Let the facts speaks for themselves

2008-12-12 00:00

Numerous comments have recently been flying around in the media about the alleged curtailment of academic freedom at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. Some of the comments, however, have only served to expose the disingenuity and mischief on the part of the commentators. Indeed some of the allegations and falsehoods levelled against the university have not only been ridiculous but also spurious, unfair, misinformed and unfounded.

Take Imraan Valodia’s “As a matter of fact” (The Witness, December 5) for example. Although he correctly makes the point that the university is in good health if one goes by its research output in recent years and that research output at the university has been on an upward trajectory since the merger in 2004, he speculates, however, that a possible reason for this increase in productivity may be that “the university’s academics, increasingly frustrated with the state of the university, may be withdrawing from general university life and concentrating only on their research publications”. This rather bizarre speculation flies in the face of documented re-search which indicates that individuals working in an unhealthy work space suffer a loss of productivity, rather than a gain.

Valodia also asserts that the “gestation period” of research can be several years. Unlike the birth of a person or an animal, however, there is no way of determining what this gestation period may be. Some academics may, and do, publish their research findings within a much shorter period. To claim, as Valodia does, that the excellent publishing record of UKZN’s academics is the fruit of research conducted five years and more ago before the merger is mischievous and unscientific.

Another possibility that Valodia raises is that academics are publishing to earn financial rewards. UKZN does reward productivity. To suggest, however, that academics are doing research and contributing to knowledge production purely for financial gain is, to put it simply, an insult to academics’ integrity.

Valodia’s article suggests an unspecified relationship be-tween research output and academic freedom. Academic freedom is an issue that should be debated and engaged with and in recent months UKZN has been the focus of issues related to academic freedom which have ignited a national and international debate on the issue.

In this debate, we would all do well to remember the words of a celebrated United States case on academic freedom in which the judge made the following statement: “Academic freedom is not a licence for activity at variance with job-related procedures and requirements, nor does it encompass activities which are internally destructive to the proper function of the university or disruptive to the education process.” (Stastny vs Central Washington University, 647 P.2d 496, 504 (Wash.Ct.App. 1982).

Be that as it may, UKZN management believes that a university, as Valodia points out, should be an “institution where debate, dissent, disagreement and robust critique are encouraged”. In fact, respect for academic freedom is enshrined in UKZN’s council-approved strategic plan whose values include a pledge to “…actively encourage and respect the right of all scholars, staff and students to engage in critical inquiry, independent research, intellectual discourse and public debate in a spirit of responsibility and accountability, in accordance with the principles of academic freedom and institutional autonomy”.

We also believe that issues raised in the two reports of the Council on Higher Education, namely, “Academic Freedom, Institutional Autonomy and

Public Accountability in Higher Education” and “Academic Freedom, Institutional Auto-nomy and the Corporatised University in Contemporary South Africa”, should form the basis for taking the debate forward in a way that respects all involved.

Besides the level of research and the quality of academic programmes, the health of the university should be assessed through, among other things, benchmarks such as the internationally recognised Shanghai University Rankings which place UKZN among only three African universities in the top 500 higher education institutions in the world. I should hasten to add that the Shanghai University rankings are not only based on research but take into account other criteria such as quality of education, quality of staff and size of the institution. Certainly the health of the university should not be assessed through reckless speculation and falsified conjecture.

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