November 29, 2008

Developments at the University of KwaZulu-Natal

I write to you to inform you of some developments at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and to ask for your support. I write to you as people who I believe share my concerns and have an interest in defending academic freedom.

Increasing numbers of UKZN staff believe that the University is close to collapse, threatened by the specific instance of disciplinary measures being taken against two staff members Associate Professor John van den Berg (Mathematics) and Associate Professor Nithaya Chetty (Physics). The process if far advanced and there is a fear that they will be dismissed when the disciplinary process begins with a 'trial' on 8 December. I am attaching Nithaya's CV here in the belief that it will establish his academic credentials. I should add that he was also a UDF activist in the days of apartheid and has been a tireless defender of democracy, non-violence and social justice.

John van den Berg has fearlessly sought to represent his constituency's interests in University processes. Almost alone, he has challenged the rights of the Vice Chancellor to do as he pleases in Senate and is now suffering the consequences. Apart from the emotional distress they have endured, both have now paid substantial sums in an attempt to defend the charges against them. The University, however, has deep pockets and a willingness to use its resources to the maximum in this matter.

I briefly describe the developments thus far.

1) A member of the university council, Professor Nithaya Chetty, and a university senator face dismissal on December 5 for discussing with the media and on a listserver their efforts to have an official Science Faculty proposal on Academic Freedom included in the Senate agenda. If you read the charges against them you will see that there was nothing inflammatory or destructive about their protests.

2) Chetty and van den Berg have agreed to submit to the recommendations of a mediating panel. The Vice Chancellor is insisting on carrying the matter to a disciplinary hearing where a team of advocates, instructing attorneys and a specially imported external judge -- all on University funds -- will decide the fate of the academics. The two professors must pay for their own defence out of their own funds. The University will spend something in the region of R500,000 prosecuting them.

3) On November 11 a group fifty academics in the Science Faculty appealed to their Dean, as stipulated in the Faculty constitution, to hold a special meeting to discuss the charges leveled against their representatives. The meeting was cancelled on the instruction of the Director of Human Resources.

4) A similar call for a special meeting of the Faculty of Humanities was also prohibited on November 12.

5) In recent correspondence between the Science academics the HR Director we have been told: "Employees are required to act in the interests of their employer at all times, and to show due respect. The matter of disciplinary action against employees is the employer's prerogative, and not that of the employee. Every employment relationship has boundaries, and perhaps if they are respected by all, it would not be necessary to have to implement disciplinary action."

Attached here are: the official charges against Chetty and van den Berg, a statement from NTESU (one of three trade unions representing staff at UKZN), a press statement by the South African National Editor's Forum and reports from the Mail and Guardian. The whole process is documented in detail on an archive at

The issue here is really very simple: Academic freedom cannot survive at the university if the managers hold the threat of dismissal over the heads of its academic critics. Academic freedom must also include the right to discuss criticisms of the university managers, internally and with the press--UKZN is a public institution, funded publicly.

It is no exaggeration to say that this case has already done terrible reputational damage to the university -- dozens of the finest scholars have left or are making plans to do so. But the struggle is not yet lost, and I must please ask you to do what you can to help us. The destruction of this institution will be a loss felt far beyond South Africa .

Writing to the Chair of the University Council, Mr Mac Mia at may be the most direct way to influence the University executive.

I attach one example of letters already sent to the Chair of Council and the Vice Chancellor, Professor Malegapuru Makgoba ( Some writers have chosen to write to these individuals in an open way, including the change listserv in the list of addressees (<>).

The matter is urgent and anything you can do may help to stop this disaster from unfolding further.

Example of a letter already written:

Professor Malegapuru Magkoba

Vice Chancellor, UKZN

Dear Vice Chancellor,

As international academics with a long history of involvement with the University of KwaZulu Natal we are most disturbed to learn that two senior members of staff at the University of KwaZulu Natal are facing a disciplinary hearing and possible dismissal for attempting to have an official Science Faculty proposal on Academic Freedom included in the Senate Agenda, and speaking to the media about it when they found their attempts blocked by the administration. From the evidence before us it would appear that neither were doing more than assert their rights to free speech and academic freedom as set out by UNESCO, and accepted in the democratic world.

Since freedom of speech is also enshrined in South Africa's constitution, these proceedings are surely extraordinary. That the administration should seek to take such action against two senior members of staff strikes at the free intellectual enquiry which is at the heart of the university and all academic work. It also seems to us a patent abuse of power and waste of public money.

There can be no doubt that the handling of this matter is already seriously damaging the reputation of the university both nationally and internationally, and it will make it increasingly difficult to recruit high calibre staff to UKZN and maintain its hitherto high standard of research in the future. We appeal to you in the hope that wiser counsels will prevail and the matter be taken to mediation, as has already suggested by the faculty and many of those with the interests of the university at heart.

Yours sincerely,
Shula Marks, Professor Emeritus, London, FBA,
Hon.D.Litt (UCT) Hon D. Soc.Sci. (Natal)
Alan Jeeves, Professor Emeritus, Queen's Univerity, Kingston, Ontario
Marcia Wright, Professor Emerita, Columbia University, New York

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

In such institutions there is freedom of speech: the freedom to praise the administrators, the freedom to praise their policies and whatever drivel they spew. However, this comes at a price. The facts must never contradict the "truth".

El Cid