A social anthropology professor has been suspended from the University of Natal and banned from campus following bitter disputes with her colleagues and dean.
Claims of racism made against Caroline White on behalf of students were dispelled, but led to arguments with her dean that unleashed departmental rivalries, office politics, personality clashes, battles over procedures and even warnings of threats to academic freedom.
Professor White, accused at one point by the dean of having a "sneering British academic attitude", was suspended on full pay and barred from the campus (including the library and her office) last November following an eight-month-long disagreement.
Formerly head of the school of anthropology and psychology, Professor White now faces disciplinary action and 20 charges involving incidents that constitute "a breach of the duty not to destroy or seriously damage your relationship of trust and confidence with the university".
The university has been criticised by outside academics for over-exercising its executive powers. The South African and Commonwealth anthropology associations have written to vice-chancellor Brenda Gourley protesting about Professor White's treatment.
University of Cape Town higher education dean Martin Hall is concerned about encroachment on academic freedom and finds it "difficult to see how a university can seek to discipline an academic staff member for general attitude, tone or general behaviour". While Professor White may be generally disliked, he wrote: "No evidence is cited for racism, sexism or particular threats against individuals."
Other staff members refute that the case is about academic freedom. They argue that the student complaint was not an isolated incident, but part of a pattern of abrasive behaviour on the part of Professor White that had shattered relations in the school and undermined its operation.
A university spokesman said: "Allegations that this is an issue of academic freedom are a complete canard. The dispute is part of a disciplinary procedure and relates only to Professor White's performance as an academic and, specifically, to her relations with her colleagues and students."
Professor White, who has been defying the ban from campus, has vowed to fight on. She accuses the university of not following complaints procedures and unfairly suspending her before a preliminary hearing. The ban was, she claims, "based on untested allegations made by unknown individuals, the nature and content of which were, and some of which still are, unknown to me".