‘UKZN had no right to revoke PhD’

2016-02-02 10:49

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Pietermaritzburg - Three high court judges in Pietermaritzburg have ruled in favour of a senior lecturer who was controversially stripped of her PhD degree in November 2011.

Judge Thoba Poyo-Dlwati, Judge Anton van Zyl and Judge Themba Sishi handed down a reserved judgment on Monday's dismissing an appeal by the University of KZN against a finding by then Acting Judge Mahendra Chetty that the Senate did not have legal authority to revoke the PhD degree conferred on Dr Nobubele Potwana, or to have appointed a “fourth examiner” to review her thesis on which she obtained the degree.

Potwana has retired since the controversy over her PhD first erupted.

The degree was controversially revoked by the university in November 2011 in the wake of criminal charges that were brought against Potwana and her former supervisor at UKZN, Professor Pumela Msweli-Mbanga, Dean of the Faculty of Management Studies.

Despite both being acquitted of fraud charges relating to the issue of the degree in 2009, the university decided to revoke Potwana’s PhD two years later after “further investigations” were undertaken.

In Monday's reserved judgment Poyo-Dlwati (with the other judges concurring) found that Potwana was never given a fair hearing before the decision to revoke her degree was taken. 

The decision by UKZN was “not in accordance with rules of natural justice”, lacked procedural fairness and on that ground the university’s appeal had to fail, said Judge Poyo-Dlwati. 

The full bench also found that there had been an unreasonable delay before UKZN decided to revoke the degree — six years after Potwana graduated in April 2005, and two years after her acquittal on criminal charges.

The judges said the university did not give an acceptable and adequate explanation for the delay “save to say that the university had to wait for the outcome of the criminal trial before it proceeded with further steps”.

The judges said for what purpose this had to be so, had not been explained.

“If one tries to put the pieces together there is no explanation furnished for the delay. In the absence of such explanation the decision to revoke the degree remains invalid,” said Poyo-Dlwati.

One of the grounds for the initial investigation into the awarding of the PhD to Potwana was several accusations of misconduct laid against her supervisor, Professor Msweli-Mbanga.

In 2006, Msweli-Mbanga was found to have been involved in an “intimate relationship” with one of her students, Kanthan Pillay, who apparently paid her R80 000 during the time she was his supervisor.

The university believed the payment corrupted their relationship as student/supervisor, and resulted in a full investigation of any payments by other students to the professor. 

The inquiry was also fuelled by an allegation by Msweli-Mbanga’s estranged husband that his wife had “sold degrees” and had written the thesis for Potwana for which she was paid.

While confirming that she had paid Msweli-Mbanga R16 150, Potwana explained the payment was for assistance with capturing statistical data for her thesis by the professor’s consultancy practice, and not for the professor to write her thesis. 

The university found the payment was irregular, but the high court rejected this in on Modnday’s judgment and found that the alleged irregularities cited did not hold water. 

“There was no evidence that the supervisor had done the work for the student and one would assume that this was the reason why the respondent [Potwana] and Msweli-Mbanga were acquitted on the fraud and corruption charges levelled against them by the applicant [UKZN],” said Poyo-Dlwati. 

She said there was therefore no just or good cause shown by the university to revoke Potwana’s degree in the absence of evidence to the contrary. No hearing was held before the degree was revoked and she was “not even asked to show cause why her degree should not be revoked”. 

Read more on:    pietermaritzburg  |  ukzn

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