Discipline hearing against two UKZN professors

2008-09-26 00:00

THE University of KwaZulu-Natal’s labour relations office confirmed this week that disciplinary action is under way against two senior Pietermaritzburg academics, and that their hearing is to be chaired by a senior member of the Cape Town bar.

Confirmation that charges have been served on John van den Berg, head of mathematics on the local campus, and Nithaya Chetty, current president of the SA Institute of Physics, ends weeks of speculation and follows Vice-Chancellor Malegapuru Makgoba’s surprise announcement on August 6 that the two professors will face disciplinary action.

Litigation consultant for labour relations at UKZN Pushpa Naidu declined to reveal the content of the charges, saying this is “private and confidential”.

The academics have spoken publicly about their concerns about academic freedom at UKZN.

It is believed the charges relate to their communications with the media and their alleged breaching of the confidentiality of discussions at senate meetings. Chetty resigned from senate and council earlier this year.

The confidentiality of senate — the university’s highest academic governing body — is contested terrain. Senate minutes are routinely posted on the university’s internal website.

Makgoba, who is chair of senate, has contended that senate discussions are confidential.

Van den Berg and Makgoba clashed publicly this year over the vice-chancellor’s alleged repeated attempts to block from the senate agenda a submission on academic freedom co-authored by four members of the Faculty of Science and Agriculture, including Van den Berg and Chetty, and endorsed by the faculty and the relevant academic affairs board.

The faculty submission is critical of aspects of the university’s management culture and notes that threats of litigation against academics have caused “widespread censorship”.

The document also makes reference to a “prevailing culture of incivility and racial stereotyping” and notes a need to “carefully review the status of confidentiality at UKZN”.

Neither Chetty nor Van den Berg has been suspended, although it is understood that the outcome of the inquiry could lead to sacking.

Executive director of the Freedom of Expression Institute, Jane Duncan, said that presuming the disciplinary action relates to statements in the media that were critical of the conduct of the vice-chancellor in his handling of a senate debate on academic freedom, the proceedings are likely to cast “an even deeper pall over the university’s commitment to academic freedom”.

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