University dispute causes a crisis of credibility

As part of its constitutional mandate to monitor quality at the country’s higher education institutions, the Council on Higher Education (CHE) has been conducting large-scale audits of these institutions since 2004. The results of such audits constitute public information and allow taxpayers to judge how well their money is being spent in the country’s tertiary education sector.

They are also invaluable to the members of a university community in providing an objective assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the institution and feeding into planning for the future.

Preparation for these audits requires hours of many people’s time as documents on all conceivable aspects of the university’s research, teaching and other activities are painstakingly gathered and made available to the audit panel.
The panel members themselves invest considerable time in digesting all this information and interviewing a wide range of academics and other university staff to gain deep insight into the functioning of the university under consideration. A great deal of work and critical thought goes into compiling the audit report and its recommendations.

The University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) was audited by the CHE in the latter part of 2008. Members of the university community have been waiting for the release of the audit report. Only a deafening silence was heard, however, until late last year, when a well-hidden item appeared on the CHE’s website stating the UKZN audit report had been “withdrawn”. This bureaucratese can be easily translated into more accurate words: “suppressed”, “withheld” or, in stronger language, “gagged”. The CHE has decided to consign to oblivion its entire audit report on UKZN.

The matter has now been exposed in the media, thanks to the efforts of the Mail & Guardian. The audit panel’s chair, professor Martin Hall, has made known his unhappiness with this outcome and argued that by agreeing to gag the report the CHE is complicit in suppressing important information that is legitimately required by the UKZN community and the public.

Background to the gagging
Why was the report, on which so many people had spent so much time and effort, consigned to the infamous File 13? To answer this question, it is necessary to reprise details—widely publicised in the media at the time (late 2008)—concerning UKZN top management’s pursuit of disciplinary action against two professors in the university’s faculty of science and agriculture.

These two academics, professors Nithaya Chetty and John van den Berg, had attempted to bring before the university senate a document raising concerns about the exercise of academic freedom within the institution. Th document had been drafted and ratified by the faculty and the two professors had been mandated by their colleagues to take it to senate.

After several failed attempts to get the document discussed in a senate meeting, the two openly expressed their own and their colleagues’ concerns about what many regarded as the erosion of freedom of expression within UKZN. To many, the suppression of the faculty “academic freedom document” seemed itself to confirm the existence of the very issues raised in its pages. And if further confirmation was needed, it was immediately provided when the two academics found themselves facing internal disciplinary procedures for, among other charges, “bringing the university into disrepute”.

The effective ban on discussing such controversial issues within the university extended to discussing them within the faculty of science and agriculture, the home faculty of the two academics. As The Witness reported at the time, a legitimate attempt by members of the faculty to hold a meeting to discuss the plight of their colleagues failed at the very last moment. The then dean (who has now left UKZN) was officially warned by UKZN’s employee and labour relations department not to allow the meeting to proceed.

Not surprisingly, the CHE audit panel—then writing up its final report—commented on this sorry state of affairs at the university. It did so first in its verbal presentation in October 2008, which preceded the pursuit of disciplinary action against the two professors (although events had been moving swiftly in that direction). This presentation was made to the whole university community and was intended to give the members of UKZN feedback on the audit.

In his recent M&G article Hall wrote that four out of 45 items in the verbal presentation dealt with the panel’s concern about “evidence of stifled debate about institutional matters and of debates conducted in ways which obfuscate rather than elucidate issues”. The panel strongly recommended that, rather than pursue disciplinary action—and thereby follow the trend that Jane Duncan termed the “rise of the disciplinary university” in an M&G article published when she was director of the Freedom of Expression Institute—UKZN management should make concerted attempts to sort out the disagreements through internal discussion.

Vice-chancellor’s response
As could have been predicted by anyone familiar with recent events at UKZN, top management ignored this recommendation and instead proceeded with the disciplinary action against the two professors.
Hall expressed his concern about this to the relevant CHE committee and his letter found its way into the public domain. Professor Malegapuru Makgoba, UKZN vice-chancellor, apparently then argued to the CHE that Hall, as the audit panel’s chairperson, was biased.

In the view of most observers this was and remains a spurious argument. As Hall wrote trenchantly in the M&G he was but one member of a review panel, and it “stretches credibility to accept, as the CHE does, that any personal bias that I might hold could mesmerise an eight-member panel made up of senior academics and administrators from seven different South African universities and an independent auditor from Australia”.

