Academic freedom investigated

2009-05-21 00:00

LAST year vice-chancellor Malegapuru Makgoba of the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) and his executive scored a spectacular own goal. They succeeded in bringing their institution into such disrepute by heavy-handed action against two dissident professors that eminent academics from around the world signed a protest letter. On the day one of the victims, Nithaya Chetty, had his farewell function (off campus — it was banned on university premises) the council of the university announced that it was setting up a governance and academic freedom committee (GAFC). The executive summary of its report was issued this week.

The root of UKZN’s problems is threefold. First, the Higher Education Act of 1997 granted university councils unprecedented managerial power that seriously challenges governance in an institution dedicated to intellectual endeavour. Second, the merger that created UKZN took place at a time when what Xolela Mangcu terms racial nativism, the mirror image of apartheid, was at its most potent. Third, UKZN fell into the hands of right-wing ideologues who thought it could, and should, be run like a business corporation.

By and large they triumphed, but every now and again a dissident or three asked awkward questions. Little attempt was made to engage with them because those used to the exercise of crude power as a management tool rarely bother with the niceties of debate. Instead, they resorted to the easy option of sloganeering and name calling — colonial dinosaurs, misfits and so on.

Matters came to a head when Chetty and John van den Berg tackled the vice-chancellor over his attitude towards Senate, the most important body in a true university. When he showed no sign of changing his practice of riding roughshod over Senate, his critics went to the press. They were entitled to do so for two sound reasons: academic freedom also includes rights to a say in the way a university is governed; and universities are public institutions, primarily funded by taxpayers and parents. Then the persecution began and to add to the crisis, meetings called by two of the largest faculties in the university were banned.

When GAFC says there is no threat to the right to teach, learn and research at UKZN it is, broadly speaking, correct. But it also notes a fear that voicing opinions beyond those traditional limits will result in disciplinary action. This is exactly why so few submissions (103) were made to the committee: the punitive action taken against dissenters last year has left its mark and there is an air of fear abroad in the university.

The report also finds that dispute resolution mechanisms require reform. If this prevents bruised executive egos from turning at the first opportunity to intimidation and the use of extremely expensive lawyers, it will be welcomed. Then the UKZN’s finances can be used for proper educational purposes. The GAFC also noted communication from on high that is less than civil: one of the submissions to it was entitled “Incivility in governance” and ran to 66 pages.

In its recommendations, the GAFC calls for the right of freedom of expression to be affirmed, presents the idea of geographical devolution and supports the long-overdue appointment of an ombudsman. Significantly, it requires a better relationship with the media, a wake-up call for a vice-chancellor who refuses to communicate with this newspaper.

So far, so good. But there’s a hidden agenda in this report. The old red herring of racism is waved around to distract attention from the committee’s original brief. This provides a let out for the executive: it can bang the tired drum of racism (covert, of course, in case some troublemaker demands evidence) and the need for transformation. The report speaks of the need for a deliberate agenda. It has clearly missed out on five years of history, but it’s the diversion the executive’s apologists will welcome. Senate will consider the full report on May 27. In an understated way it presents clear support for the view that the UKZN has been misgoverned. Heads should roll; but they won’t. Senate should take the opportunity to begin the process of liberating the university from authoritarianism. But don’t bet on it.

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