Letter: Freedom under threat

June 22, 2001

We write to express our dismay and concern over the recent dismissals of three academics: Robert Shell from Rhodes University, Caroline White from the University of Natal and Ted Steele from the University of Wollongong.

All three cases suggest that the right of academics to criticise their university administrations is becoming increasingly threatened, as is the principle of academic freedom. Robust criticism is all too easily coming to be construed as defamation or "bringing the university into disrepute".

We also see the principle of tenure, for long a major safeguard of academic freedom, being seriously endangered. In each case, no felony was committed by the dismissed academic. Rather, the dismissals were the result of disputes with superiors or criticisms directed at the university authorities. In the cases of Shell and White, the universities' disciplinary action rested largely or in part on the content of private email messages sent by the two.

The universities' ready resort to judicial procedures strikes us as being inappropriate in these three cases, which ought to have been resolved by more informal means.

We deplore the dismissal of Shell, whose case we know best. Shell, director of the Rhodes population research unit, was fired after a dispute with the university in which he accused it of not fulfilling its contractual obligations, of lack of transformation and of nepotism. The university denied the claims. A disciplinary hearing ruled that Shell had brought the university into disrepute and was guilty of serious misconduct amounting to breach of contract.

We express our solidarity with Steele and White.

We applaud the University of New South Wales, which has come out and offered guaranteed protection for staff whistleblowers.

Colleagues in the United States have told us that any attempt by a Canadian or US university to dismiss an academic for actions such as Shell's would never succeed, indeed would not even be attempted.

We believe that by its decision, senior management at Rhodes University has brought lasting damage to the university's reputation.

We call on Rhodes, the University of Natal and the University of Wollongong to follow the example of the University of New South Wales, affirm the right of academics to criticise university authorities, and to reinstate Shell, White and Steele.

Julian Cobbing, Paul Maylam and 51 other academic staff members
Rhodes University
South Africa

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