Is Makgoba lying

2012-06-11 00:00

THERE have been recent allegations that UKZN vice chancellor William Makgoba lied under oath during court proceedings in Durban in 2009 about his record of doctoral supervision. A criminal case has been opened against the vice chancellor, and the UKZN council chairperson has stated that the council is investigating this matter.

Looking through the record of the court proceedings, it is clear that the subject of doctoral student supervision was very central to the case. Makgoba was asked by the defence attorney about his experience in the area of doctoral student supervision to test Makgoba’s ability to express opinions on matters related to this area. Makgoba appears to go out of his way to establish his credentials here.

The crux of the matter is that Makgoba claimed that he supervised Professor P.S. Pillay (who Professor Tahir Pillay claims is a reference to himself). When pressed a little further, Makgoba states that this was co-supervision rather than supervision.

Pillay’s supervisor in Cambridge has stated in a written letter that he was Pillay’s only supervisor. Pillay’s thesis does not acknowledge Makgoba in any way. Pillay has also raised doubts that Makgoba supervised another individual whom Makgoba mentioned in the court transcripts as a student whom he supervised or co-supervised. It should be a very simple matter to ascertain whether Makgoba did or did not supervise or co-supervise the three students whom he claims to have supervised in the court proceedings.

Universities have very clear processes regarding the supervision of higher degrees. Of central importance is the formal appointment of a supervisor for doctoral student supervision. This is never a trivial matter. In some disciplines, such as in the social sciences, students develop their own research topic of investigation and they then subsequently seek a supervisor who is willing and able to supervise their thesis. In other cases, especially in the natural sciences, the student usually tries to secure a place in the professor’s research group, and the general thrust of the student’s research topic of investigation is then set by the research expertise and interests of the professor.

In some instances, students will have a co-supervisor. But even here, the role of the co-supervisor is a formal role, and a binding legal contract.

In addition, and in many cases, students will have collaborators and mentors, and a range of other people who they might credit for assistance and support, including departmental secretaries (how very important these are!), computer technicians, laboratory technicians, friends, family members, and so on. Collaborators are usually acknowledged by way of co-authorship of research papers published by the student with the collaborator, or if the contribution by the collaborator or mentor is not sufficiently substantial, one then only acknowledges the collaborator in the special acknowledgement section, usually at the end of the research publication or thesis.

There usually is very little contention around these matters. Academics, by and large, conduct themselves ethically — at least good academics do — when it comes to the processes around student supervision and publishing. Academics will not usually push for greater recognition than what they have contributed.

There is little difficulty in understanding the distinction between a supervisor or co-supervisor on the one hand, and a collaborator, mentor, assistant or supporter on the other. The term “supervisor” is not used lightly or nonchalantly in an academic setting and has a very well-defined meaning, with a distinct set of roles and responsibilities.

It should be noted, however, that there are enormous pressures on academics to take on the supervision of doctoral students. Doctoral students help academics with their own research and with joint publications, which increase the prospects for academic prestige and, ultimately, even for promotion. For instance, it is not possible at most good universities to be promoted to the rank of professor if you have not supervised a doctoral thesis. To be promoted to full professor of the highest rank, and to be considered for top executive management positions, it would be understood that you have supervised several doctoral theses. It does help for your former doctoral students to have gone on to do excellent things in their careers, because this, too, adds to your academic status.

Unfortunately, if truth be told, it is awfully difficult to be a good doctoral student supervisor. Students quickly vote with their feet if they sense inexperience and ineptitude. Experienced supervisors get better with age, while younger academics often struggle to gain experience and a good record in doctoral student supervision, which is needed to attract new doctoral students.

I can see how ambitious academics will want to run rough-shod with these time-honoured processes of doctoral student supervision.

The question that remains is whether council chairperson Mac Mia has the courage to take on his vice chancellor, or whether he will stand by his man as he has done in so many other instances.

• Nithaya Chetty is an associate professor of physics at the University of Pretoria. He lectured at UKZN from 1997 to 2008.

UKZN has been invited to respond to this article.

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