UKZN loses bid to strip academic of PhD
Share this article:
Durban - The University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) has lost its appeal against a former senior lecturer, in a bid to strip her of her PhD.
In a scathing reserved judgment handed down by a full bench of the Pietermaritzburg High Court on Monday, the appeal was dismissed with costs.
In January 2014, Durban High Court Acting Judge Mahendra Chetty found that the university’s senate had no legal authority to revoke Nobubele Potwana’s degree in November 2011 – six years after it had been conferred on her – or even appoint a fourth examiner to review her thesis.
However, not content with the decision, the university launched an appeal before Pietermaritzburg High Court Judges Thoba Poyo-Dlwati, Anton van Zyl and Themba Sishi, claiming the decision to re-award Potwana her degree had been incorrect.
It was argued on behalf of UKZN that when a university conferred a degree on a student, it certified to the world its recipient’s educational achievements and fulfilment of the university’s standards.
Compliance with these standards was thus essential.
The university stripped Potwana of her PhD citing a “compromised academic process”, but never alleging fraud, after Potwana and her supervisor, Pumela Msweli-Mbanga, were acquitted of criminal charges of corruption relating to the award of the degree in August 2009.
It was at this point that the university appointed a new examiner to probe her thesis.
He recommended that she make some corrections to it and include new literature, which she refused to do, saying the university was trying to “resuscitate the allegations” and was acting with malice.
It was argued on Potwana’s behalf that she was simply “caught in the crossfire” between UKZN and Msweli-Mbanga.
Potwana was dragged into the internal politics of the university when a dispute arose between the then vice-chancellor of UKZN, Professor Malegapuru Makgoba, and Msweli-Mbanga, about Msweli- Mbanga’s alleged intimate relationship with one of her PhD students (not Potwana).
Msweli-Mbanga, in turn, made serious personal allegations against Makgoba, and the bitter saga eventually resulted in Msweli-Mbanga being dismissed.
In the fallout, Potwana’s qualification was questioned.
In the judgment handed down on Monday, Poyo-Dlwati found it could not be said conclusively that Potwana did not complete her thesis to the standard required for her to graduate.
The judges concluded that the decision by the university to appoint another independent examiner some four years later was “unfair, and arguably even malicious”.
Poyo-Dlwati said: “It was made clear from the outset that if Potwana failed or refused to comply with any of the requirements of the examiner, then her degree would be revoked. In my view, the university had sought to hold a gun to Potwana’s head and required that either she complied, or her degree would be revoked.”
The judges found that the university was obliged to act within the time periods of the Promotion of Administrative Justice Act, to review its decision to revoke Potwana’s degree. It failed to do so and thus there was no acceptable and adequate explanation furnished for the delay, save to say that the university had to wait for the outcome of the criminal trial before it proceeded with further steps.
“For what purpose this had to be so has not been explained. Potwana was acquitted of criminal charges in 2009 and her degree revoked in 2011,” said Poyo-Dlwati.
“If one tries to put the pieces together, there is no explanation furnished for the delay. In the absence of such an explanation, the decision to revoke the degree remains invalid.”