Letter: Natal defended

March 16, 2001

For months the University of Natal has had to endure a stream of insults from Caroline White, formerly a professor at the university, that have been given much prominence in the media. In a recent article, "Critical minds no longer welcome on campus", THES, March 9, she portrays the university as an institution with no respect for the principles of academic freedom, freedom of speech and honest criticism. But White has a curious notion of what constituted "academic freedom" under the previous regime in 1983.

"In those days," she writes, "academic freedom meant simply the right of universities to choose who should teach (or give public talks on campus), who should be taught and what should be taught ... being outspoken was never an issue." Those days were a time when students in some universities were white and in others, black; and when some rather "outspoken" professors found themselves banned and even jailed. In looking back on this time, White makes it seem a halcyon era compared with the present.

"Robust and sometimes savage disagreement" was tolerated in those far-off days? How sad they have changed. Now we are hemmed in by stringent labour regulations, grievance procedures, a constitution and a bill of rights hailed all over the world as models of democracy.

Unsurprisingly, the origins of White's dispute with the university had nothing to do with the ideals of academic freedom and honest criticism. They were rooted in two sources of complaints. One came from students, the other from staff. They were handled through internal grievance procedures, and one body after another found itself unable to support White's grievance. This resulted finally in the university setting up a committee of inquiry chaired by an outsider and two senior members of the senate. For White to claim that the charges were not upheld is not true, as an examination of the committee's report would show. Indeed, the committee recommended her dismissal.

White took issue with the dean's handling of students' complaints about her teaching and marking. She maintained that the students should not have approached the dean at all. The committee ruled that her position was "indefensible" and "that there is no doubt" that the dean was justified in accepting the letter of complaint from the students' representative. Indeed, the dean would have been failing in his duty had he done anything else. This is hardly an issue of academic freedom.

With respect to the other complaint, staff said they found White extremely difficult, if not impossible, to work with. They were not in "vertical" relationships but in "horizontal" ones. If people in positions of responsibility had not responded to these complaints, they would have been failing in the discharge of their duties. The duty to maintain employment relationships is a duty in law and rested as much with White as it did with others. Not only did the committee find that she had failed in this, but it said that her behaviour constituted "misconduct".

The committee also ruled on White's "publishing and disseminating misleading information to third parties so as to bring the university into disrepute". White, in her article, seems to suggest that this is somehow ludicrous. The committee thought otherwise: "In view of the extensive publicity and the extent of the misrepresentation, we are satisfied that not only is this a valid complaint, but that it also constitutes misconduct." The report goes on to make the point that "White's efforts to keep people informed led to the perception that her case involved a threat to academic freedom. We do not consider that this case involved such a threat."

The committee's report is in the public domain and the university has nothing to hide. It certainly has made no assaults on academic freedom.

B. M. Gourley
Vice-chancellor and principal University of Natal

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