UKZN: where it all went wrong

2008-11-13 00:00

Some background to the brou-haha at the University of KwaZulu-Natal concerning academic freedom and disciplinary hearings may be of interest. When he first became vice-chancellor, Professor Malegapuru Makgoba instituted a number of positive changes, not least bringing back professors to the senate. The previous administration had eliminated the automatic right of professors to membership of the senate and replaced them with heads of schools, who were not necessarily professors. Consequently I was, at first, a strong champion of Makgoba, whom I saw as re-establishing scholarship at the centre of the university as opposed to the previous leadership, whom I perceived as somewhat craven liberals.

However, Makgoba would not allow voting in the senate. When I challenged him on this he said that it was because, given the make-up of the senate, voting would “give the wrong answers”. His thinking was, perhaps, that whites and Indians were over-represented and that members of the former University of Natal were dominant.

In my view, however, not allowing senators to vote was, in the first instance, demeaning because it implied that the senators were unable to see principles beyond their narrow, race-based self-interest. Secondly, not every decision that the senate faced had a racial dimension. Thirdly, if one had no vote, what was the point in attending senate meetings?

Makgoba’s approach was to listen to the arguments in the senate and when he heard one that he liked, that be-came the decision. He behaved like a traditional African chief, who listens to his councillors, but makes the decision himself. When I asked why professors should attend the senate if they had no vote, he replied: “To listen to the interesting arguments.” When I pressed him on the issue of voting, I was surprised to find that I got no support from my fellow senators; as a result

Makgoba was able to paint me as a comical maverick, way outside the general consensus of opinion.

I still felt strongly that voting was necessary, if only to prevent the vice- chancellor from having absolute power, so I lobbied the faculty board and got the promise that, if I led the charge in the senate, I would get strong backing from my faculty. In the event, I did lead a charge and was left hanging on my own, with no support. I was happy to leave the university soon after that and my Parthian shot to the faculty was to say that they were the biggest bunch of wimps that I had ever met and that, due to their lack of courage, they deserved all the bad things that would happen to them in the future. Alas, time has proved me right.

But why were they so lacking in courage? At the University of Natal it would have been unthinkable for the vice-chancellor to dominate the senate. Yet here Makoba was leading the senate to the slaughterhouse and they were following silently like a flock of sheep. Why?

Somehow, the courage of liberals to stand for principle, so evident at the University of Natal, seemed to have been undermined by the perception —evidently shared by many blacks and non-blacks — that the non-black voice was delegitimised by apartheid. With the appointment of a black vice-chancellor, the previous vigorous opposition to “authority”, and hence to the apartheid regime, was replaced by a craven sycophancy. In fact, sycophancy became a necessary condition for advancement at the university.

As subsequent events have shown, the university was in this respect a microcosm of the country and under the Thabo Mbeki regime the non-black voice was largely silenced, constructive criticism delegitimised and sycophancy became the norm. Things may be changing in the country — although the motives remain questionable — but will they change at the university? I certainly hope so as I still have a residual affection for the remains of my old alma mater. More than this, though, freedom of thought and a resistance to authority lies at the very core of a proper university and the existence of such institutions is of vital importance to the wellbeing of the country.

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