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University begins disciplinary proceedings against two professors for voicing criticisms of vice chancellor to the media

(FXI/IFEX) - The following is an abridged version of a FXI press release:

FXI distressed by disciplinary action against two UKZN professors

The Freedom of Expression Institute (FXI) is distressed by the University of KwaZulu/ Natal's (UKZN) decision to institute disciplinary proceedings against two of the University's Professors, Nithaya Chetty and John van den Berg. Chetty is a Professor of Physics and van den Berg is a Professor of Mathematics.

The disciplinary proceedings relate to statements in the media and an e-mail list that were highly critical of the conduct of Vice Chancellor, Professor Malegapuru Makgoba, in his handling of a University Senate debate on academic freedom. Chetty and van den Berg were interviewed in several newspapers, including the Mail and Guardian, earlier this year about their unhappiness with the way in which Makgoba allegedly blocked the Senate's consideration of a Faculty of Science and Agriculture document on the state of academic freedom in the University. This has now led to charges that the two Professors have failed to exercise due care in communicating with the media, and have released confidential senate information, as well as dishonesty and/or gross negligence.

While the FXI respects the right of the University to institute disciplinary proceedings against its staff, such proceedings should be instituted with due regard to their basic human rights, including their right to freedom of expression. Also, if the University felt that their criticisms were unjustified, there are remedies the University could have taken short of disciplinary action in relation to the Professors' media statements, such as approaching the Press Ombudsman.

The disciplinary actions fly in the face of the recommendations of a recently released report on institutional autonomy and academic freedom in South Africa, written by a Task Team established by the Council on Higher Education (CHE). The authors of the report argue that if academic freedom is to be realised, higher education institutions must 'protect the freedom of expression of academics . . . from undue sanction by their own institution'. This means affording academics the space to espouse unpopular views on general matters or even in relation to the university administration, without threats of disciplinary action. The report also notes that 'Senates, as institutional bodies, are bound to uphold the right of individual academics to freedom of expression and freedom of scientific research'.

These actions cast an even deeper pall over the University's commitment to academic freedom, which has been in question for some time now. Incident after incident has taken place where individuals or entities critical of powerful individuals both within and outside the University have been targetted: these incidents include the controversial exclusion of sociologist Ashwin Desai from the University, the disciplinary cases against sociologist Fazel Khan and sociology Professor Evan Mantzaris, the disastrous attempt (reportedly funded by the University) by the-then Executive Director, Public Affairs & Corporate Communications, Professor Dasarath Chetty, to sue Rhodes University sociology Professor Jimi Adesina for defamation, and the more recent controversies around the threatened closure of the Centre for Civil Society. When taken together, these incidents paint a picture of the University management that is at war with its critics, and that demands deference to authority, whether located inside or outside the University.

Academics should be encouraged to play a public intellectual role, not punished for it. It should be a condition of service, especially at UKZN, as the University has committed itself to being "critically engaged with society". It is difficult not to read the charge that they failed to exercise 'due care' in communicating with the media as code for failing to practice self-censorship in their criticisms of Makgoba.

For the full text of the press release, see: http://www.fxi.org.za/content/view/204/36

For further information on the Adesina case, see: http://www.ifex.org/en/content/view/full/81276

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