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The Life of Brians: What the hell is going on at UWC?

The Life of Brians: What the hell is going on at UWC?

Long regarded as the intellectual home of the left in the province, the University of the Western Cape has been caught up in an unseemly controversy since 2012 as the “two Brians” at the 55-year-old institution – outgoing Rector and Vice Chancellor Brian O’Connell and President of the Convocation and Chair of Council, Brian Williams – have been locked in an apparent battle for the soul and ethos of the university. Last week Cosatu’s Tony Ehrenreich weighed in supporting O’Connell over Williams but Ehrenreich’s endorsement appears to have had no effect, as Williams emerged victorious at a surprisingly well-attended convocation AGM over weekend. MARIANNE THAMM tries to make sense of it.

It all began in 2012 with the simple enough matter of a proposed invitation to a Cuban ambassador to deliver a talk at a public dialogue event due to take place at the university in March that year. It wasn’t an unusual or out-of-character occurrence for UWC, regarded locally as “the people’s university” and the “intellectual home of the left” (“more home of the left behind” an old alumni jested affectionately). Besides, the university had, in the past, invited Cuban guests and had paid for their hotel and travel costs so there was nothing untoward about this request for the university to cover the same expenditure.

At the time, incumbent Vice Chancellor and Rector, Dr Brian O’Connell, was away and filling in was Deputy Vice Chancellor, Professor Ramesh Bharuthram. Out of the blue, Bharuthram made an apparently unilateral decision informing council (an executive authority responsible for control and governance of the university) that the university would not cover the travel and accommodation costs for the invited Cuban guest. Bharuthram later claimed in a letter dated 12 March that his decision had been backed fully by O’Connell as well as the executive management of UWC.

Bharuthram’s resolution was immediately viewed as an attempt by UWC management to curb certain activities and to interfere with and limit academic freedom on campus.

Since that March 2012 incident – call it the “Cuban crisis” – the relationship between Brian Williams, chair of the council and newly-re-elected President of the Convocation, and Brian O’Connell, outgoing Rector and Vice Chancellor, has spiralled out of control and spilled out and over the Bellville campus’ bucolic fynbos surroundings. The feud has become known in the local press and among UWC alumni as “the battle of the two Brians”.

But what is it really about? It is difficult, even having access to court documents, emails and other correspondence, to pinpoint exactly the eye of the storm.

Back in 2012/13, the clash escalated and became about more than just travel costs, revealing much deeper underlying tensions relating to the historic “ethos” of the university as a home for working class students. Funding cuts for lifelong and part-time learning were, said, some, an indication of the closing down of the space for poor students who traditionally found a home at UWC.

Over and above this struggle for the “soul” of the institution there were also allegations (made by the ANCYL-dominated SRC) of financial impropriety (involving tenders) by UWC management.

But the first slug was firmly landed on 20 May 2012 when Convocation Executive Committee and Council member Randall Titus, a former trade unionist who has since died after having a massive heart attack while at UWC, lodged a formal complaint against Bharuthram. Council, in the meantime, instructed labour law specialist, Michael Bagraim, to investigate the nature of Titus’ complaint and to establish whether Bharuthram did indeed need to face a disciplinary hearing for his unilateral ruling.

O’Connell objected vociferously to the appointment of Bagraim – an outsider – and accused Williams of doing so irregularly. O’Connell was of the opinion that the complaint should have been brought to him for investigation.

From here matters steadily deteriorated further and even UWC Chancellor Rev. Thabo Makgoba’s attempts at mediating, which would often begin with “My dear Brian & Brain” and end in “yours in the service of Christ”, led nowhere productive.

“The thing is at a university is that you need to keep your friends close and your enemies closer, and the rule is you never fall out with the council chair. It’s not good for the university,” said one insider.

Countless emails and communications whizzed back and forth between various interested parties but by September 2013 Williams found himself temporarily out in the cold when he received an email from UWC’s Department of Institutional Advancement (copied to all council members) notifying him that “the University of the Western Cape Council has elected Dr Raymond Patel as its new chairperson. The new chair was appointed at a council meeting held on 13 September. This appointment follows deliberations between the former chair, the Vice-Chancellor, and the Chancellor, as per the recommendation of the council.”

Williams took UWC, the council and the new chairman of the council to court and the decision to fire him – taken by a minority of the 30-member council at the special meeting with a closed single agenda on 13 September 2013 and made against the legal advice of the head of UWC’s Legal Services – was ruled in May this year by the Cape High Court as unlawful.

Williams was immediately reinstated as Chairman of the Council and UWC was forced to carry the costs of the case, around R1 million.

Shortly before this month’s Convocation AGM, a statement written and issued on behalf of the UWC Convocation Executive Committee correctly suggested that the illegal decision by the UWC Council raised many questions.

“Was their decision symptomatic of something more disturbing taking place at the university? What is the origin of this whole saga? This extraordinary decision on a cursory reading of the court papers and the facts show the decision was clearly unlawful.

