A campus farce

The University of the North: a campus farce, now in its fifth hilarious year.

THE REPORT ON the University of the North (Unin) at Turfloop and its subsidiary campus at Qwa Qwa (Uniqwa) prepared for the minister of education by Professor Thandabantu Nhlapo deserves a wider readership than it has had to date. The university's crisis goes back a long way - but Nhlapo's report is occasioned by the fact that virtually the whole of the university's leadership has been suspended. Those suspended include the vice chancellor, Dr Biki Minyuku, the chairman of council, Benny Boshielo, the deputy vice chancellor in charge of Uniqwa, Professor O.O. Dipeolu, his registrar, H.S. May, and his assistant director of finance, F.D. Tsieane.

Currently, Nhlapo points out, "the institution is headed by an acting vice chancellor (formerly an acting deputy vice chancellor) who replaces a dismissed acting vice chancellor, who herself took over from a suspended vice chancellor who had been in the post for only four months. This new acting vice chancellor is helped by an acting deputy vice chancellor who has been moved from the Qwa Qwa campus where he was the replacement for a suspended deputy vice chancellor and principal . . . the institution has been reduced to the level of a bad comedy."

Among the "burning issues" listed by Nhlapo are "a total lack of leadership, policy, vision and direction; a succession of weak and ineffective management teams; low morale and absence of motivation, esprit de corps, commitment or loyalty to the university; disproportionate power in the hands of "structures"; a marginalised, ineffective and inappropriately constituted senate; racism and ethnicity; financial mismanagement and a deepening financial crisis; unbridled factionalism, personal hostility and self-interest; and unchecked and unpunished corruption and fraud."

Among the grounds cited for Dr Minyuku's suspension is that when he was appointed he failed to disclose that he had a court action pending against the university. Dr Minyuku insists that he made a full and public disclosure of the position at his interview. Nhlapo reviewed the videotapes of the interview and says in effect that Minyuku is lying, for the tapes "fail to reveal any discussion of the case in question". This is not the less remarkable for the fact that Minyuku's job before coming to Unin was as chief executive officer of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Naturally, Minyuku now has another court case against the university over his suspension.

Unin is divided into pro and anti-Minyuku factions. Nhlapo does not take sides but does note that the university was effectively run by a small clique consisting of Minyuku and the executive committee of council (Exco). One council was dissolved in June 1999 but the group that took all decisions consisted of the chairperson, Benny Boshielo (until his suspension), his successor, George Negota, a lawyer, Mr Mashego and the Rev F. Bill. This group has so micro-managed the university that the legitimate university management team under acting vice chancellor Professor N.C.P. Golele "has been left with virtually nothing to do". Golele's team is widely viewed as weak and ineffective but, Nhlapo notes, there is a belief that "Exco deliberately engineered the appointment of an incompetent management team in order to install themselves as the ultimate power within the institution." Among Exco's actions was to bestow a professorship on Minyuku before senate had had a chance to examine the matter.

More serious is the fact that Exco members are accused of approving one another's money claims. The rule that council members "should not be making a living from their participation in council business . . . seems to have gone largely unheeded, as claims for huge sums of money continued to be paid." Moreover, Exco has been suspending Unin employees right, left and centre - Nhlapo counts 18 suspensions. "In many cases no charges were forthcoming months after such suspension. In some instances the suspensions were suddenly revoked, again with no explanation. It does not take a genius to work out that many of the suspensions were unjustified, had no legal basis and were effected with scant regard for the barest minimum requirements of administrative justice."

Nhlapo is particularly severe on the legally trained people on Exco (ie Mashego) "whose silence at these happenings is a cause for concern". The result of these suspensions-at-whim is "a bottomless pit for legal fees", mainly earned by one Advocate Kekana and the senior counsel he uses for such routine actions as applying for court adjournments. "The suspicion has grown that university litigation is being stretched out unnecessarily," Nhlapo writes, noting that the bills "far exceed the R3.3 million budget" for professional services of all kinds. These huge fees go not only to Kekana but to the members of Exco themselves.

Arrayed against Exco is Golele and her team. Nhlapo attended "an unruly and discordant senate meeting" in which "the finger-pointing and name-calling became so bad at one stage that Golele left the room - in a failed attempt, I later heard, to get security personnel to evict some of the more vociferous participants. In this atmosphere rational debate was impossible." Golele's management team "is unable to enforce anything".

This in turn is linked to corruption for "at Unin there is at present absolutely no accountability for the behaviour of officers and absolutely no structured sanctions for wrongdoing. The rule of law has totally broken down. Allegations abound of student ", tendering fraud and outsourcing irregularities. Attempts to extract a fair rental from occupiers of university housing have been met with death threats. There have even been allegations that some members of staff have their telephones "bugged" and that invoices for such surveillance have been traced to some university accounts." Nhlapo details many instances where "wrongful actions attract no consequences", for example of services being "outsourced to companies in Pietersburg while the university also pays a huge army of workers who spend each day 'passing the time' on campus. Unin is riddled through with examples of such total breakdown in systems."

A good part of the problem, Nhlapo concludes, is that at every level employees dig in, not by doing their job properly, but by developing a support basis in their particular "structure", which means that others do not wish to tangle with them. The structures, in turn, wield inordinate power. The result is a "culture of mediocrity and self-interest permeating the student body, whose preoccupation with the larger political landscape relegated learning to the sidelines. When learning did occasionally intrude into student life (as at examination time) the easier option was to disrupt the examination or toyi-toyi for a passing mark. One must also remember the interests of the workers and their trade unions and the role of the institution as an 'employment agency' for the local community."

Nhlapo paints a picture of the university "as some kind of fallen behemoth with many parasites living off its carcass but with very few of them committed to (or even interested in) the core business of universities everywhere in the world: teaching, learning and research."

Just as Nhlapo concluded his report Golele suddenly sprang into action, sending round two circulars offering fast-track voluntary retrenchment on generous terms to all permanent staff. Cynics said this was because Golele's department was down to just three students and she needed a way out. The acting chair of Exco then sent out a circular rescinding the offer but 250 senior university members had already snapped up the offer. Exco terminated Golele's appointment as acting vice chancellor, claiming that she had a conflict of interest in the retrenchment process but it already seems too late for some of the 250 have launched legal actions demanding retrenchment on the terms offered. More huge legal bills loom.

Nhlapo recommends that Unin be closed down completely so that a fresh start can be made. As one of his options he suggests that the university's warring parties could be brought together by "an Eminent Person" who would become a sort of university administrator-facilitator. He adds that "supporters of this approach were kind enough to suggest that the present Independent Assessor might be well suited to this role" - ie Nhlapo himself.

Nhlapo should reflect long and hard before he offers himself for such a role. After all, he writes that Golele's position was suddenly reinforced because she was able to get an audience with education minister Kader Asmal and was perceived as having preferential access to him. The result was her success in getting Minyuku suspended as vice chancellor and then in launching the calamitous retrenchment scheme.

Nhlapo's report also lacks historical depth, covering only the events of 1999-2000, whereas Unin has been in turmoil for years. One curious side to this is that failure at Unin has not prevented later success on the national stage. Thus Minyuku's predecessor as vice chancellor, Njabulo Ndebele, (below) not only survived being locked out by students and extensive corruption allegations published by the Mail & Guardian, but rose from the ashes to become vice chancellor of the University of Cape Town. His predecessor in turn, Chabani Manganyi, survived similar turmoil while vice chancellor to become director general at the education department - until his contract was not renewed by the minister. Perhaps the most remarkable case of all is the chairman of council at Unin who presided over much of the mayhem and then became minister of education - Kader Asmal himself.