UK v-c told 'quit Wits' amid row

November 22, 2002

British statistician Norma Reid Birley has been asked to leave her job as the vice-chancellor of one of South Africa's top universities following a run-in with its council, which has accused her of being a poor manager.

An internal inquiry will examine Professor Reid Birley's 18-month record at the University of the Wi****ersrand after she rejected a reported golden handshake offer that included damages plus R3.5 million (£220,000), representing the balance of her five-year year contract. She chose to stay to fight for her reputation in a battle that could split the university. Staff are divided in their support for their first woman vice-chancellor.

Professor Reid Birley was formerly deputy vice-chancellor of the University of Plymouth.

It has been a difficult year for the long-time anti-apartheid activist, who has suffered the death of her husband, health problems and had a run-in with president Thabo Mbeki, who last month hit out at Wits for being "out of tune" with the new South Africa.

The Johannesburg-based university, 60 per cent of whose 19,000 students are black, has been hit by a series of management controversies since the return to democracy in 1994.

It was rocked by succession battles, one of which led to a dispute between top academics and then deputy vice-chancellor Malegapuru Makgoba, who now heads the University of Natal. Its previous vice-chancellor, Colin Bundy, now director of the School of Oriental and African Studies, in London, left before his term expired.

In a statement last week, Professor Reid Birley said she had been taken by surprise two weeks ago at a council meeting when its chair, constitutional court judge Edwin Cameron, expressed "extreme dissatisfaction" with her management, accused her of not working harmoniously with senior management and questioned her integrity.

No evidence was provided to support the accusations, which Professor Reid Birley refuted. She said: "There is no financial settlement that I will accept in lieu of a principled resolution affirming my integrity, professional ability and commitment to leading this university."

Judge Cameron responded by accusing her of publishing "grave inaccuracies", and said the only way the issue could be resolved "fairly and conclusively" was through the inquiry, to be headed by former labour court judge president John Myburgh.

Wits senate this week voted to support the inquiry, which opened behind closed doors on Wednesday. But it requested the appointment to the inquiry of academic Kathy Driver as assessor.

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