Why then did the university management, under the leadership of Professor Brian O’Connell, persist in opposing the review application to the High Court and not accept that an invalid and unlawful decision was made?” wrote the statement authors Songezo Maqula, Mlungisi Noludwe and Alex Fisher.

Maqula, Noludwe and Fisher went on to state that it was reasonable to expect that O’Connell, who “is the accounting officer with a fiduciary duty, should have obtained a written independent assessment of the merits of the case and shared this with Council members, prior to using public funds”.

In March this year the SRC called for the public protector to conduct an audit on UWC’s financial affairs alleging that there have been tender irregularities and that senior management has benefited. O’Connell has consistently denied that there has been any financial impropriety.

There is no doubt that there has been a serious breakdown of trust and communication between UWC management and what is described as a “large part of its constituency”, including students and academics.

It is clear, from the Convocation AGM at the weekend, that Williams enjoys considerable support on campus and that the schism that has been bleeding all over headlines has galvanised the UWC community at large. Proof of this was the unusual turnout for the AGM, where around 400 people voted after an unprecedented four-and-a-half hour meeting on the Saturday.

There were two elections at the weekend, one for two council positions and one for the President of the Convocation.

Both “factions” – the O’ Connell and the Williams’ camps – had been lobbying hard, with O’Connell meeting around 300 admin staff late last week and urging them to vote for his two preferred council candidates, Brian Figaji (former Pentech Vice Chancellor) and Nathan Erasmus, to “take back our university”.

The ANCYL-dominated SRC, on the other hand, campaigned for Williams and former SRC president Songezo Maqula, with a pamphlet titled “Protect UWC, Defend UWC, Promote UWC.”

Insiders say that while Williams may not be “an academic of note, he has equipped himself very well, asking uncomfortable questions, and he and certainly enjoys popular support”.

The Convocation Executive statement hints at some of the underlying tensions. “It is unfortunate that there are those individuals within the university community who would allow personal and reactionary ideological reasons to taint the reputation of a great university. UWC has always been at the forefront of the struggle for justice, democracy, equality and transparency. This legacy is in danger of being destroyed. It is our duty to protect UWC and to promote good governance and clean administration.”

Williams, a former trade unionist, anti-Apartheid activist, Provincial Director of the Department of Labour and current labour relations specialist, was originally elected to the UWC council by the convocation in 2007. O’Connell was appointed rector in 2001. The two men appear to have worked well together until 2012.

At the weekend Williams was elected President (a position he will fill till 2017) with 93 votes to Nathan Erasmus’ 91. Williams and Maqula were also both also elected to council with Williams receiving 199 of the 400 votes cast.

O’Connell, who is currently serving his third and last term as Rector and Vice Chancellor, will soon be replaced by Professor Tyrone Pretorius, who will arrive to take up the position as Rector in July and to help with the transition before O’Connell leaves at the end of the year.

During the struggle years – the 19890s – under the leadership of the late Professor Jakes Gerwel, the University of the Western Cape became one of the leading institutions of higher learning. It was a space for contested ideas and progressive rigourous debate and produced some of the country and the region’s finest academic and political leaders including Neville Alexander, Allan Boesak, Adam Small and Rhoda Kadalie, to name only a few.

An editorial in influential Afrikaans Cape daily Die Burger on Tuesday criticised the interference by “trade unions” (presumably Cosatu’s provincial secretary, Tony Ehrenreich, who publically came out in support of O’Connell before the AGM).

“When trade unions and politicians that have little to do with UWC as an academic institution begin to choose sides, UWC runs the risk of deviating from its academic mission and becoming a political football”, read the report.

Last year five South African universities made it to the top 100 of Time Higher Education’s first-ever ranking of universities in Brics and emerging economies – and UWC was not among them. UCT came in third, with WITS ranked 15th, Stellenbosch 21st, KwaZulu-Natal at 45 and Pretoria at 78.

However, UWC was ranked 7th in SA and 984 in the world by the 2013-2014 edition of University Ranking and Academic Performance (URAP), a ranking scheme based solely on quantitative measures of academic productivity. Another 2009 study, conducted by International Webometrics, ranked the University 7th on the African continent.

While the university has certainly made strides under O’Connell’s leadership, the current unpleasantries threaten to tarnish its considerable reputation.

For those of us outside the hallowed and sheltered walls of well-paid academia (well at least for rectors) the spat at UWC and the publicity it has attracted is not befitting of an institution of higher learning. Hopefully O’Connell’s imminent departure, Williams’ reinstatement as President of the Convocation and the arrival of the new rector next month will bring much-needed stability.

Keith Gottschalk, spokesperson for the UWC Convocation, said the election of Williams this weekend was “a win for the rule of law” and that now was a “time for healing and again weaving the fabric of collegiality at UWC”.

Those of us outside the controversy (and some of us may be fee-paying parents) hope for the same. DM

Photo: Brian O’Connell, Brian Williams


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