UKZN academics under fire

2008-08-07 00:00

THE futures of two highly-respected Pietermaritzburg academics hang in the balance following an announcement on Wednesday that they face internal disciplinary procedures.

University of KZN vice chancellor Malegapuru Makgoba reportedly announced at Wednesday’s senate meeting that after seeking the advice of senior counsel, disciplinary action would be instituted against head of mathematics on the local campus Professor John van den Berg and Professor Nithaya Chetty, current president of the South African Institute of Physics.

Makgoba apparently did not elaborate on the nature of the charges.

Both academics have spoken publicly about their concerns for the future of academic freedom at UKZN. Chetty resigned from senate and council earlier this year.

Van den Berg and Makgoba clashed recently over the vice chancellor’s alleged attempts to block from the senate agenda a submission on academic freedom authored by Science and Agriculture faculty members. The submission makes critical observations about the university’s management culture and notes that threats of litigation against academics have caused “widespread censorship” and a “Soviet gulag mentality”.

The furore around the submission received coverage in the local and national press. Van den Berg aired the debate on the university’s online discussion forum in February and noted that Makgoba had threatened to take disciplinary action against him for defamation.

At a senate meeting in February, Makgoba allegedly accused Van den Berg of “racism, cowardice, insubordination and lack of academic productivity”.

The dispute over the sequence of events relating to the submission was the subject of a report commissioned by former Education minister Sibusiso Bengu, then the university’s council representative to senate. Wednesday’s senate meeting apparently chose not to endorse those recommendations of the Bengu report that related to possible punitive action against Van den Berg.

The group of academics calling themselves the Black Academic African Forum (BAAF) reacted negatively to a statement issued ahead of Wednesday’s meeting by staff union Ntesu (National Tertiary Education Staff Union) raising concerns about factual inaccuracies in the Bengu report, particularly as they relate to Van den Berg’s conduct, and defended the right of academics to criticise management in the press.

In the first of two similar statements released by BAAF, the forum accused Ntesu of “promoting rudeness and racist behaviour of a member of senate, under the disguise of academic freedom”.

The Ntesu statement said: “We decry the continuing selective abuse by management of UKZN, and their representatives, of confidentiality clauses in order to level the accusation of bringing the university into disrepute against staff”.

Makgoba has contended that all senate matters are confidential.

In a written response, advocate Pushpa Naidu of the university’s labour relations department said answering questions put by The Witness would be a breach of the “code of good practice” as stipulated in the Labour Relations Act.

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