UKZN academics question senate probe

A one-man commission appointed to investigate issues around the submission of a document on academic freedom to the senate at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) has been questioned by some of the university’s academics.

The appointment of former vice-chancellor and former education minister Professor Sibusiso Bengu, the university’s council representative on the senate, to investigate the processes around the submission is seen by a few academics as tantamount to “a senator adjudicating on a matter that has become contentious within the senate itself”.

Vice-chancellor Professor Malegapuru Makgoba said he cannot comment because he is bound by the senate’s confidentiality at least until the process is concluded in about a month’s time. This was confirmed by Professor Dasarath Chetty, UKZN’s Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Corporate Relations) who said: “The Bengu committee must be allowed to investigate the matter in question and on completion of the report, the university will respond fully.”

UKZN’s senate has been wrestling with the matter since late last year after a meeting of the senate proposed that faculties be invited to make submissions on academic freedom.

In last month’s Higher Learning Associate Professor John van den Berg went public about his and Professor Nithaya Chetty’s repeated but failed attempts to table a faculty of science and agriculture submission on academic freedom.

Van den Berg said that each attempt had been blocked by the chairperson of the senate, Makgoba. “When pressed to give a reason for his actions, the vice-chancellor stated that the science and agriculture submission on academic freedom was self-serving and contributed nothing to the debate.” Makgoba had apparently stated that issues around equity and transformation are more important at UKZN and that academic freedom is not a priority.

Van den Berg said Makgoba had defended his actions by claiming that agreement had been reached that the submissions on academic freedom be considered by the academic steering subcommittee of the senate. Van den Berg said: “The intention has never been that the submissions not go to the academic steering subcommittee, but rather that they first serve before senate, thus affording senators the opportunity to comment on their content.”

The submission highlighted that there is “the prevailing culture of incivility and racial stereotyping that further impedes the free exchange of ideas. Debates within the institution have become highly racialised”.

This week the Bengu Commission continued with its investigation into the sequence of events pertaining to the faculty of science and agriculture’s submission on academic freedom.

His terms of reference include reviewing the minutes of senate meetings on August 1, October 3 and November 14; reviewing the reports of the (former) registrar Dr Edith Mneney and the chairs of senate (the senate meetings on October 3 and November 14 chaired by Professors Pete Zacharias and Johan Jacobs in the absence of Makgoba); interviewing Nithaya Chetty and Van den Berg and any other relevant senate members; reporting his findings to the senate and recommending a way forward.

Van den Berg, who was interviewed by Bengu on Tuesday, said: “The vice-chancellor’s explanation of the impasse was that senate had made conflicting statements about what it wanted to have done with the faculty submissions on academic freedom. [The August meeting said it should go to the academic steering subcommittee, the October meeting said it should serve before the senate.] These decisions were not in conflict with one another — the decision of the October meeting merely qualified that of the August meeting.

“But even if one accepts the vice-chancellor’s interpretation of events, surely the easiest and most transparent way of resolving the impasse would have been for the vice-chancellor to put the following question to senate: what does senate wish to do with this document?

Does senate wish to see the document first and comment on it before sending it to the steering subcommittee or would senate prefer that it be sent directly to the academic steering subcommittee? A simple show of hands would have settled the matter. Surely senate doesn’t need to appoint a special commission to try to uncover what it is that senate wants? We just say what we want.”

He said he had chosen nevertheless to engage with the Bengu commission as this was the senate’s wish. Nithaya Chetty has meanwhile resigned from the senate over this issue. “I am not sure why senate needs an investigation to figure out its own decisions. This is a deflection away from the central issues at hand,” he said.

Attempts to reach Bengu at the time of going to press were unsuccessful.

Meanwhile, alumnus David Whitehead, a retired professor of biochemistry living in the Cape, has informed the UKZN alumni office of his intention to boycott today’s Golden Alumni Reunion on the Pietermaritzburg campus, following UKZN’s issues with academic freedom.

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