No progress in common vision

2008-12-03 00:00

Professor Dasarath Chetty’s article entitled “World-class institution” (The Witness, December 2) requires a response.

Firstly, he expresses the view that the merger between the former universities of Natal and Durban Westville has been a success. What the full range is of the criteria that are used by the Higher Education Merger Study Group and Chetty to establish this opinion is not stated. It has been pointed out elsewhere that the measures of success that are quoted may contain a considerable time-lag in data collection and may reflect what was, rather than what is, the current situation. Time will tell. The merger has not been a failure, but the sad thing is that it could have been so much more successful.

It seems to me extraordinary, however, that the university should continue to persist with a centralised approach to governance and administration. Although the rationale for centralisation at University of KwaZulu-Natal has always been that of “efficiency”, I believe that the true reason for adopting this model (conceived by administrators at the former University of Natal) was a fear, among academics in the Durban centre, of being “swamped” by the University of Durban Westville academics. Centralisation would ensure that former UN staff constituted a majority in the new structures. If I am correct, then, as we now largely no longer view colleagues in terms of “us and them”, is it not time to abandon this model of governance?

In arriving at the conclusion that “wasteful duplication of faculties, schools and disciplines has now been overcome”, has Chetty factored in what must be the extraordinary cost in terms of time, travel costs, productivity and environmental damage which would largely have been avoided if the Pietermaritzburg campus had been allowed to continue to operate as a separate, but accountable, delivery site? Has Chetty not heard about global warming and the energy crisis and how does he believe that the way in which the university is organised is compatible with notions of social responsibility?

Chetty goes on, in not so many words, to justify the recent charges against professors Nithaya Chetty and John van den Berg as part of the “good governance” of the university as it is “… through these procedures that fraud, misrepresentation, leaking of confidential information to the media and other forms of academic impropriety are dealt with”. As these charges will not be prosecuted, we will not get to test whether the university administration’s views were correct that, in the case of the two respected academics involved, there was in fact “misrepresentation [and] leaking of confidential information to the media”. There is a view that the senate in fact took no resolution prohibiting public comment on its activities and that even if it had, with the exception of matters involving the right to privacy of individuals, the right to freedom of speech would override any such resolution.

Common sense, however, leads us to realise that nothing that was allegedly said by these two academics justified disciplinary proceedings against them and the fact that proceedings were instituted is testimony to factors other than a need to uphold good governance.

I do not contest the administration’s obligation to ensure discipline within the institution and to do so in terms of a fair procedure. It is necessary, however, to make the point that a disciplinary process is not the appropriate way to deal with what appears to be a difference in opinion as to what limits to freedom of speech, and in particular to criticise the actions of university administrators, might reasonably be upheld in a university environment. The spectacle of the intended disciplinary action has brought the university into disrepute in the eyes of many in the local and international community.

In a letter to The Witness over a year ago I made the point that we need (as society and the university community) to start engaging in an honest and open way over what a colleague has described as the “parallel realities” that keep us from developing a common vision of so many things. I am afraid we have made little or no progress in this regard.

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