Email campaign leaves don facing the sack

November 24, 2000

An 18-month dispute between a leading South African social anthropologist and the University of Natal in Durban has ended with a recommendation that she be sacked.

The committee rejected claims by Caroline White, a respected academic who helped draft South Africa's affirmative action laws, that disciplinary action against her and a year-long suspension - including a ban from campus - was an issue of academic freedom.

The committee, however, criticised the university for not resolving a conflict that led to "irretrievable breakdown" in employment relations. Its recommendations have to be ratified by the senate executive and university council.

The committee ruled that Professor White's most serious offence was a worldwide email campaign that resulted in Natal being targeted with angry messages from international academics in support of her cause.

In the email campaign, Professor White "misrepresented her case" by not revealing her intractable attitude towards the university administration and thus brought the institution into disrepute, the committee ruled.

Both sides agreed that the employment relationship had broken down: the question was who had done the damage.

Arguing that the university had, Professor White asked for a R2.3 million (£212,000) settlement.

But the committee found her to have been responsible on three counts, two "so serious that they constitute misconduct".

One was the email campaign, and a second was not accepting an unconditional apology from her dean, Ronnie Miller.

The third, based on a composite of charges, was how Professor White dealt with a student complaint handed to her by the dean. Students on one of her courses complained about her lecturing, harsh marking and disparaging remarks written on test papers.

She and the dean disagreed whether the complaint had been properly lodged and the dispute spiralled into a serious conflict that drew in university managers.

The committee called Professor White's action in forbidding dissatisfied students to complain to the dean "indefensible".

Professor White, who is in England spending time with her family, told The THES that she would consider taking the case further through the labour courts.

She said that if the recommendations were endorsed it would "be a sad day for the University of Natal, of which I am a graduate and where my father was professor of classics, and for my colleagues there.

"This will have regrettable implications for collegiality: that is, the freedom to criticise and engage in robust debate on how things are done as well as on matters of a strictly academic concern."

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