
murmurs among the campus community are that the academics were
"targeted" for their outspokenness against Makgoba and his management.
General opinion seems to be that if an academic or staffer challenges
the university management he or she will at some stage end up facing
disciplinary action, leaving no option but to settle at a loss, resign
or retire. The university denies this too.
Last week, in an internal circular, UKZN's council chairman, Mac Mia,
defended handling of disciplinary matters: "Over the past two years the
university has had to face a number of high-profile cases wherein the
conduct of staff and students has impacted negatively on the quality of
teaching and learning, research and community engagement. The common
thread in all these well-publicised cases has been a breach of
university rules and procedures. All cases have been consistently
approached within a context that has demonstrated transparency, justice
and fairness and with outcomes that have led to improvements in the
university's regulatory framework serving to enhance the quality of
scholarship at UKZN.
"Principled and appropriate action was taken in the best interest of the
university and our quest to ensure the highest codes of institutional
governance. In all these cases, given the reputational and legal
implications, objective and independent legal counsel had to be sought
in the interests of fairness, justice and good governance," he said.
While Mia acknowledged that handling of these matters had "at times been
portrayed by some and in the media as a suppression of academic
freedom", he (like the UKZN management) said the opinion was held by the
"small minority" that was anti- transformation.
"As a university council our commitment to academic freedom remains firm
in the face of a small minority of dissenting voices who do not see or
wish not to see the bigger picture of transformation and change.
Irrespective, I take this opportunity to thank the majority of the over
4 000 staff of UKZN, our 39 000 students, over 100 000 alumni and many
national and international partners and funders for their support and
dedication to the cause of transforming higher education in South
Africa, and in particular UKZN," he said.
But it is not just the management that holds this view. At an academic
freedom seminar hosted at UKZN by the Centre for Civil Society last
week, black academics raised the same issue, saying academic freedom was
being used as a blanket issue to "mask" underlying race tensions at UKZN.
They alluded to a small group of "self-serving" academics at UKZN who
were feeding the media and the public information which suited their
anti-transformational cause and had "lured" people into believing this
was an issue of academic freedom.
But playing the race card was convenient, others charge.
While the two opposing views can muddy the water in terms of what
exactly is the issue at hand at UKZN, what is clear is that a heavy
cloud hangs over the university.
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Some of the harshest voices of disapproval and concern for the future of
UKZN have come in recent weeks from senior academics at respected
institutions across the globe and from organisations within the country,
like the Freedom of Expression Institute, the South African National
Editors' Forum and the Academic Freedom Committee at the University of
The Freedom of Expression Institute's Jane Duncan said at the time
Chetty and Van den Berg were charged, that UKZN's type of disciplinary
action "cast an even deeper pall" over the university's commitment to
academic freedom, "which has been in question for some time now".
"Incident after incident has taken place where individuals or entities
critical of powerful individuals both within and outside the university
have been targeted. These incidents include the case involving Ashwin
Desai, the disciplinary cases against sociologist Fazel Khan and
sociology professor Evan Mantzaris, the disastrous attempt reportedly
funded by the university by the then Executive Director: Public Affairs
and Corporate Communications, Prof Dasarath Chetty, to sue Rhodes
University sociology professor Jimi Adesina for defamation, and the more
recent controversies around the threatened closure of the Centre for
Civil Society. When taken together, these incidents paint a picture of a
university management that is at war with its critics, and that demands
deference to authority, whether located inside or outside the
university," she said.
Duncan also said UKZN's actions had been in contradiction of a recently
released report on institutional autonomy and academic freedom in South
Africa, written by a task team established by the Council on Higher
André du Toit, an emeritus professor of political studies at the
University of Cape Town, was one of the academics who contributed to the
task team's report on academic freedom and insti- tutional autonomy and
He agrees that UKZN is facing a serious problem that is not just a
personal disaster for the academics concerned but "actually amounts to
an institutional disaster". He said this was linked to the issue of
autonomy in South African universities, adding that the Chetty/Van den
Berg case was a "testing ground" of what institutional autonomy now
meant in South African higher education.
"In South Africa our main universities are public and so they are part
of the public system but have always had a measure of autonomy to act
independently where the state cannot interfere. Over the last 10 years
universities have changed so that for- mally council now has the last
word on academic appointments and dismissals.
