Tyranny at UKZN

2009-12-18 00:00

JUST a year ago, the Freedom of Expression Institute described a war between management and staff at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN). An eminent international group of academics, including Jean and John Comaroff of the University of Chicago, publicly expressed deep concern that events at UKZN did not match global standards regarding the right of staff to speak freely. It was enough to give a university vice chancellor sleepless nights — but probably didn’t.

For their determination to raise concerns about chronically poor governance at UKZN, and express them in public, two highly­respected academics, John van den Berg and Nithaya Chetty, were subjected to a battery of trumped-up charges for vague offences that had no basis in fact (Senate confidentiality being one such issue). Internal conciliation brokered by three senior academics was thrown into the bin. Instead, three heavyweight advocates were engaged at enormous cost to oversee proceedings driven by the vice chancellor that would have amounted to the equivalent of a defamation case. The accused were treated like coup plotters in a shockingly punitive­ process that was not only unjust, but unheard of in a real university.

The UKZN authorities knew they could get away with dismissing the two academics: while the latter had an excellent chance of justice in the labour courts, they would have been bankrupted and exhausted even by eventual success. Legalism was used by the powerful as a blunt instrument with which to silence the dissident. There’s a simple word for this — tyranny. Van den Berg chose a self-censorship agreement. Chetty resigned, is thriving at the University of Pretoria and delivered this year’s T. B. Davie Academic Freedom Lecture at the University of Cape Town.

A subsequent Council investigation identified serious deficiencies of academic freedom at UKZN. But it predictably failed to tackle the root cause: executive authoritarianism and hierarchical power-broking totally at odds with free intellectual inquiry. This centralism has also led to a scorched earth policy in which systems and structures have been swept away at the expense of efficiency and common sense. Local autonomy has been undercut by centralised inertia at Westville: the Pietermaritzburg campus was for months without CCTV camera coverage because a purchase order was obstructed.

Universities do not require high-profile leaders: leadership derives from creative minds operating within the international conventions of academic work and its collegial nature. Administrators like vice chancellors should provide the context for this to blossom. UKZN could not be more different. Its top appointees worry about photo opportunities and see themselves as business executives. Opposed by a very different tradition, they have resorted to coercive incivility. Responding to the news that last year 30 senior academics had left the institution through resignation or retirement, the vice chancellor reportedly responded that they were no loss. Thus were long, worthy careers dismissively flushed away.

Tyrants need a regular rotation of enforcers, so there has just been another clearing out of the Executive in case the underlying atmosphere of discipline is waning. Another senior Pietermaritzburg member of staff is currently being forced out under the threat of contrived disciplinary action. Many diligent and admirable people soldier on maintaining the basic existence of a university — teaching, learning and research. But the local campus has lost its soul among a depressed and fearful, if still committed, staff; together, of course, with some who couldn’t care less.

Where is the contribution to public debate that was once a hallmark of the Pietermaritzburg campus? The scientists keep up an honourable tradition, but apart from the Alan Paton Lecture and a few conferences, there is little else. Formerly a jewel in the city’s crown and part of national intellectual life, the local campus once had a stream of eminent speakers — Donald Woods, Desmond Tutu, Helen Suzman and Sheena Duncan were some of them. Today it has a tired and pedestrian air. That it does not look shabbier is testimony to staff who have for years battled with inadequate budgets imposed from other sprendthrift campuses.

The fact that the city’s campus is increasingly a sad outpost of Durban is one concern and part of the capital’s deplorable general decline. Another, perhaps more important, concern is the suppression of healthy dissent, the discouragement of initiative and the imposition of social engineering. Official statistics and public relations statements purport to show a picture of a healthy institution, but as always the truth can be found in grass-roots evidence around us.

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