UKZN travesty

2008-10-31 00:00

A true university is a robust place, a melting pot of information, ideas and debate encouraging its members to be informed and critical. In training the articulate as watchdogs of the national conscience, it is a pillar of democracy. Fearless independent thought and individual conviction are its hallmarks.

These are under severe threat at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN). Two highly-respected academics of unquestionable integrity are facing disciplinary proceedings that could lead to dismissal. They protested at the undermining by the vice-chancellor of the authority of Senate, the university’s highest academic body. Ironically he refused to include on its agenda a faculty-supported draft policy on academic freedom. Being legitimate sponsors of the document, the two professors answered questions from the press.

UKZN is a national institution funded in various ways by the taxpayer. Those who administer it are custodians whose task is to facilitate the operation of a first-class centre of higher education. They should be largely anonymous, yet they treat the institution as their property; and the key workers, the teaching and re-search staff, as academic serfs.

Certain voices have been delegitimised by name-calling and sloganeering. Internal debate has been censored by declaring everyday proceedings and documents confidential, although nothing before Senate bar a few staff matters should be restricted. This paranoid management style results from treating the university as a site of radical, race-based social engineering rather than a place of academic excellence.

It is bizarre that in a post-liberation constitutional democracy a university is persecuting those who insist that it comply with internationally accepted norms for an academic community. Even worse, most university staff have been cowed into compliant silence by power-hungry, politically-motivated managers.

Insisting on good governance and, where necessary, engaging with the media is not only a right, but the duty of every academic. UKZN has plumbed the depths: the charges brought against professors Nithaya Chetty and John van den Berg are a travesty. The fact that they are being pursued at such enormous expense, and without organised protest, shows that academic freedom at the local campus is, for the moment, dead. Soon it may be buried.

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