Yet the ad hoc review committee the CHE appointed to consider the vice-chancellor’s allegations of bias chose to agree with Makgoba. It was disappointing—but hardly a surprise—to read in the M&G that Ahmed Essop, head of the CHE, told the newspaper when it asked him about the make-up of the review committee that it had been appointed “after consultation with the vice-chancellor”. This was hardly a case of an independent body coming to an unbiased decision regarding the release of the report.

Interestingly, Essop also admitted to the M&G that the CHE had no process in place for dealing with a situation in which a university’s top management takes issue with some aspects of a report and then wants it withdrawn. Apparently the CHE had not anticipated a situation in which a vice-chancellor would attempt to have the report gagged because he or she did not like some of its findings.

This is surely the height of naiveté. What would be the value of audit reports in which the CHE becomes simply a praise singer for the top management of our universities?

Alternatives to managerialism
One aspect of the problem lies, I feel, in the enabling environment created by the increasing hold of managerialism on South African universities. Managerialism provides the space for top management to make use of legalistic processes to stifle dissent within an institution. The individual who is critical of the direction in which the university is going, and attempts to engage others in the institution as well as top management about this, finds him or herself in a parlous position.

At UKZN in particular, he or she may find him or herself facing disciplinary action on the part of the university’s employee and labour relations department—not to mention the private law firms, kept on permanent retainer by university management, that take on such cases. Without very specific guarantees of what is internationally accepted as “academic freedom”, academics have little protection if they happen to fall foul of top management. Inevitably a climate of fear is created.

How can we turn back the tide of managerialism in South African universities and begin to consider more inclusive ways of operating? One model that South African universities should consider seriously is the collective agreements that many North American universities use as governing documents. These detailed statements of principle are agreed between the university administration and the academic staff and both groups are then bound by the terms of agreement for a set period.

A clear statement of academic freedom protections is included in these agreements. For example, members of Queen’s University in Canada agree in its governing collective agreement that “academic freedom includes the following interacting freedoms: freedom to teach, freedom to research, freedom to publish, freedom of expression, freedom to acquire materials”. In addition to carrying out research and teaching without censorship, it is specified that “members have the right to freedom of expression, including the right to criticise the government of the day, the administration of the institution, or the [Queen’s University staff] association”.

Importantly, this kind of governing agreement rests on the conception of the university as being constituted by all its members, not just its current management or its vice-chancellor (known in Canada as the university principal). A key question is thereby raised. Are the academics at UKZN simply “employees” or are they regarded (as in the case of Queen’s University) as members of the institution? Why is it that, in South Africa, the interests of a particular university are often assumed to be coincident with those of its current vice-chancellor, as though he or she were the chief executive of a private company?

It should be clear to all that, in the absence of such a collective agreement, dissenting academics in the increasingly managerialist and even authoritarian environment of some South African universities enjoy little protection in practice.

Implications for the CHE
The CHE’s capitulation in suppressing the UKZN audit report on the request of the institution’s vice-chancellor is more than disappointing: it has set a terrible precedent. The public needs to ask itself whose interests are being served by the suppression of the CHE report. Besides the fact that in bowing to UKZN’s top management in this way the CHE has done untold damage to its own credibility, the gagging of the audit can be viewed as a betrayal of the UKZN’s academics and other staff—the people who, in fact, constitute the university. It is also a shameful waste of taxpayers’ money and a slap in the faces of all those who spent hours of their time contributing to the audit.

Small instances of suppression have a way of snowballing into large ones. The original decision to close down discussion of a legitimate document, involving the institutional bullying of two academics, has now led to the withdrawal of an entire university audit. The poison at UKZN has, sadly, spread and is now infecting a national body mandated to conduct independent assessments of the country’s higher learning institutions.

It should be remembered that any university is a national, provincial and municipal asset. To add to its other woes, UKZN will—when the first cycle of CHE audits that began in 2004 ends this year—be the only university in the country that does not have an independent audit report available for public perusal.

And as far as the CHE is concerned, if it is to retain any credibility when it conducts university audits in the future, the decision of the ad hoc review committee regarding the UKZN report must be reversed at once and the audit findings released to the university community and the public.

Dr Shirley Brooks is a senior lecturer at the University of the Free State and lectured at the University of Natal (later University of KwaZulu-Natal) for nearly 12 years. She was a member of UKZN’s faculty of science and agriculture. This article first appeared in slightly different form in The Witness on Monday (January 24)

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