UCT invites Chetty to give freedom lecture

2008-10-16 00:00

IN what is being viewed by many academics as a supreme irony, Pietermaritzburg academic Nithaya Chetty — facing internal disciplinary action at the University of KwaZulu-Natal for his outspoken views — has been invited to present next year’s prestigious TB Davie Academic Freedom Lecture at the University of Cape Town.

Past speakers have included ZK Matthews, Edward Said, Walter Sisulu, Noam Chomsky, Wole Soyinka, Kader Asmal and Jonathan Jansen.

In a letter to Chetty, current chairman of the University of Cape Town’s Academic Freedom Committee Andrew Nash said Chetty was chosen because his contributions to debates on academic freedom were “original and distinctive, consistently thoughtful and reasoned, and above all, topical”.

“We believe they are valuable partly because you address these issues not as a specialist in higher education studies, but from the point of view of a committed and concerned member of the academic community, who shares the risks of the academic vocation,” said Nash.

Congratulations to Chetty and messages of support from several UKZN staff members filtered onto UKZN’s online discussion forum last week.

The 45-year-old associate professor is currently president of the South African Institute of Physics and was a recipient of the National Research Foundation’s President’s Award from 1997 to 2001. At UKZN, he is chair of the only computational physics programme in South Africa. Last year, Chetty was an invited participant at a workshop organised by a Council on Higher Education task team on the subject: “Higher Education, Institutional Autonomy and Academic Freedom”.

Along with mathematics professor John van den Berg, Chetty is due to go before a disciplinary tribunal headed by Cape-based advocate Dumisa Ntsebeza in December. The disciplinary action, which could result in the two academics losing their jobs, is believed to be related in part to the two men’s publicly expressed concerns around academic freedom at UKZN.

The TB Davie Memorial Lecture was established in 1959 to commemorate the work of Thomas Benjamin Davie, vice chancellor of UCT from 1948 to his death in 1955.

A defender of the principles of academic freedom, Davie led UCT through successive government attempts to entrench legally racial segregation at South African universities.

While initially focused on freedoms removed by the government, Nash said that the focus of the lecture series since 1994 has broadened as new issues related to academic freedom have come to the fore.

Commenting on the invitation, Chetty said: “As a physicist, I am deeply honoured to be recognised in this way. Academic freedom is important for all academics … And above all, academic freedom is important for society. Without an independent and critical academy, the democratic underpinnings of society are under threat.”

An invitation to respond was given to UKZN authorities last week but no response has been received.

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