Leave the ‘soul’ in the university

2014-09-12 00:00

A STUDY of Durban’s local varsity by two former academics looks set to cause a stir.

The Struggle for the Soul of a South African University by Nithaya Chetty and Christopher Merrett is a history of the first five years of the merger between the former University of Natal and the University of Durban-Westville, out of which came the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

“It’s a brief history of a critical period in the life of the university,” said Chetty, deputy CEO: astronomy at the National Research Foundation and professor of Physics at the University of Pretoria. Chetty left UKZN in 2007 after disciplinary action following accusations of bringing the university into disrepute for criticising senior managers in the press. “It’s an attempt to speak on behalf of the many voiceless academics within and without the university.”

The book is a “case study in what we feel a university should be,” said Merrett, freelance writer and former Witness letters editor who resigned as director of administration of UKZN’s Pietermaritzburg campus in 2006.

Merrett said the pressures experienced at UKZN are felt on campuses around the world. “These include corporatisation, managerialism, and, in South Africa’s case, racial and social engineering.”

According to Chetty, the “book gives a context” to understanding a time that “saw a massive erosion of academic freedom.

“You can’t run a university as a corporate entity,” he said. “Broadly, it’s a community of scholars,” adding that the question the book raises is about the identity of a university — “Is it the CEO, the senior managers or the entire community with its many different voices?”

Chetty said the book is about the merger and not a personality, but that it “was difficult to ignore the role” played by UKZN vice-chancellor Malegapuru Makgoba as he was central to driving the merger.

Merrett said that although Makgoba is a “very prominent character”, the book is not about an individual, but “about a culture that was misguidedly applied to a university”.

According to Chetty, this saw a “massive exit of quality staff that left an indelible mark on the institution that will be difficult to erase.”

• The Struggle for the Soul of a South African University. The University of KwaZulu-Natal: Academic freedom, corporatisation and transformation by Nithaya Chetty and Christopher Merrett can be ordered from http://www.soul-of-ukzn.co.za

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