/ 22 December 2022

Academic freedom upheld at University of Johannesburg

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‘Tell no lies’: University of Johannesburg rejects with contempt claims that it stifles academic freedom and transformation. Photo: ER Lombard


In an article that appeared in Mail & Guardian last week, under the heading “Academic freedom on the line”, a former employee of the University of Johannesburg (UJ), Professor Colin Chasi, makes a barrage of false allegations pertaining to his dismissal from the institution.

In the article, which appeared in print on 15 December and online the following day, Chasi claims that he was unfairly dismissed for raising issues relating to the delivery of quality education, transformation as well as the protection of the health and well-being of academics in the faculty of humanities. 

He further alleges that his dismissal was a result of the university stifling academic freedom and trampling on justice, among others. 

“My matter is of significance because it is the first case to go before the courts to protect the constitutionally enshrined principle of academic freedom — which is about the right of academics to protect their students and to speak as stewards of their disciplines,” Chasi wrote. 

How disingenuous and malicious can one be? It must be emphasised that the University of Johannesburg treats matters of disputes involving its employees, current and former, as confidential. The university rarely goes public about such matters. 

The university regards this as an ethical practice to protect the privacy and dignity of individuals contracted to, or associated with, the institution. However, the university cannot remain silent when disgruntled individuals abuse media freedom to impugn its reputation. 

First, and to put matters into perspective, Chasi was dismissed from the university on 24 November 2017, following an extensive hearing lasting 24 days, and chaired by an independent advocate drawn from the university’s approved panel of external independent chairpersons. 

He subsequently brought a claim against the university in the labour court. This was also dismissed, on 3 October this year. Chasi then sought leave to appeal, and this too was refused. 

It is worth noting that there is currently no related matter before the courts. The university, therefore, regards the matter as closed, following the extensive, thorough and fair set of processes. However, given the unfounded and outlandish accusations that paint a misleading picture of the university, Chasi’s views cannot go unchallenged. 

As a university, we find it curious and indeed disturbing that Chasi continues with the pursuit of a matter that has been found to be without substance by qualified, independent adjudicators on multiple occasions. In the article, Chasi reiterates his legal challenge that the dismissal of his case was based on procedural grounds, as it was on a “technical matter to do with how papers were served [in court]”. 

It is not the intention of the university to be drawn into the details around the technical flaws of Chasi’s case, as highlighted by the labour court in Johannesburg. This included the findings that there was “some inexplicable conduct by Chasi and his legal representatives” and that not only was their case “entirely lacking in substance and was simply wrong”, but that their actions were “wilful and deliberate”. 

It is worth noting that in dismissing Chasi’s case (of a substantive and procedurally unfair dismissal), the court ruled that he elected not to pursue the matter with the appropriate court in the form of the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA), but that he would not have succeeded anyway. 

“Would it be in the interest of justice to grant condonation? I don’t consider this to be the case. In the end, there is nothing unique and exceptional about the case that would cry out for intervention in this court, because it may be in the interest of justice to do so,” Judge AJ Snyman said. The judge further stated that Chasi had “advanced no case of prejudice” and – crucially – that “his case is doomed to fail”. 

The judge explained: “In all the circumstances as set out above, the applicant’s condonation application must fail … even if the applicant’s condonation application is considered as it stands, the applicant has failed to make out a case for the granting of condonation. It is in the best interest of justice, and in line with the requirements of expeditious resolution of employment disputes, that this matter be finally dismissed.” 

The court also criticised Chasi for his unwarranted attacks on the university. 

“In the condonation application, and instead of simply properly applying his mind to what the respondent (UJ) had to say about the statement of claim … the applicant, in essence, attacks the respondent, trying to divert attention from the real issue.”  

The University of Johannesburg rejects with contempt Chasi’s claims that the institution stifles academic freedom and transformation, which he claims he was standing up for. 

“Without academic freedom, the great gift of scholarly excellence is imperilled,” he wrote. At UJ, we take pride in our record of transformation, and we vigorously uphold the value of freedom of expression. 

For the record, UJ academics rate among the highest contributors of thought leadership articles and expert commentary in the media, where they share their opinions on a wide variety of topics related to news and current affairs in the country and elsewhere in the world. 

UJ has, over the years, consistently remained among the top three major South African universities with a strong presence in the media space. Through this, academics influence public debate on matters of national and international interest and enrich and deepen knowledge. 

In the 2022 academic year alone, for example, more than 300 opinion articles by UJ experts writing on a wide range of topics were featured across print and online media platforms, according to two independent media monitoring agencies, Professional Evaluation and Research and Meltwater. 

Additionally, more than 500 experts were featured in national media, while more than 200 appeared in the global media. 

Many UJ academics continue to be recognised for their scholarship, expertise, community engagement and public intellectual contributions. UJ academics have also been appointed to national and international boards and academies, which not only contribute to the enhancement of their professional profiles but also reaffirm the university’s growing stature across various fields. 

Likewise, UJ students have excelled in various academic, sports, art and cultural competitions. This is a testament to their resilience and to the support they receive from staff in various faculties (humanities included) and professional support services. 

At UJ, we place the welfare of our students at the centre of everything we do. We will continue to do so in our ongoing efforts to serve the nation, continent and the world, and to shape them to be fairer, more equal and more just. It is against this background that we are taken aback by Chasi’s disparaging and defamatory comments. 

In the article, Chasi claims that he led the department of communications and media through a period of transformation, to become one of South Africa’s most productive teaching and research departments. He then accuses the university of acting in a manner that hinders academic excellence. This is far from the truth and must be dismissed outright. 

As a university, we are not averse to criticism, because it is part of academic freedom. However, what we will not accept is individuals wilfully distorting facts, often because of a victim mentality and failure to acknowledge their own flaws. 

As Amilcar Cabral, one of the great African leaders reminds us: “Hide nothing from the people. Tell no lies. Expose lies whenever they are told. Mask no difficulties, mistakes, failures, claim no easy victories.”

UJ has an enabling environment that supports its academics and researchers to realise their full potential and unleash their intellectual capital on national and global stages. Indeed, we continue to make significant strides in ranking systems. 

This is evinced by our upward trajectory in various categories of the Times Higher Education (THE) Impact Rankings, THE Subject Rankings, the Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) BRICS University Rankings, the QS Sustainability Rankings and Best Global University Rankings (BGUR). 

Chasi claims that the manner in which the university dealt with his case is symptomatic of an institution that hampers transformation. On the contrary, transformation is an objective that is firmly woven into the social, intellectual and structural fabric of the university 

UJ is “liberal, progressive, transformative and assertive of academic freedom in the values it espouses”. We recognise that transformation is an ongoing, dynamic and qualitative process to enhance the development of knowledge in an environment that acknowledges diverse lived experiences for social responsibility. 

As vice-chancellor and principal Professor Tshilidzi Marwala aptly wrote in August, transformation – since UJ was established 17 years ago – focused on inclusivity. It is defined by inclusion across gender, race, class and international lines. It is an ongoing process, especially at senior leadership levels. 

Lebogang Seale, a PhD candidate in journalism and media studies,  is the senior manager of strategic communications at the University of Johannesburg.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.