Pressure is mounting on the University of KwaZulu-Natal to drop planned disciplinary action against two academics in a debate on academic freedom.
In the latest development, officials stopped a meeting on Tuesday at which the science and agriculture faculty was expected to adopt a resolution calling on vice-chancellor Malegapuru Makgoba to withdraw charges against professors Nithaya Chetty and John van den Berg.
Had the meeting succeeded, it would have been the first time that an entire UKZN faculty had challenged disciplinary action taken by the vice-chancellor.
A member of the faculty said UKZN staff in Durban were waiting for transport to the meeting in Pietermaritzburg when they received a call saying it had been cancelled.
"We are not allowed to meet about the disciplinary matter. The staff are very upset over what is happening," he said.
In addition, UKZN has been slammed for instructing senior legal counsel to act in Chetty's and Van den Berg's hearing - a move which legal experts estimate could cost between R250 000 and R500 000 at a conservative estimate.
Chetty and Van den Berg, professors of physics and mathematics respectively, face disciplinary action over criticism of Makgoba in the media and on a website over his handling of a senate debate on academic freedom.
The latest developments come a week after the Freedom of Expression Institute condemned UKZN for its handling of academic freedom and the SA Mathematical Society adopted a resolution which, among other things, calls on UKZN to "seek an amicable resolution" to the dispute.
The resolution will be sent to the registrar and council chairperson at UKZN, as well as the education minister.
Prof Alan Rycroft, who has been appointed by the National Tertiary Education Staff Union to represent the charged academics, said there was initially a sense that the matter arose from different understandings of the senate and that avoiding disciplinary action should be explored.
"The vice-chancellor appointed three professors to act as facilitators of a settlement. The understanding was that the dispute was an academic matter which was best sorted out by academics. Lawyers were to be left out of the process. Eventually a statement was drafted which attempted to reconcile the position of John and Nithaya and the interests of the university.
"After an initial indication that this was a satisfactory solution, the university lawyers subsequently rejected it, requiring instead signatures to an admission-of-guilt document. Because of the contested nature of the charges, John and Nithaya were not prepared to sign this document," he said.
Rycroft said Chetty and Van den Berg had been told that the university regarded the charges as so serious that dismissal was a possible sanction.
"As a labour lawyer, I have to question what kind of advice the legal team is giving to the vice-chancellor. If there has been misconduct, workplace discipline is meant to be corrective, not punitive.
"The CCMA (Council for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration) and Labour Court have established norms that reject dismissal for employees of long service with clean disciplinary records, and where the employment relationship is not broken. In these circumstances the university appears to be acting against labour norms in pursuing a matter capable of a mediated settlement," he said.
UKZN authorities would not comment on why they had taken the legal route, and say they will not communicate with the press while this disciplinary matter is in progress.