Academic quarrel proves campus bosses mean

Earlier this year Khadija Magardie wrote of a dispute at the University of Natal over the suspension of a senior academic (“Academic freedom ‘threatened’” April 14 to 19).

Since then conflict has continued and over the past month a legal battle as intense and dramatic as anything we get from Ally McBeal was played out in a committee room on the Durban campus.

On the one side were the university authorities, seeking to prove that its professor of social anthropology had been guilty of acts of misconduct which had so damaged the integrity of her relationship with the university that her contract should be terminated.

On the other was the professor herself, Caroline White, who argues that the charges were baseless and that the damage done to the employment relationship was the consequence of her attempts to defend herself against an official vendetta.

Part of the committee-room drama lay in the incongruity of it all. Students under oath assessed their lecturers. Leading advocates confronted witnesses over the trivia of academic quarrels and office gossip. The vice-chancellor herself was called and brooded over the responsibilities of office.

There was an angry argument over whether instructions had been given to breastfeed while giving tutorials. And there were tearful exchanges over broken friendships and private betrayals. Part of the drama lay in the personalities appearing before the committee of inquiry.

White herself, 58 years old, slender, white- haired, striking and outraged at what she sees as actions which could ruin her reputation and end her career. “Mr chairman! Will you ask Professor White to stop pointing at me?” pleaded the university’s industrial relations manager, Paul Finden, when White, glasses on the end of her nose, mouth open in disbelief, blue eyes staring him down, raised a finger (index) in his direction.

White believes that Finden is much to blame for her predicament. He certainly appears as an Iago- like figure, short-cropped dark hair, saturnine beard, gold-earring, whispering to the university lawyers, a flurry of note- taking, before he disappears through the doors of the committee room.

The inquiry has dealt with events which began at the end of April last year. University restructuring required that, for the first time, psychology students take an anthropology course. White was one of the teachers. When students complained about the course, White objected to the way the complaint was handled by the dean.

There was a disagreement and then, in the months that followed, the conflict spiralled out of control. From the university’s side, events show that White is impossible to deal with, as one might expect from a “bristling feminist”. It was argued that she had attempted to stop her dean, Ronnie Miller, a psychology professor, from handling the student complaint, then misrepresented what had happened.

When Miller reported this to the university authorities and they tried to deal with it, White initiated a string of complaints, ultimately against them all. Although these grievances were decided against her, she continued her reckless charges against those in authority, refusing attempts at reconciliation, alienating staff and students with her aggressive style.

In the end, in November last year, the university had no choice but to suspend her. White of course rejects this interpretation. The initial student complaint lacked substance and should have been properly investigated by the dean. She protested in an e-mail in which she charged Miller with “flouting” procedures.

Miller, in his words, felt humiliated by this. White’s letter furthermore was an act of insubordination. He replied in a long, angry letter of protest which he copied to the university authorities. White was furious. Her reputation had been impugned. She used the university’s own procedures to protest. They found against her.

In his evidence Finden spoke with some gratification of how grievance procedures could “backfire” on the complainant and provide grounds for a counter-charge. This is what had happened to White herself. The battle lines had been drawn.

On the one side a dean, supported by the university authorities, sought to discipline an angry subordinate. On the other a professor felt that she was being blamed for an academic problem that had not been properly handled. In the months that followed the classic symptoms of serious institutional malaise began to show themselves.

The staff were divided and quarrelled. New alliances were brokered on the ruins of old ones. Minor annoyances turned into flaming rows. Apologies were demanded, then rejected as hollow. Mediation was attempted and failed.

Miller blamed White. White blamed Miller. At the end of June members of the old psychology department wrote a confidential letter complaining of White to the vice-chancellor. White was behaving impossibly. Then Miller wrote a letter.

A source, unnamed to this day, had told him of an attempt to victimise the student who had initiated the original complaint. The university suspended White from her duties and refused to allow her access to her office, the library and all social activities taking place on the campus. For White it was an effective banning order—unjustified and punitive.

Academic institutions fear situations like this and with reason. Tense times, changing priorities, high ambitions, inflated egos, all create conditions in which personal issues can flare up and do great damage. But universities are also experienced in dampening them down.

However, in this case it did not happen. Instead of containing the situation, the University of Natal decided to contain White. She however chose not to be contained. She fought back. White mobilised her networks. She sent e-mailed reports all over the world to her friends, many of whom occupy positions of influence.

The authorities were infuriated and to the growing list of charges added that she had misrepresented the university and brought its name into disrepute. No, argues White, the University of Natal, of which she is a graduate and her father was a professor, was bringing itself into disrepute by forcing her to defend herself in this way.

Charges had been brought against her based on reports passed in secrecy to the administration by her opponents, and she had not been given an opportunity to answer them before they had been acted upon. Her suspension was against not only accepted academic traditions but good labour practice.

The upshot? Suspension, division, demoralisation among the academic staff. A committee of inquiry, at this moment applying itself to such unlegal matters as the marking of student scripts, the adequacy of lecturers and the relevance of whispers passing between academics and administrators on the windy hill above the city.

Why? Why was this allowed to happen? Why, in spite of numerous pleas from those who could see what damage was being done, has the University of Natal been unable to manage this conflict?

Henry Kissinger, a former United States secretary of state who served his diplomatic apprenticeship as a history professor, believed that the reason academic quarrels generate so much heat is precisely because the stakes are so low. But this is not the case here.

The problems raised lie beyond the personalities of those involved - beyond an aggressive dean used to having his own way, and a redoubtable professor confident in her track record and not prepared to be pushed around.

