UKZN carpets critics

Two eminent University of KwaZulu-Natal professors are facing a disciplinary tribunal because they criticised vice-chancellor Malegapuru Makgoba in the media.

In the latest academic freedom controversy to erupt at the university, John van den Berg and Nithaya Chetty, deputy heads of maths and physics respectively on the Pietermaritzburg campus, are accused of breaching a senate confidentiality clause.

At issue is a document from the science and agriculture faculties criticising the university’s record on academic freedom. Makgoba wanted it referred to a senate sub-committee rather than directly to the senate itself.

On their website and to the media, including the Mail & Guardian’s Higher Learning supplement, earlier this year they suggested he was trying to suppress the document. Makgoba allegedly called the document “self-serving”, adding that it “does not advance the debate”.

According to the academics’ representative, Alan Rycroft of the National Tertiary Education Staff Union, Makgoba proposed that the dispute be investigated by the council representative on the senate, former education minister Sibusiso Bengu. Charges were then laid against them.

The two academics declined to speak to the M&G this week. But Rycroft confirmed that the charges include “failing to take due care in communicating with the media, breaching confidentiality and dishonesty and/or gross negligence in alleging that the vice-chancellor had no right to omit the faculty of science and agriculture document on academic freedom from the senate agenda”.

Facilitators were initially appointed and it appeared that a mediated solution had been found. But the university’s lawyers then required the academics to sign an admission of guilt document, said Rycroft, which they refused to do.

Van den Berg and Chetty have urged Makgoba “to be open to a solution that is not primarily concerned with findings of guilt, but rather one that seeks to build new understandings and collegial relationships”.

Last week Makgoba allegedly rejected a second submission by the academics aimed at bridging the divide. Rycroft said Makgoba “believes it is in the best interests of the university to proceed to a disciplinary hearing”. The academics were warned in the charges that they face possible dismissal.

The tribunal will be headed by advocate Dumisa Ntsebeza SC, while the university has briefed Omar Moosa SC to prosecute charges.

Rycroft said the charge of not taking due care in communicating with the media had obvious freedom of expression implications. “If you control discussions on policies in senate, it has huge implications for freedom of expression.”

He said the university would spend at least R250 000 for the five-day internal disciplinary hearing in December.

Chetty, president of the South African Institute of Physics, has been invited to deliver the 2009 TB Davie Academic Freedom Lecture at the University of Cape Town.

Although several questions were posed to the university, it responded only with: “The matter (Prof Nithaya Chetty) is an internal university matter and university processes have to be followed. The outcome of the matter will be announced at an appropriate time.”

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