Retreating into the gulag

2008-03-10 00:00

HAS the university senate — the institution’s highest academic governing body — lost its teeth?

This question is being pondered by a range of disillusioned academics at the University of KwaZulu-Natal after attempts to get a discussion paper on academic freedom on to the senate agenda were blocked last month for the fourth time. Vice-chancellor and senate chairman Professor Malegapuru Makgoba has been accused by some academics of “naked intimidation” and the emasculation of the senate.

One university member, among the many who asked to remain anonymous, said that the Faculty of Science and Agriculture’s submission had become secondary to the domination of the senate by its chairman. “It was the manner of his [Makgoba’s] addressing senate that was really the point: like it was a bunch of naughty schoolboys.”

Another source said: “The university is sending a message that debate about academic freedom is not welcome; that this university is not in an environment in which free intellectual thought is valued.”

Citing a technicality — a move described by another source as “obfuscation” — Makgoba allegedly refused to allow the submission on to the agenda at the February 27 meeting and accused the senator pushing for its inclusion — Pietermaritzburg mathematics professor John van den Berg — of racism, cowardice, insubordination and lack of academic productivity.

Van den Berg, whose 2007 research output was three times higher than the minimum unofficial yearly quota expected from academics, told The Witness his main concern was not the personal attacks against him, but that the attacks were “meant for others’ ears”.

“Nobody is now going to criticise his [Makgoba’s] actions for fear of facing disciplinary procedures. And no one did. You can’t have free debate preceded by that kind of talk,” he said.

On the university’s online “Change” forum, Van den Berg said Makgoba has labelled him a racist before — once over Van den Berg’s proposals to open up the senate by allowing all senior professors to be admitted as members and again over proposals to allow all university members to attend as observers.

Van den Berg said Makgoba threatened to take disciplinary action against Van den Berg whom he said had “defamed” him in the contents of a statement which he sent to the vice-chancellor in which he expressed unhappiness with the failure of the submission to reach the agenda and which Van den Berg read out at a November senate meeting that Makgoba did not attend. In the statement, Van den Berg notes that in correspondence outside the senate, Makgoba described the faculty’s submission as “self-serving” and failing to “advance the debate”.

The submission causing all the fuss was authored by four members of the Science and Agriculture faculty, including Van den Berg and faculty dean Professor John Cooke, and was ratified by both the college and the relevant academic affairs board. The document’s timing dovetailed with a request from the senate itself for submissions from the university’s eight faculties. According to sources, the process was ultimately aimed at giving some concrete content to a right which has suffered for its lack of definition and a mechanism through which to enforce it.

One of the concerns among the academics I spoke to is that the issue of academic freedom is being pushed off the university agendas by the “bigger” issues of transformation and redress; that in the context of so many competing imperatives in the merged institution, negotiations around academic freedom are being elbowed out.

The Science and Agriculture submission — the only one yet to have been offered for inclusion on to the senate agenda — includes practical “scenarios”, some of which bear a close resemblance to previous instances when academic freedom at UKZN was allegedly compromised. One of these is Makgoba’s bid in June 2006 to prevent a meeting of 14 academics discussing a document produced by the Black African Academic Forum.

The submission calls for academic freedom to be viewed “more generally within a framework of freedom of expression”, which includes “the freedom to discuss matters of academic interest and importance across the university community and with wider society without fear of retribution ...”. The submission refers to a “prevailing culture of incivility and racial stereotyping that further impedes the free exchange of ideas”.

In a section headed “Why is there a threat to Academic Freedom and Freedom of Expression at UKZN?”, the submission notes that threats of litigation against academics have caused “widespread censorship” by university staff. “The result is a Soviet gulag mentality where no comments are made, nothing new is ventured and no new ideas are proffered ... This degrades the academic functioning of any university.”

The irony of having a debate on academic freedom blocked is not lost on many academics who believe that while their right to freedom of academic inquiry is respected, when it comes to criticising management, they don’t stand a chance.

Last week’s senate incident follows the resignation of Pietermaritzburg physics professor Nithaya Chetty from the senate and council. Chetty, also a co-author of the faculty submission, has consistently spoken out on collective concerns regarding certain university issues. At the start of last Wednesday’s meeting, Makgoba allegedly referred to Chetty’s resignation, claiming that Chetty had been guilty of a deliberate misrepresentation of facts. Apparently, a lone senator objected, defending Chetty as a person of integrity.

A source said that Makgoba’s behaviour is consistent with a ­strategy of isolating, abusing, threatening and intimidating individuals who are perceived to be adversarial. “The senate experience has been devastating.”

Makgoba declined to respond to a series of written questions, citing senate confidentiality and his stated position on not commenting to The Witness.

Explaining the reluctance among staff to be named in the media, a source said that Makgoba has “berated” senators on the need to retain the confidentiality of senate discussions.

How “confidential” senate meetings should be seems to be a matter of some interpretation. According to well-placed sources, all members of the former University of Natal (UN) had observer status at senate, and were only asked to leave during rare closed sessions which usually involved sensitive human resource issues. Minutes of senate meetings were placed in the university’s libraries for all members to access. Like the UN statute, the current UKZN statute, which governs the powers of the senate, is silent on the issue of observers. Minutes of senate meetings are posted on the university’s internal Internet service, the InnerWeb.

At a deeper level many of the problems at the university are about an inappropriate management model rather than merely an individual style of leadership, said another academic. “If you replace the leadership, we will still have many of the same problems,” the source said. “There’s a universal trend towards corporatisation in universities. Increasingly, these institutions are driven by highly-paid people who don’t do research.

“Academics become workers and students their customers. What happens at a management level has less and less to do with the reality we experience every day.”

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