"Before 1998 it was possible for academic staff whose institution acted
against them to appeal to the minister. This is no longer the case and
now academics do not have any recourse when the university's management
and council act against them. The minister (of education) can come in
only if there is total collapse of the university. In other countries
there are professional organisations set up for academics such as the
American Association of University Professors which invest- igates
particular cases of violation of academic freedom."
Du Toit said while South African academics had unions to represent them,
they dealt more with conditions of service and wage negotiations than
"We have seen in the Van den Berg/Chetty case how there has been lots of
protest, even internationally, but that does not have any real bite. So
in essence if a particular university council has the last say, and if
they do not have an appreciation of the importance of academic freedom,
then it means an institutional crisis for the university, like we now
see at UKZN," he said.
Du Toit said disciplinary action against Chetty and Van den Berg had
been absolutely unnecessary.
"Usually in academic freedom cases you have people working on very
sensitive cases, as with the recent incident involving a scientist at
the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (where a scientist
was suspended over a presentation he was to deliver on water quality at
a recent conference in Pretoria), or you have problematic characters.
"This case was nothing of the kind; the issue was a simple one of
whether a report should go to senate or to a subcommittee. The matter
could have been dealt with in a routine manner, but here management
chose to make an issue of a non-issue. Their involvement of legal
counsel was to make it clear to others that if you don't agree with us,
this is what will happen.
"Now if this happens at a university, it is very serious. It shows that
management has lost its bearings on how it deals with governance
matters," said Du Toit.
The trends at UKZN, post-1990, were similar at other South African
universities, but academic freedom issues were perhaps more sensitive at
"About 18 months ago a national series of workshops was held on the
issue and the response at UKZN was much larger and the debate more
intense than at other institutions."
UKZN's pro-vice-chancellor, Prof Dasarath Chetty, said: "The University
of KwaZulu-Natal is committed to upholding the highest standards of
academic freedom and no one is targeted for being outspoken. Action is
only taken against those who flagrantly violate university rules and
procedures and who often thereafter hide behind an obfuscated notion of
UKZN controversies stretch back to 2006
December 16, 2008 Edition 1
A RECAP of some controversial events surrounding the issue of academic
freedom at UKZN over the past three years.
2006: June: Allegations that vice-chancellor and principal Malegapuru
Makgoba prevented 14 academics from discussing issues of transformation
at the university.
September: A report leaked to The Mercury revealed that the executive
management of the institution was not trusted by a significant number of
September: Academics claimed they were not allowed to send e-mails from
their office computers unless they agreed to abide by a new set of
rules, which allowed the management to read their incoming and outgoing
messages at any time.
October: UKZN probed allegations that one of its top executives had been
irregularly awarded a master's degree. Makgoba set up a committee to
probe how a master's degree in commerce had been awarded to Prof Kanthan
Pillay when two external examiners had allegedly recommended it be rejected.
October: Students who had arranged to meet Makgoba to discuss their
outstanding fees were allegedly snubbed by him because they had been
talking to the media.
October: Disciplinary action instituted against Fazel Khan for comments
he made to the media was met with outrage by some fellow academics, who
believed free expression and academic freedom were in sharp decline at
November 27: A master of commerce degree conferred on the chief
financial officer of University of KwaZulu-Natal, Prof Kanthan Pillay,
2007: January: Pillay was fired by the university's council and his
master of commerce degree was rescinded.
March: The president of the Combined Staff Association at the University
of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, Prof Evan Mantzaris, was suspended on
allegations of misconduct.
2008: August: Charges instituted against physics professor Nithaya
Chetty and mathematics professor John van den Berg related to criticism
of Makgoba in the media regarding his handling of a university senate
debate on academic freedom.
November: University officials halted a meeting at which the science and
agriculture faculty was expected to adopt a resolution calling on
Makgoba to withdraw charges against Chetty and Van den Berg.
November: Van den Berg signed a settlement with UKZN on terms of a final
warning. Chetty handed in his resignation and prepared to take up a post
at another university in the country.
November: Criticism mounts against UKZN regarding the Chetty/Van den
Berg matter with reaction from across the country and across the world.
