What went wrong?

The rumour mill has been working overtime during the past three weeks as Wits University employees, journalists and everyone else who can cadge some media space try to figure out what has been going on at the topmost levels of one of this country’s academic showpieces.

Yet again, the university has been convulsed by a leadership crisis, culminating this time in the vice-chancellor’s resignation a mere 16 months after assuming office. Norma Reid Birley’s appointment raised some eyebrows last year. She was a rank outsider — and her first visit to the country was to be interviewed for the post.

Yet her personal charm initially won over all sectors of the university. The talk at the time was that then acting vice-chancellor Leila Patel was the clear frontrunner, but that Reid Birley’s charismatic public lecture — which was part of a gruelling selection process — swung sentiment in her favour.

Reid Birley’s “outstanding track record in university leadership positions and her distinguished academic credentials, together with her strong vision for the university, made her an excellent choice”, said the statement from Wits announcing her appointment. So what went wrong?

The theories have multiplied. A reactionary, anti-transformation bloc at Wits wanted her out; she ran foul of a xenophobic Wits “old boys’ club” that resents both women and foreigners; the African National Congress wanted Patel and so was operating behind the scenes to pressure the university’s council into trumping up charges against her and oust her …

But the truth appears to be far more mundane. Multiple Wits sources of varied ideological and other hues say that signs emerged very early in Reid Birley’s tenure that she was extraordinarily difficult to work with and that the unanimous initial goodwill towards her steadily dissipated among those who had to interact with her daily.

We report this week that senior Wits academics, whom we name with their permission and whose own transformation and gender credentials are impeccable, despairingly recount that Reid Birley repeatedly rejected long-term attempts at constructive intervention.

It is also a matter of record that two very senior managers, recruited from an historically disadvantaged university and who can scarcely be said to be anti-transformation reactionaries, have distanced themselves from Reid Birley.

With such considerations in mind, it is difficult to understand Reid Birley’s claims that allegations against her are without substance. Clearly, a crisis had been building up for many months; equally clearly, Wits needed to act urgently to resolve it.

Reid Birley’s response to our story this week — which we carry in full — tends to confirm rather than refute what the senior sources we cite have to say. In her reading, widely respected figures say what they say because they are in a “camp” that is not hers, yet she provides no cogent reasons as to why these people are opposing her. Nor has she done so in the acres of media space to which she has elsewhere had access.


Personal sympathies aside — and there are compelling reasons for sympathising with the institutional and personal difficulties Reid Birley has faced — it is clearly better for Wits that so divisive a leader has now gone.

The focus must now be on securing an impeccable candidate with widespread credibility. The university council carries a heavy burden in this regard. Given Wits’s critical importance in the national education terrain, we urge the council to re-examine its selection procedures, to assess honestly what went wrong in the procedures that produced an appointment that became ever more unworkable within its first year, and set the university unambiguously on a path of stable growth and transformation.

Speak out against evils

The riots in Nigeria over the Miss World contest, and the threatened stoning of an adulteress that preceded them, pose a challenge to the moderate Muslim majority in South Africa and elsewhere in the world.

The inescapable fact is that within the Islamic community, there is a body of believers who are highly intolerant and violence-prone. In states like Iran and, formerly, Afghanistan intolerance has been institutionalised through theocratic rule.

Of course, Islam is not the only world religion to embody such extremism. Right-wing Christians in South Africa, the United States and Northern Ireland have committed terrible deeds. Hard-line Hindus destroyed a historic mosque in India. Right-wing religious parties in Israel are a major force for violent repression.

But this does not excuse the mayhem and the fatwa on a hapless journalist in Nigeria. It does not excuse the cruel stoning sentence passed by a religious court on Amina Lawal under Shariah law, which also allows amputation and whipping. It does not excuse the Taliban’s dynamiting of two ancient Buddhist statues or its ban on schooling for girls. It doesn not excuse the September 11 attacks nor the regular suicide bombings in the Middle East. And it does not excuse the religiously-inspired bombing crusade that rocked the Western Cape.

Moderate Muslims must resolutely raise their voices against such evils. The other Islam, of Allah the merciful and compassionate, must assert itself.

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years. We’ve survived thanks to the support of our readers, we will need you to help us get through this.

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