For the context of this dispute is provided by a debate wracking universities all over the world—how they should respond to the commerciali-sation of higher education, management styles and procedures derived from business being applied to universities, and the adoption by academic administrators of market-driven ideologies—the so-called restructuring of tertiary education. No one would deny that public institutions in South Africa have to demonstrate that they use their resources efficiently and productively.

South Africa’s universities have to change and an urgent and necessary aspect of this is to balance the books. But restructuring goes way beyond proper accounting. It also involves bringing the universities unequivocally into the orbit of business. The commercialisation of public resources is a world trend which South Africa has chosen to follow as part of its adoption of the global path to economic development.

Universities, as vital institutions for the training of future skilled personnel, are dragged into the process. But there is opposition to the way this is being done. There are many who are convinced that universities can never be run like businesses. They argue that universities are institutions founded on the idea that debate and dissent are essential to the overall development of a society.

That it is academic practice not just to allow disagreement - but to encourage it. That obedience to a superior can never be a first principle in university management. That the introduction to universities of the principles of quality control indicates a failure to understand the nature of the educational process, of what happens in the classroom.

There are many who argue that the insistence on academics making available their lectures in a printed or digital form for “distance teaching” is an attempt by management to gain control and market what has hitherto been its employees’ intellectual property and an inalienable asset.

That the overall effect of restructuring is to shift public resources away from the students and teachers towards those who hold the higher positions in university management and in business. That the fragmentation of the academic disciplines into small packages of what are seen as marketable skills damages educational standards.

A fundamental educational principle is that understanding is rooted in the totality of human knowledge. To abandon this is catastrophic not only for higher education, but for the wider aims of social development of which higher education is a crucial part.

For those against the commoditisation of teaching and knowledge, the idea that universities should become institutions structured around a network of line managers whose task is to ensure the production of graduates for the market must be resisted. For them universities are constituted by a community of scholars producing not deference but the skills and confidence to dissent from prevailing opinion when necessary, and who use collegiality and debate to resolve conflict.

But the opposing point of view was articulated most dramatically when the chair of the White inquiry, a senior counsel, asked vice-chancellor Brenda Gourley whether the conflict could not have been sorted out in a more “collegial” way. She dismissed the very idea. Academic collegiality in her experience was the exclusive preserve of white males.

The White case has to be situated in this debate. Its origins lie in restructuring—in an attempt to make a marketable package out of different disciplines. At the beginning of 1999 psychology and anthropology were brought together within one school, the school of psychology, anthropology and social work in the new faculty of community and development disciplines. But from the start it was an uneasy relationship.

Psychology was the strongest partner in this marriage of academic convenience. But the psychologists were unable to provide a suitable head for the new school, and White was invited to apply. The psychologists did not like this and challenged her appointment. It is this opposition, White believes, which lies at the heart of the problems that developed.

Miller, the dean, does not see it very differently. But for him it was White’s aggressive and uncompromising response that changed a school restructuring problem into a university disaster. He turned to the new styles of management. As “executive dean” he found White’s behaviour “insubordinate”.

He was backed by the industrial relations manager who argued that the assertion by a subordinate that a “line manager” had “flouted” procedures wassufficient grounds for a charge of misconduct. The clearest indication that the White case is more significant than a mere clash of personalities could be heard in the university lawyer’s summing up.

He spoke forcibly of the changes that were needed in a “modern university”. The principles of case law had to be applied when necessary to employment disputes. It could no longer be argued that academic freedom somehow placed university staff outside of what was applied to employees in “industry and commerce”. The significance of such ideas reaches way beyond the confines of the University of Natal.

We are seeing in this dispute what can happen when concerted attempts are made to bring a modern university within the purview of industry and commerce. And other trends confirm this. The restructuring process has been pursued with great energy. The university executive has increased its size, autonomy and income without opposition.

The structure of the University of Natal’s supreme academic body, senate, was radically altered when the automatic membership of professors was terminated. This occurred with hardly a comment—except on the part of one Professor White.

Disciplines have been downgraded or disappeared into programmes with names meant to suggest their relevance to a networked, market-driven, corporate world. Academics look fearfully at the security of their employment when student enrolments fall, and seek new ways to market their product.

Recently staff members, on union recommendation, signed new conditions of service which specify “insubordination” as one of a long list of offences which could lead to charges of “very serious misconduct”. (“Sleeping on the job” ranks only as “serious misconduct”).

Perhaps the easy acceptance of such changes is an indication of a general apathy. Perhaps it is a sign of our market-dominated times. But we cannot discount the possibility that cases like the White dispute, for there have been others, demonstrate the dangers of crossing those in authority at the University of Natal.

For there is an apparent contradiction at the heart of the White case which demands an explanation. How can an institution, determined to run a lean, mean operation, spend such an enormous amount of time, energy and money in order to discipline a senior professor who is two years from retirement?

The inquiry alone must have cost hundreds of thousands of rands. What result could possibly justify such expenditure of public resources? The destruction of White’s reputation? Her impoverishment if she continues to resist? Is this the desired outcome?

Surely not. But the only alternative explanation points to management’s vision of the university as a business to which we can apply the principles of cost-benefit analysis. And from this it would appear that what is happening to White can be seen as a warning to any staff member tempted to question a line manager’s instruction.

That the proceedings are best interpreted as a managerial threat to its academic staff. That the money spent on the White case is an investment—an investment in the future of an effectively managed educational institution.

Jeff Guy is head of history at the University of Natal (Durban)

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