Council forces Wits v-c to resign

December 20, 2002

Before Norma Reid Birley resigned as vice-chancellor of the University of the Wi****ersrand, the university chair of council threatened her with dismissal and immediate ejection from the official residence.

It was the dramatic finale to a nightmare year in which Professor Reid Birley, a former deputy vice-chancellor at the University of Plymouth, lost her husband, was hospitalised twice, clashed with council chair and appeal court judge Edwin Cameron, and faced a barrage of rumours and insults on campus and in the press.

Professor Reid Birley, 50, said: "There has been a continuing, coordinated campaign of vilification against me. The worst part for me is losing the job. I have had to watch my character and reputation being publicly destroyed."

Professor Reid Birley has a six-month notice period to ponder what to do next.

Factions at Wits struck at Professor Reid Birley within her first year in the job, which she clinched when Colin Bundy left to head the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. Trouble began when her husband, founding vice-chancellor of Ulster University Sir Derek Birley, was dying. It continued while she was hospitalised for treatment of anaemia and deep-vein thrombosis.

She claimed that opposition centred on her being a white foreigner from a colonial country that "blighted Africa's past", her gender and other people's personal agendas, coupled with resistance to her efforts to make Wits a more African university with more empowered students. But she said that during her tenure "Wits enjoyed record student numbers, record funding donations and an unprecedented period of stability".

Last week, Judge Cameron and five council members wrote in The Sunday Times that her failures were "managerial - and substantial". They accused her of failing to command respect, of "divisive and suspicious practices", of refusal to accept criticism or to implement practical suggestions, of treating colleagues and "helpless" staff discourteously, and of heading an office "in a state of continual dysfunction".

Professor Reid Birley countered that the deans and most managers supported her but that a handful of staff undermined her - a familiar experience for Nigerian former deputy vice-chancellor Adelani Ogunrinade. He said that Judge Cameron had threatened him last year with an inquiry based on anonymous staff complaints if he did not resign.

Professor Reid Birley said she had initially been befriended by Judge Cameron. But during the summer the chair drafted a disciplinary letter, following a performance appraisal based on the anonymous comments of some senior staff (and contrary to Wits' appraisal policy).

It was later withdrawn but news of the letter leaked.

Last month, Judge Cameron informed Professor Reid Birley that the university intended taking disciplinary action against her. She said she felt rebuked before senior staff and council.

She rejected a golden handshake of R5 million (£361,100), certain she would be vindicated.

But an internal inquiry due to be held into her performance over her 18-month tenure at Wits did not take place after she made a critical error.

Told that her confidential secretary was to be a witness, she attempted to secure access to her computer. It was this action that led Judge Cameron to seek her resignation, saying in an official statement that if she had not resigned, he would have recommended her suspension pending disciplinary action for alleged misconduct.

Professor Reid Birley said she could have fought her case but that would have dragged Wits "through the mud", and she had neither the money nor the energy.

"The only practical course was to resign: I did so with huge sadness," she said.

Steven Friedman, a senior researcher at the centre for Policy Studies in Johannesburg, wrote in Business Day that Professor Reid Birley's departure was not an open process, and that Wits' criteria for dismissing staff "seem to have been relaxed sharply".

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