Top academic pulls out of ‘sham’ race

Above the fray: Sipho Seepe says senior academic appointments are often political. (Oupa Nkosi, MG)

Above the fray: Sipho Seepe says senior academic appointments are often political. (Oupa Nkosi, MG)

Certain that he has been participating in a "demonstrably farcical exercise", political analyst and academic Sipho Seepe this week withdrew from the two-horse race for the vice-chancellorship of the Cape Peninsula ­University of Technology.

In a letter he sent on Monday to council chairperson Mbulelo Bikwani saying he was withdrawing, Seepe cited the scepticism he expressed publicly last week about the credibility of the selection 

process ("Varsity's top-job criteria 'not credible' ", Mail & Guardian, June 14). 

He also sent copies of the letter, which the M&G has seen, to Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande and University of KwaZulu-Natal vice-chancellor Malegapuru Makgoba, in the latter's capacity as chairperson of the oversight committee on university ­transformation Nzimande appointed in January. 

The other candidate for the post, University of Zululand deputy vice-chancellor Prins Nevhutalu, has a CV that is "vacuous and bereft 

of any semblance or evidence of scholarship", Seepe wrote. 

It convinced him that the selection process was a "sham" and "participating in it can only give it a cover of legitimacy".

With retiring vice-chancellor Vuyisa Mazwi-Tanga's successor due to be announced this weekend, Bikwani confirmed that the council would still meet, but he refused to comment on Seepe's letter. 

Nevhutalu also declined to comment. "Go to the university, they'll give you whatever you need. Sorry," he said. 

A travesty
According to Nevhutalu's CV, "the last and the only [academic] article" he has published was in 1993, Seepe wrote. "It is a travesty of the process that the candidate was short-listed in the first place." 

It was possible that some "uninitiated" members of the university selection committee erroneously believed Nevhutalu has a "considerable research record", because he was previously an executive director at the National Research Foundation, Seepe's letter said. 

"Nothing could be more misleading. First, [the foundation] is primarily a funding agency. It is not a research-intensive or [research-]active institution. Second, the only measurable and reliable evidence for research and thought leadership is through publications."

Nevhutalu was an executive director of the foundation from 1999 to 2005. He was deputy vice-chancellor of the Tshwane University of Technology for six years before moving to the University of Zululand late last year. He has a doctorate in biological science from the Northern Illinois University in the United States.

Seepe, who was acting vice-chancellor of the former Vista University from 2002 to 2004, is special adviser to Public Service and Administration Minister Lindiwe Sisulu. 

He holds a PhD in physics from North-West University and a master's degree from Harvard University. His CV lists 47 academic publications, the M&G reported last week. 

Transformation committee
Makgoba told the M&G that the matter did not fall within the terms of reference of the transformation committee he chaired, so he could not comment in that capacity.

But, stressing that he was responding "as a vice-chancellor and as an established academic", Makgoba said: "If what we read in the media is true, I support and respect Seepe's withdrawal from this process for the following reasons: 

"It is not dignified to participate in or lend legitimacy to what appears to be a fatally compromised and contaminated selection process; and

"Academic credibility and scholarship are the sine qua non characteristics of a vice-chancellor. If they cannot be demonstrated in a candidate, the institution will suffer an irreparable credibility crisis within the wider community of scholars. The whole academic project of a university suffers and gets defeated."

Gwebinkundla Qonde, director general of higher education, said the department "has no jurisdiction over this matter", so he could not comment further.

Seepe initially "agreed to be considered" for the top job "with great reluctance", he wrote. The reluctance was because, "by and large, scholarship and experience have little influence in the process of [making] these appointments. Often [they] are used to pursue short-term and narrow political agendas, and to settle personal squabbles and professional jealousies."

The decision to pull out was "no longer about me. It is about the integrity of the academic enterprise.

"We are now paying a heavy price for having colluded through our silence in the destruction of our schooling system. It would seem to me that the higher education sector is destined for the same fate," Seepe said.

Bongani Nkosi

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