Pall over UKZN

2008-11-11 00:00

The Freedom of Expression Institute (FXI) is distressed by the University of Kwa-Zulu-Natal’s (UKZN) decision to institute disciplinary proceedings against two of its professors — Nithaya Chetty and John van den Berg. Chetty is a professor of physics and Van den Berg is a professor of mathematics.

The disciplinary proceedings relate to statements in the media and an e-mail list that were highly critical of the conduct of vice-chancellor Professor Malegapuru Makgoba, in his handling of a university senate debate on academic freedom. Chetty and Van den Berg were interviewed by several newspapers, including the Mail & Guardian, earlier this year about their unhappiness with the way in which Makgoba allegedly blocked the senate’s consideration of a Faculty of Science and Agriculture document on the state of academic freedom in the university. This has now led to charges that the two professors have failed to exercise due care in communicating with the media and have released confidential senate information, as well as dishonesty and/or gross negligence.

While the FXI respects the right of the university to institute disciplinary proceedings against its staff, such proceedings should be instituted with due regard to their basic human rights, including their right to freedom of expression. Also, if the university felt that their criticisms were unfair there are remedies that the university could have taken short of disciplinary action in relation to the professors’ media statements, such as ap-proaching the press ombudsman.

The disciplinaries fly in the face of the recommendations of a recently released report on institutional autonomy and academic freedom in South Africa, written by a task team established by the Council on Higher Education (CHE). The authors of the report argue that if academic freedom is to be realised, higher education institutions must “protect the freedom of expression of academics … from undue sanction by their own institution”. This means affording academics the space to espouse unpopular views on general matters or even in relation to the university administration, without threats of disciplinary action. The report also notes that “senates, as institutional bodies, are bound to uphold the rights of individual academics to freedom of expression and freedom of scientific research”.

These actions cast an even deeper pall over the university’s commitment to academic freedom, which has been in question for some time now. Incident after incident has taken place where individuals or entities critical of powerful individuals within and outside the university have been targeted: these incidents include the controversial exclusion of sociologist

Ashwin Desai from the university, the disciplinary cases against sociologist Fazel Khan and sociology Professor Evan Mantzaris, the disastrous attempt (reportedly funded by the university) by the then Executive Director: Public Affairs & Corporate Communications, Professor Dasarath Chetty, to sue Rhodes University sociology Professor Jimi Adesina for defamation and the more recent controversies around the threatened closure of the Centre for Civil Society. When taken together, these incidents paint a picture of a university management that is at war with its critics, and that demands deference to authority, whether located inside or outside the university.

Academics should be encouraged to play a public intellectual role, not be punished for it. It should be a condition of service, especially at UKZN, as the university has committed itself to being “critically engaged with society”. It is difficult not to read the charge that they failed to exercise “due care” in communicating with the media as code for failing to practise self-censorship in their criticisms of Makgoba.

In any event, the Constitutional Court has recognised the right of employees to criticise their employers in one of the most controlled work environments imaginable, namely the SA National Defence Force (SANDF). Arguably, freedom of expression is incidental to activities undertaken in the SANDF. For the professoriate in universities, freedom of expression is a precondition for their activities, as the right to receive and impart information is their bread and butter. That professors — who are generally considered to be at the apex of knowledge production — cannot enjoy freedom of expression, should be of concern to everyone, not just academics.

According to the FXI, the senate is an organ of state, and is therefore bound by the constitutional requirements of openness and transparency. So the default position cannot be that the senate proceedings are confidential; rather, confidentiality should apply only in compelling situations. Also, the special nature of the senate should also be taken into account. Senate is meant to be the academic voice of a university; as the highest authority on academic issues, it acts as a sort of mini-Parliament where mandated representatives of different academic stakeholders can air their concerns.

In order to perform this role, senators must be able to communicate senate-related issues freely, and to speak robustly without fear of sanction. They must report back to their constituencies, which makes confidentiality on all matters impractical. If free speech becomes impossible within the senate, it becomes impossible with-in the university as a whole, and academics will be reduced to the level of scribblers or hacks.

The FXI is also concerned about the implications of these disciplinaries for media freedom. They are the latest in a long line of disciplinary cases where employees have been punished for speaking to the media about matters related to their employment situation, or broader public interest matters. The cumulative effect of these disciplinaries may be that employees stop speaking to the media, sources will dry up and the media’s ability to report on pressing issues of public concern will be frustrated.

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