Academic sues varsity after PhD revoked
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University of KwaZulu-Natal senior lecturer, Nobubele Potwana, took her bosses to court on Monday seeking to force them to reinstate her PhD degree which was withdrawn two years ago – six years after it was conferred – because a fresh examiner found that it was “not a good enough piece of work”.
The university concedes that it has only “implied power” to remove the doctorate but says it was obtained through a “compromised academic process” and it has a responsibility to preserve the integrity of its degrees.
It also concedes that the case is “unique”, with none other like it ever in South Africa before.
But Potwana – who was acquitted of criminal charges of corruption relating to allegations that she paid her supervising professor to assist her with her thesis – says she is a victim of a “fall-out” at the university.
She says the university can only remove her degree by court order, on the grounds that the degree had been awarded through error or fraud which was not alleged in this case.
Durban High Court acting Judge Mahendra Chetty, who heard the matter on Monday, also pointed out that the university had employed her in a post in its College of Law and Management Studies, which required that she had a PhD.
In the criminal matter the State alleged that her doctoral supervisor, Pumela Msweli-Mbanga, the university’s former management studies dean, had accepted R16 150 in return for helping in the award of the doctorate in 2005 although her thesis had not been completely assessed. Magistrate Blessing Msani found that while there had been “irregularities”, there was no evidence of corruption and acquitted both.
In the meantime the Senate appointed another examiner to look at Potwana’s thesis.
He found certain “holes” in it and suggested some changes which Potwana challenged and refused to do.
The degree was then withdrawn in November 2011.
At the time of their arrests, Msweli-Mbangwa claimed that UKZN vice-chancellor Malegapuru Makgoba was “out to get her” because she had made claims of sexual harrasment against him and council chairman Vincent Maphai.
These allegations were later found to be untrue by a tribunal headed by retired Judge Alan Magid.
At the same time, she was implicated in the award of an alleged fraudulent Master of Commerce degree to the university’s former chief financial officer, Kanthan Pillay. This was also probed by Magid, but could not be substantiated.
On Monday, advocate Kemp J Kemp, arguing for Potwana, said she had been caught up in a “bitter saga” between Makgoba and Msweli-Mbangwa, who was having an intimate relationship with another of her PhD students (Pillay) .
He said her qualification had been questioned in the “fall-out”.
“The university has rightly not attributed any fraud or dishonesty to her in these papers,” he said, saying the history did not matter.
He said the university had revoked her degree because of the judgement of a fourth examiner “perceived to be tasked with finding fault”, which was degrading and designed to reflect the institution’s power over her dignity and livelihood.
“The reason given – and the only reason the university must defend – is that on a re-appraisal five years on, her performance was not good enough.”
Kemp said the university had no power to do this and could only revoke a degree in limited circumstances and through application to a court.
As an example of the sweeping and “high-handed” approach, he said, imagine if any graduate were told, 10 years down the line, that: “Your examiner was a bit dodgy… drank too much so we decided to look at your past papers. Your 55 percent has been changed to 45 percent so you do not meet the criteria so your degree has been cancelled”.
“If that happened to me, I would have been taken to court, because I would have shot somebody,” Kemp said.
Andrea Gabriel, for the university, said the history was important and it could not be ignored because this was the issue that had “sparked the investigation”.
She accused Kemp of using “absurd examples”, but had to concede that the Higher Degrees Committee, on investigation, had found nothing untoward in the awarding of the degree.
“On the papers we do not allege fraud, but there was a breach in the academic process and standards were not met,” she said.
Judgment was reserved.