The leadership crisis
South Africans are crying out for freedom at every level
December 16, 2008 Edition 1
THE crisis of leadership is perhaps the single biggest challenge facing
South Africa today.
At every level its people, it would appear, are crying out for freedom:
freedom to exercise their political rights to start a breakaway party;
freedom from crime; freedom to express their academic will; and the
freedom to be just an ordinary and equal South African without any
In the spheres of economics and religion there appears to be little
interference though South Africa tends to be overregulated unnecessarily
and offers black economic empowerment opportunities only to black
nationals. South Africans feel excluded when they should feel embraced
as full and enabling citizens.
Instead we tend to be a collection of separate groups resisting the
force to transcend our differences. Even in a lofty and erudite arena as
the ivory tower, race looms high.
At the University of KwaZulu-Natal one of our most prestigious and
largest of South African universities, the cry by leading academics for
academic freedom has come under international scrutiny and concern. The
non-negotiable dismissal of the whole episode as one of misconduct does
not permit any serious introspection by the university authorities into
their own weaknesses. Added to this the staff is divided along racial
lines in some quarters as to what the true nature of the problem is.
Culture and race are a rare but real combination that provides different
perspectives of the same issue. While some black staff attribute the
conflict to racism, others tend to see the curtailment of freedom of
speech, namely the freedom to articulate thoughts in contradiction to
the status quo, as a fundamental right of any academic. This is what an
institution of higher learning should be thriving on, namely its
diversity of opinions and thoughts. It's the very raison d'etre for its
existence. After all isn't the university about intellectual discourse
of ideas? No one can bring a great institution into disrepute through
his or her opinions.
During a crisis like this an opportunity arises for debate, dialogue and
discussions, providing the institution with opportunities to grow
intellectually stronger, for self- analysis and a challenge arises to
make an institution even better and stronger. After all the only lethal
weapons that academics have is their minds, their voices, and their
pens. A Canadian University recently awarded The Sterling Prize in
Support of Controversy to Prof Heribert Adam. In his acceptance speech
at the Wosk Centre in Vancouver he said "courting controversy easily
brands one as a troublemaker, particularly in a consensus-oriented
society such as Canada. I never wanted to be seen as a troublemaker
courting controversy. However, frequently controversy courted me during
my academic life. One cannot always practise moral fence sitting and
avoid offending people who do not share one's reasoned views."
What is significant here is that controversy is being celebrated as a
higher order value instead of blind conformity to the perceived
shenanigans of university administrators. Perhaps this is due to the
perception, as is common in all organisations under threat, that members
of the executive close ranks and adopt the mantle of collective thinking
in a unified front. The same applies to the opposition but only for a
limited span of time as the issue of "bread and butter" politics comes
to the fore and union support dissipates. At this point communication
goes underground and this in itself is a confirmation of the implicit
threat to academic freedom. Subterfuge, rumours, anonymous messages,
tale telling and interracial conflict are all manifestations of a
working and learning environment under threat. It is indicative of an
Most academics are wary of their jobs and of tenureship, promotions and
status within the institution. On account of this many do not dare to
engage in larger institutional matters. They are akin to the blue-collar
workers who simply do their jobs and keep away from engagement at an
institutional level. Tight, narrow silos of academic pockets develop
with this mentality, keeping people apart eventually compromising the
roundness and inclusiveness of good education. This is not a new
problem. C P Snow, an Oxford don, was noted to have bemoaned the gap
between the arts and the sciences in the '60s, warning us that knowledge
cannot be separated into cubicles.
When academic freedom is under threat at a university, its very
existence as a reputable institution is at stake and therefore the
timely intervention by Mac Mia, the chairman of council, to set up a
seven-person committee to investigate allegations of suppression of
academic freedom in all its ramifications, is a wise one. However, the
composition of the committee is crucial here. Their credentials,
experience, objectivity and independence are important factors. Ideally
there should be members who are academics from other institutions,
retired professors and some non-regional representatives.
The committee must be seen to be impartial, objective and knowledgeable
about university management. We wish them well.
# Devi Rajab is a career and counselling consultant to Caprisa. She
writes a regular column for local and international publications. She
writes in her personal capacity.
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