By Agiza Hlongwane

Education Minister Naledi Pandor, concerned at the freedom of expression furore engulfing the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN), has called on the varsity's council to restore internal and public confidence in the institution.

In an online interview with the Tribune this week, Pandor expressed concern at the persistent negative publicity that the university had experienced recently.

Describing UKZN as one of the better-performing academic institutions in the country, she said, "I would urge the university to ensure it maintains that sterling reputation and works hard at addressing any negative features that have begun to erode its positive character".

The university has been in the limelight for, among other issues:

  • Condemnation from Cosatu and the Freedom of Expression Institute for the punishment of academics who openly criticise council decisions in the media,

  • Resignations of highly skilled and experienced staff.

    Pandor said, "Academics must enjoy the right to express their views freely ... I believe all universities are spaces of tolerance of criticism, inquiry, review and debate."

    Although the education ministry had no plans to intervene, Pandor said she hoped to meet vice-chancellor Professor Malegapuru Makgoba and discuss the issues.

    Pandor's comments come as UKZN academics, led by estranged Prof Nithaya Chetty, prepare to hold a seminar on Wednesday titled "Freedom of Expression and the Responsibility of the Intellectual".

    Chetty, a physics professor, resigned from the university a fortnight ago in the face of disciplinary action over his and mathematics Professor John van den Berg's criticism of Makgoba.

    They had accused Makgoba of allegedly blocking a science and agriculture faculty report from the senate.

    Van den Berg subsequently signed a settlement in terms of which he will continue working at UKZN, but Chetty opted to resign.

    He described academic freedom at the varsity as being "dead and waiting to be buried".

    However, Makgoba questioned Chetty's assertion, saying disciplinary action against the former physics professor arose out of a breach of confidentiality.

    "No one who is so publicly innocent and fighting for such noble principles of academic freedom or freedom of expression, supported by a strong legal team, would resign when the opportunity beckons to "show it all". In fact, no one so innocent needs a legal representative to defend their cause. Prof Chetty's resignation speaks volumes."

    In a communique published yesterday, Makgoba says Chetty had, since 2005, been warned about "bringing the university and the office of the Vice-Chancellor into disrepute".

    Acknowledging Pandor's comments, Makgoba said academic freedom was a core value to UKZN. He denied claims that academics were muzzled, saying any organisation had a code of conduct concerning confidentiality.

    "The university council and its senate passed a 10-year strategy which has academic freedom as one of its core values. If I was violating academic freedom, I would be dismissed from the university."

    Makgoba said there was a section of academics with ulterior motives.

    "We have 1 957 academics at UKZN. If you have that number, one needs to gauge why a group of 10 or 20 academics are the only ones writing letters to newspapers and on an Internet forum. People read a letter, and read another and suddenly they think these things are true."

    Developments at UKZN have received condemnation from leading academics across the world.

    Recently, 35 academics from Oxford, Cambridge, Berkeley and Stanford universities sent a document to the university council chairperson, Mac Mia, expressing concern that the disciplinary process against the two academics flew in the face of "globally recognised standards regarding the rights of academic staff to speak and act on policies of their institutions."

    Pandor pointed out that the university's ethos and core values were ultimately the responsibility of the council and vice-chancellor.

    She said that while consistently negative reporting on any institution was cause for concern, only the university could convince parents and students that it was a key institution.

    Several academics have posted comments on the university blog "Change at UKZN" decrying what they claim is a lack of academic freedom there.

    This week, veteran Durban academic, Professor Ronald Albino, warned of the dire consequences of the suppression of robust debate at the university.

    Albino, 92, a former psychology professor at the University of Natal who once served in its Academic Freedom Committee during the apartheid era, said independent thinking and academic freedom were "fundamental".

    "A university's function is to create knowledge by research and investigation, and to convey that knowledge to its students, and to carry out continuous criticism of the society in which it exists.

    "They have to be free to discuss anything, with good reason. It has to be rational, reasonable debate about any issue which comes to the fore. And to take away academic freedom is doing great damage to the society, because the principal actors in the societies are people with a university education. They affect the technologies, sciences, and politics of the country."