DISCORD ON CAMPUS
Head of University of the Free State Business School suspended after planning diversity training
Respected UFS Business School director Dr Udesh Pillay convened a meeting with black staff to hear their concerns, after which he planned to hold diversity training with all his colleagues. Pillay was promptly reported by a university ‘whistle-blower’. Now he has been suspended.
On 14 October, the University of the Free State (UFS) website published a glowing article about the UFS Business School and its new strategic vision under director Dr Udesh Pillay, who had been in his position for just over a year.
The UFS Business School (UFSBS), the article noted, was committed to ensuring that “the twin principles of academic excellence and social justice become mutually reinforcing”.
Just three days later, Pillay was placed on suspension — in terms of which he is forbidden to enter the university campus without prior written permission, but also banned from leaving Bloemfontein, where UFS is based, during working hours.
Pillay’s apparent offence: having stoked “racial tension between Caucasian and African employees”, according to an anonymous complaint laid against him.
Pillay is the first person of colour to lead the UFSBS and has more than two decades of experience in senior positions in the South African government and international academia. When he was appointed, UFS Rector Francis Petersen hailed his “wealth of experience as an acclaimed leader in the private and public sectors”.
Whistle-blower claims racism against whites
According to documents leaked to Daily Maverick, a caller phoned the UFS whistle-blowers’ hotline on 12 August to report “unethical behaviour taking place at the Business School”.
The subsequent report of the call states: “The caller reported Dr Pillay, the director of the Business School … for unethical behaviour pertaining to him being racist towards employees of Caucasian ethnicity within the said department; initiating racial tension between Caucasian and African employees within the said department, and for representing himself as the Dean of the department at a workshop”.
The caller claimed: “On Tuesday, 2 August 2022, Dr Pillay had organised a Diversity Workshop at the aforementioned faculty and had only invited employees of African ethnicity and had denied access to employees of Caucasian ethnicity.”
The caller “further mentioned that Dr Pillay had been excluding employees of Caucasian ethnicity from certain matters and events in the said faculty”, but was “unable to provide further details on the said matter”.
According to the caller: “Dr Pillay was trying to cause racial tensions between the employees at the said faculty.”
UFS appears to have begun an investigation into the complaint shortly after. Pillay himself apparently did not receive a copy of the whistle-blower’s complaint until about six weeks later, at which point the university’s HR department accuses him of having circulated it to colleagues at the Business School.
This is the ostensible direct cause of Pillay’s suspension.
In a letter from UFS HR dated 17 October 2022, seen by Daily Maverick, Pillay is accused of having “shared the content of the whistleblowing report with the employees in the UFS Business School via email, after you were required not to do so”.
The letter continues: “The UFS has furthermore received allegations of serious additional transgressions against you, and these include harassment, victimisation, intimidation, and threatening behaviour towards co-employees. In order to duly investigate these allegations, the UFS has decided to place you on precautionary suspension pending the outcome of the investigation.”
The terms of Pillay’s suspension ban him from entry to the university campus, prohibit him from accessing his computer and emails, and ban him from making contact with any university staff.
Pillay is also required to “remain within the greater Bloemfontein area during normal working hours”.
Contacted for comment on Pillay’s suspension, UFS spokesperson Lacea Loader told Daily Maverick: “Dr Udesh Pillay, director of the UFS Business School, has been provisionally suspended as a precautionary measure in order for the University of the Free State to finalise an internal investigation. The university management is unable to provide further information, as the matter is dealt with internally.”
Pillay told Daily Maverick that the terms of his suspension prohibited him from discussing the issue with the media.
The documents in Daily Maverick’s possession, however — leaked to us in the wake of our investigation into the governance crisis at the University of Cape Town — reveal that Pillay is not taking his suspension lying down.
Pillay had previously raised concerns about transformation — lawyers
Lawyers for Pillay wrote to university HR director SJ van Jaarsveld, Rector Francis Petersen and Economic and Management Sciences Faculty Dean Philippe Burger in early November demanding the lifting of Pillay’s “unlawful” suspension.
In the letter, the lawyers write that Pillay had, in the recent past, “raised various concerns with senior management of the UFS relating to governance, transformation, the broader institutional culture at the institution, and other commercial decisions being taken by the institution that were inconsistent with its strategic objectives and commitment towards the transformational and social justice objectives as set out in [various UFS plans]”.
The lawyers claim Pillay had previously voiced concern over the university’s commercial partnership with an Israeli-linked entity, the pace of racial transformation, the unfair appraisal system for support staff at the UFSBS, the impact of red tape on the academic project, and a number of other issues.
They say Pillay had also raised “the issue of the centralised locus of power and control at the UFS and the associated impact such clandestine structures have on the attainment of the organisation’s stated transformation goals”.
Pillay’s lawyers suggest that it was the raising of these issues by their client that led to his suspension, rather than the misconduct claimed by the whistle-blower — which Pillay denies.
Pillay grilled about marijuana joke
On 31 October, Pillay was required to make himself available for an interview with an independent investigator probing the allegations of the whistle-blower and subsequent issues arising from the investigation into that complaint.
A recording of the interview obtained by Daily Maverick reveals that Pillay was questioned for about 100 minutes on a startlingly wide range of issues. Questions relating to the whistle-blower report were restricted to the final portion of the interview.
Among the subjects on which Pillay was grilled, in a largely context-free manner: the nature of his academic qualifications; his working hours; his aptitude in managing budgets; the amount of funding he has secured for the UFSBS; and whether he may have plagiarised sections of articles he wrote about the UFSBS.
At several moments during the recording Pillay can be heard expressing surprise at the nature of the questions, at one point suggesting that it feels like a “performance review”.
The investigator tells him that the purpose of the interview is not just about the whistle-blower report, but is “much wider than that”.
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The questioning reaches its nadir when Pillay is asked: “Have you ever told anyone, ‘Excuse me, but my jacket still smells of weed’?” (Pillay explained in response that he was referring to the fact that his son had borrowed his jacket.)
Pillay was also asked whether he had ever referred to any UFSBS staff members as “poncey colonialists” — to which he replied that this was entirely possible, as a joke.
At the end of the interview, when Pillay was permitted to give his response to the whistle-blower complaint, he explained that he had been approached by a black UFSBS staff member with certain grievances, which led him to consider the possibility that he had not given enough attention to racial dynamics within his department.
He then invited black staff members to an “informal meeting” over lunch in order to provide a “safe space” to raise issues, ahead of wider diversity training he planned to arrange for the UFSBS.
[The claim that he was] “privileging black staff members above white is absolutely scurrilous and goes against everything I have fought for all my life,” Pillay said.
Pillay’s lawyers say that if his suspension is not lifted, they will approach the CCMA. DM