/ 17 November 2008

UKZN meeting thwarted

The University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) scuppered a staff meeting in support of two professors facing disciplinary action for allegedly breaching a senate confidentiality clause and publicly criticising vice-chancellor Malegapuru Makgoba.

The meeting between university management and faculty of science and agriculture staff was cancelled at the urging of UKZN’s human resources department hours before it was due to take place on Tuesday afternoon.

Staff, who formed themselves into an ”assembly” under the faculty’s constitution, had hoped the meeting would persuade Makgoba to withdraw charges against the faculty’s physics professor, Nithaya Chetty, and maths professor John van den Berg.

In a letter to the faculty dean, John Cook, director of employee and labour relations Paul Finden advised Cook to cancel the meeting.

Finden said the meeting could be for no other purpose than to discuss the merits of the university’s decision to institute disciplinary action against Chetty and Van den Berg.

”This does not serve the university’s interests, [or] those of the employees concerned. The integrity of the university’s disciplinary process must be respected by all members of staff and the process must not be compromised by debate outside the disciplinary forum,” said Finden.

The National Tertiary Education Staff Union official representing Chetty and Van den Berg, law professor Alan Rycroft, said the cancellation was a ”real blow” to staff and showed that ”the university is panicking”.

The Freedom of Expression Institute’s Jane Duncan said it was difficult not to read Finden’s ”advice” as an implied instruction.

”If this is a correct reading, the instruction amounts to a ban on the meeting. It is a classic case of a narrow managerial ethos asserting itself over academic decision-making, with all the negative consequences for academic free speech,” Duncan said.

She said the freedom of association and expression of faculty members had been violated.

She said it was a contradiction for a university to claim to be committed to being critically engaged with society while blocking critical engagement with its own internal processes.

”In acting in this manner the university is destroying its own reputation and risks taking down the reputations of its academics as well. It must understand that it does not have the power to practise thought control.”

The bone of contention is a document produced by the science and agriculture faculty which criticises UKZN’s record on academic freedom.

Makgoba wanted the document referred to a senate sub-committee rather than to the senate.

In an interview with the Mail & Guardian‘s Higher Learning supplement earlier this year Van den Berg said that last year the senate had proposed that faculties make submissions to it on academic freedom.

”The faculty prepared such a submission. It subsequently tried, through its representatives on the senate and repeatedly over a period of several months, to get its submission placed on the senate agenda. These attempts met with no success.”

He said that senate chairperson Makgoba blocked attempts to submit the document.

Among other things, the document says ”the prevailing culture of incivility and racial stereotyping [at UKZN] impedes the free exchange of ideas. Debates have become racialised. The effect is to silence many people.

”This is at variance with our stated university values and runs counter to what we at UKZN wish to achieve in our strategic plan.”

The document also alludes to ”hyper-sensitivity around communication with the press. The university is a public institution and its members have a right – indeed a duty – to communicate with outside organisations, in particular the press, in a responsible manner.”

Last week the university warned that it was necessary for it to ask Van den Berg, Chetty and Rycroft to respect the university’s disciplinary processes.

It said: ”The university is obliged to do so, and as employees they too are obliged to do so. Respecting the process will include that they and the university refrain from discussing or debating the merits of the disciplinary action in any public forum, faculty meeting, meeting with other members of staff, and from communicating with the press during the disciplinary hearing process.”