World-class institution

2008-12-02 00:00

AFTER just five years the University of KwaZulu-Natal has consolidated its position as one of South Africa’s leading research institutions.

UKZN’s vision to be the premier university of African scholarship has acted as a guiding framework within which to generate high-level knowledge at the local level and thus enter the global knowledge production system on the basis of this local legitimacy. New approaches to developing strategic partnerships have emerged, substantial resources for the performance of quality research have come into the university through grants and contracts, and a set of appropriate research thrusts has been identified that act as the interface between the activities of the university and the challenges of development facing KwaZulu-Natal and South Africa.

To this end, the work done on HIV/Aids, economic development, water and waste management, sustainable rural livelihoods and food security, in line with the developmental agenda of the South African state, has all contributed to making UKZN one of the top two academic research producers in the country (as measured by South African Post-secondary Education outputs), reflecting a phenomenal increase in research productivity since the 2004 merger.

When a whole range of indices were taken into account in the recent Beijing world ranking of universities, UKZN, together with only two other South African universities, was placed in the world’s top 500 and in the top three in Africa. Coupled with our 30 awards for communication and marking excellence and innumerable awards to academic staff and students since 2004, one may be reasonably led to conclude that the university is in excellent shape.

Such achievement is only part of the reason why the independent Higher Education Merger Study Group, chaired by Professor S. J. Saunders, the former vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town, which was established by the minister of Education to review the structure of higher education in South Africa, declared in April that the UKZN merger is a success.

Saunders and his team of higher education experts concluded after a five-year study that UKZN has a strong new identity, that the wasteful duplication of faculties, schools and disciplines has now been overcome, an innovative new structure based on colleges has been implemented, student governance has been merged and new funds have allowed for campus upgrades and new buildings, that there have been no significant disruptions, and that because of the vice-chancellor’s insistence that UKZN be researched-based, there has been an increase in research output.

In the light of Saunders’ objective indicators of UKZN’s progress over a five-year period it was surprising to see a call in the press by Professor Richard W. Johnson for a commission of inquiry into UKZN. Johnson questions the university’s commitment to academic freedom. He notes that “the university’s traditional clientele has deserted it and a complete destruction of the university is in sight”, and that the gains of the past “are being actively dismantled and at great speed”.

The past that Johnson harks back to is the one of Ernest S. Malherbe, Jan Smuts and the mayor of Durban walking in full academic dress through the streets of Durban to the city hall. These were men of their times but, in reality, whose leaders were they? And what were those times? They were times of humiliation and oppression for disenfranchised South Africans. They were times when my grandfather could never ponder going to university. And for Johnson to state that Malherbe “successfully fought the Nationalist government to keep the university multiracial” is a reflection of an ideological position. Progressives have never fought for multiracialism but for non-racism — non-racism and anti-racism have become core values of UKZN.

The process of deracialisation begun by the merger is frightening to conservatives and the change process has inevitably resulted in the loss of power and privilege, often ill-gotten, of the traditional elites. This is the “traditional clientele” that has deserted UKZN’s bold foray into building an institution that is in line with South Africa’s democratic ethos.

Committed intellectuals, academics, administrators and students of all hues have thrown their full weight behind comprehensive initiatives aimed at building a truly world-class African university.

Good governance, through the implementation of university disciplinary procedures, is described by Johnson as “threatening”, “intimidating” and a “waste of money”. But it is through these procedures that fraud, misrepresentation, leaking of confidential information to the media and other forms of academic impropriety are dealt with. In this regard we would do well to heed the statement from the American Federation of Teachers that: “An academic, as a citizen, has the right to speak or write free from institutional censorship or discipline, although attention is called to the professor’s special obligation to be accurate, to exercise appropriate restraint, to show respect for the opinion of others and to make every effort to indicate that he is not an institutional spokesman.”

Academic freedom is not under threat at UKZN, but the freedom to practise racism, falsify history, lie, defame and malign, or just loaf, is.

• Professor Dasarath Chetty is the pro-vice-chancellor, corporate relations, at UKZN.

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