Before it is too late

2008-11-26 00:00

As an emeritus professor of the institution and as a citizen, I am disturbed about what appears to be going on at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. So are many others.

The administration of the university has asked people not to discuss the disciplinary procedure that has been directed against two distinguished scientists, Professor John van den Berg, a mathematician, and Professor Nithaya Chetty, a physicist, on the grounds that the matter is sub judice. But it is extremely important that the whole issue be aired before it is too late, as there is a real danger that irreparable harm may be done to the university.

The charge is or was apparently that the two scientists, who wanted to have the crucial question of academic freedom discussed by a full meeting of the university senate and were frustrated when informed that the matter had to go instead to a senate committee, expressed their irritation to the press. Thus — so the charge goes — they broke the confidentiality of the senate and, by publicly criticising the university authorities, brought the institution into disrepute.

It is by now well known that academic freedom is under some threat at the university. Academics are not able to play a significant role, as they should, in important policy decisions. This is why Chetty and Van den Berg wanted a proper discussion of the matter in senate, a body which brings together senior academics. Freedom of thought, freedom of expression and the ability to discuss matters fully with one’s peers are the very lifeblood of a proper university. Chetty and Van den Berg were clearly right in wanting to get the matter on to the senate agenda. The fact that they might perhaps have gone against protocol in the way they proceeded is trivial. (I have no idea what actually happened.)

Senate confidentiality, even if they did break it, is not a matter of deep significance; in my days at the university it was breached quite often, without any noticeable ill effects. As for bringing the university into disrepute, alas: it is not Van den Berg and Chetty who have been in danger of doing this but the university authorities. This dispute is known about throughout South Africa and in many parts of the wider academic world, and my strong impression is that the universal response is: “Have the university authorities gone crazy?”

I feel some sympathy for them. They seem to me to be victims of the illusion, an illusion that has emerged to some degree in many parts of the world, that a university is like a commercial company, where the CEO is the boss and, in a top-down chain of command, everyone within the organisation has to toe the line. Confidentiality is important because one must not let one’s competitors know vital commercial secrets. Everyone must subscribe to the organisation’s simple aim: to produce and sell its product.

A university is a totally different kind of organisation. First, the vice-chancellor is not the boss in the way that a CEO is. He is the head of the administration, an important enough task, but the real work of the university is done in the faculties, schools and departments. A university is diverse, multi-pronged and complex in a way that no commercial corporation could ever be. Its academics are first and foremost intellectual workers — researchers and teachers — within their own fields; their essential discipline is an open-minded and honest allegiance to their “discipline”. But working and discussing matters freely with their colleagues in the faculty and in other faculties is important too: they want the university as a whole to be vibrant and flexible, and to be alive to the issues and problems of society, and all this requires situations where matters can be discussed freely and openly, and decisions taken in an informed and democratic way. Students at the university need to be nurtured in an atmosphere of free and fearless discussion. This is what is meant by academic freedom.

In this context it is fairly clear that bureaucratic matters of protocol, of senate confidentiality, are, although not negligible, fairly trivial, as I have said.

The disciplinary hearing is to be held soon. The latest news is that Van den Berg has signed some document but that at the moment Chetty feels unable to. The university will be embarrassed if it fails to secure its case against Chetty. But if it does so it will bring about a disaster for the whole institution. If Chetty is dismissed, or punished and leaves in disgust (he would be snapped up by a number of other universities), the university’s reputation as a serious academic institution will have been grievously damaged.

It is not sufficient for the university to persuade academics to sign forms in order to avoid prosecution. It must admit, and admit publicly, that the issue of academic freedom is crucial to the life of the university. A failure to do this will be ominous indeed. And any institution which forces out one of its outstanding members of staff is in the process of destroying itself.

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