Professor resigns despite calls on UKZN

2008-11-27 00:00

APPEALS from international academic heavyweights to University of KwaZulu-Natal authorities were not enough to prevent the resignation yesterday of Pietermaritzburg associate Professor Nithaya Chetty, who faced what commentators have described as “unwinnable” internal disciplinary action.

Accused by UKZN management of “bringing the UKZN into disrepute”, the highly-respected 45-year-old physicist has already received job offers from a number of South African institutions and has been invited to address the Wits academic freedom committee.

In a statement released yesterday in which he announced his resignation and thanked friends and colleagues for their support, Chetty said he was “delighted” by “an excellent opportunity for a physics academic position at a top South African university”. He added that “more job opportunities were emerging” as a result of the “national and international outcry” over the matter.

Chetty confirmed yesterday that he is also in talks with a South African university about a possible executive-level position.

Chetty told The Witness that he has no regrets about the stance he took. “I genuinely believe that I have always acted ethically and in the best interests of the university and the broader public. The only regret I have is the imposition that this has on my loving wife Anashree in having us up and leave from here, but I have the rest of my life to make it up to her,” he said.

His resignation, accepted by the university with immediate effect, comes in the wake of a flurry of letters to council chairman Mac Mia from a range of international academics (see page 11) expressing concern about the disciplinary proceedings. This week, the Wits academic freedom committee also registered its concern.

Chetty’s resignation comes in the wake of Friday’s decision by his co-accused, associate professor of Mathematics John van den Berg, to sign a settlement agreement with university management, thereby putting an end to impending disciplinary action.

Freedom of Expression Institute executive director Jane Duncan yesterday said the way the disciplinary inquiry was structured and prosecuted by outside senior legal representatives was “grossly unfair” to both Chetty and Van den Berg.

“I understand why they felt it was impossible to have a winnable case, even if they had ‘right’ on their side,” she told The Witness.

In yesterday’s statement, Chetty referred to Van den Berg as “a tower of strength” for him. “I have enormous respect for John’s courage and integrity … John needs to be given the opportunity and the support to get back to his normal life in peace and quiet.”

Chetty also said he hopes the “open, dissenting space” that emerged as a result of their case will “continue to be nurtured”.

“Maybe if we all donned our academic gowns more often we will be reminded about our public obligations that come with our academic vocation, however risky that may be.”

The charges against Chetty and Van den Berg arose out of comments by the two men, published in the press and on the university’s “Change” listserv in March and April. The comments were critical of UKZN vice chancellor Malegapuru Makgoba’s alleged repeated attempts to block from the senate agenda a faculty of Science and Agriculture submission on academic freedom, which refers to a “prevailing culture of incivility and racial stereotyping that further impedes the free exchange of ideas” at the university.

Ironically, it also notes that threats of litigation against academics have caused “widespread censorship”.

Yesterday’s resignation brings to finality months of uncertainty that began when Makgoba announced in a senate meeting on August 6 that Chetty and Van den Berg would face disciplinary action. Chetty was at a conference in Brazil at the time.

The hearing was to have been chaired by advocate Dumisa Ntsebeza, SC, and prosecuted by lawyers led by advocate Omar Moosa, SC.

Staff union Ntesu (National Tertiary Education Staff Union), which has made a contribution to Chetty’s and Van den Berg’s legal fees, has embarked upon a campaign to change UKZN’s policy allowing outside lawyers to prosecute and adjudicate in internal disciplinary matters.

At UKZN, Chetty is chairman of the only computational physics programme in South Africa. He is also current president of the SA Institute of Physics and last year co-authored a publication in the prestigious journal Nature Physics.

No comment on the resignation was received from UKZN corporate relations. Messages left for council chairman Mac Mia were unanswered at the time of going to press.

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