The academic voice

2008-12-23 00:00

Over the past several months, the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) has been in the public eye garnering mostly unfavourable press coverage. The issue that has attracted international public condemnation was the charging of Associate Professor John van den Berg (mathematics) and myself for our public comments on the failed Senate discussion on academic freedom that we believe was deliberately impeded. Van den Berg has reached an agreement with the university and I have resigned. But the issues that lay below the surface remain unresolved and should be of concern to all South Africans.

The fight for an intellectually freer UKZN

There are, in my view, fundamental problems within UKZN that undermine academic freedom. These include the routine use of racial stereotyping and incivility practised at the highest level to suppress dissenting voices; the unreasonable and irrational use of the disciplinary process to bring academics into line or to drive them out of the university; new rules and practices of governance that centralise power and decision making, that disempower academics and virtually make the vice chancellor untouchable; a Council and management that appear to disregard the importance of academic freedom and the fragility of academic life and who, in my view, regard academic staff as mere workers rather than independent intellectuals; and a severely compromised Senate, loaded with managers and regulated in an undemocratic way.

Discussions on academic freedom are quickly counterposed with discussions on transformation, in an ever-widening chasm that divides the institution. This is enormously damaging to any efforts to build a community of scholars engaged in critical, public intellectual endeavours.

Monopoly of transformation

Part of the problem lies in the fact that the management seems to want to monopolise the discussions on transformation. I believe that we can only get meaningful and long-lasting change if there is open and transparent discourse, which will ensure that transformation is owned by the entire institution. This calls for more visionary and compassionate leadership rather than the highly autocratic system of governance that UKZN currently has.

I think that it is vital that these problems be addressed comprehensively and expeditiously. For the past several years, academics in the mainstream have found it impossible to discuss seriously issues that affect their lives as academics working at UKZN. Information within the university is highly managed, for example, with the overzealous use of confidentiality clauses to prevent debate and discussion. Even when staff members attempt to raise matters in and through formal university structures, measures are put in place to frustrate or block debate as evidenced by recent events.

Litigious environment

All of this occurs within a highly litigious environment, so whenever a staff member is deemed to have stepped out of line, there is a danger that he or she will be subjected to punitive disciplinary action. If recent cases are anything to go by, the university seeks to use these actions to dismiss staff members who have been targeted.

The approach of those in power is to use legalistic measures, not collegial academic means, for resolving conflicts and disagreements, and freely invokes the charge of bringing the university into disrepute. This is a rather nebulous charge, I believe, and recent history appears to show that this is often invoked to deal with “problematic” individuals.

UKZN is a substantial resource on the South African higher education scene, and an implosion here will have negative effects on the higher education system in the country, and, more broadly, within South African society.

What should be done?

There needs to be a continued spotlight on the state of academic freedom at UKZN. There must be a continuation of the external attention and pressure on UKZN through multiple levels, especially involving government, civil society and the international community. Academics simply cannot let up.

The university prides itself on a high research production, but this is often presented to the outside as sufficient evidence of success of the harsh managerial policies. It needs to be pointed out that it is essential that academics must work in an intellectually free environment, which in the long run is crucially important for society. Arguments around this point, in my view, are critical. “What makes a university?” is very central to this discourse.

The UKZN Council has now embarked on a process to investigate the state of academic freedom at the institution. This needs to be an open, transparent and fully consultative process, and must involve credible outside academics, for a tightly managed process will only serve the interests of the management. The Kampala Agreement and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) declaration on academic rights must be essential points of departure.

I believe that the vice chancellor must take responsibility for the problems at the institution because of his very direct involvement in many of these matters and because, as the chief executive officer of the institution, he must be answerable. The preliminary Institutional Audit report referred to a climate of hostility at UKZN and a looming budget deficit.

Academic voice

The goal is to return to a more collegial, democratic setting, where Senate commands the academic voice and where the principles of academic freedom are respected. The academic community needs to work itself more conscientiously toward reclaiming academic rule at UKZN. Ironically, it might well be only through union action — which takes one even further away from a properly founded, academically free institution — that the academic body could stand the chance of reclaiming some of the basic tenets of academic freedom, but there are no guarantees.

The reality that we must accept is that in this industrial university setting, the rise of managerialism has given rise to increasing union activism, and with this the voice of the independent academic has become even more squeezed. We now have the essentials of the blue-collar university.

• Nithaya Chetty recently resigned as associate professor of physics, UKZN.

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