UKZN: Legal showdown looms over bid to bar Chetty from seminar

2008-12-08 00:00

A POSSIBLE legal showdown looms between erstwhile UKZN physics professor Nithaya Chetty and his former bosses over Chetty’s decision to participate tomorrow in a freedom of expression seminar hosted by the university’s Centre for Civil Society (CCS) in Durban.

The spectre of a banning order against Chetty has been raised following a letter sent on Friday to CCS director Professor Patrick Bond by a senior member of the university’s executive committee. It warned that Chetty’s participation may “put him at risk of being in breach of his agreement with the university”.

UKZN deputy vice chancellor Professor Pete Zacharias, who was tasked with “moderating” and “approving” the placement of the CCS announcement of the seminar on the institution’s internal notice system, told Bond that Chetty’s resignation on November 26 is part of a negotiated exit that has certain conditions.

“One of these was that he leave campus immediately. He is also required to restrict his visits to campuses to meeting with friends. This seminar would violate that agreement,” wrote Zacharias.

Chetty, who has indicated his intention to participate in the seminar, has sought legal representation from the Freedom of Expression Institute (FXI) law clinic in order to clarify the matter.

In a letter to university vice chancellor Malegapuru Makgoba yesterday, FXI attorney Melissa Moore said: “[A]ny attempt to prohibit [Chetty] from attending the seminar will be strongly resisted, as it is our client’s view that such conduct by UKZN would be a gross violation of the right to freedom of expression, including academic freedom, guaranteed by the Constitution …”

The letter concludes: “Should you intend not to honour these rights and fulfil your obligation to promote a culture of academic debate, we are instructed to take all necessary steps to procure your co-operation.”

Bond said yesterday the centre will not change its plans for the seminar despite Zacharias’s “threat”.

“We will welcome many people who may not be Chetty’s friends yet, and indeed we also desperately hope that Chetty’s enemies — if there are any — also come to learn about academic expression.”

Tomorrow’s seminar, coinciding with International Human Rights Day, is entitled “Freedom of expression and the responsibility of the intellectual”.

This latest move comes in the wake of a letter to the press signed by over 200 UKZN staff members and individuals connected to the institution.

Headed “Restore academic freedom at the University of KwaZulu-Natal” and prompted in part by Makgoba’s reported comments in the weekend press to the effect that “a group of 10 or 20 academics are the only ones writing letters [on the issue]”, the letter calls on members of the public to get public officials such as the Education Minister, MECs and political representatives to intervene in what is termed a “crisis in governance that threatens the viability of UKZN as a fully functional university”.

The letter states that disciplinary action against Chetty and his former colleague, mathematics associate Professor John van den Berg, is “the most recent manifestation of the intimidation of academics by those who manage the university. It has caused demoralisation, unhappiness, and the resignation of many of the most productive and respected staff at the university.

“In our opinion, the university’s reputation is being endangered by managers who are intolerant of criticism and open debate … After many attempts to find negotiated solutions, we have decided to bring the problems out into the open for discussion in order to find a remedy.”

Makgoba sent a communiqué to the university community that presented a chronology of events surrounding the dispute with Chetty dating back to 2005 and questioned Chetty’s academic standing, referring to him as a “junior professor” and an “unproductive academic”.

Makgoba wrote: “No one who is so publicly innocent and fighting for such noble principles of academic freedom or freedom of expression, supported by a strong legal team, would resign when the opportunity beckons to ‘show it all’ … Prof Chetty’s resignation speaks volumes.” In response, Chetty said it would be remiss to “enter into a public slanging match” over the issue.

He said it is “incumbent on all concerned to act responsibly and in the best interests of the institution, to keep the personal agendas aside and to not escalate this matter”.

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