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Battle between senate and council at UWC over vice-chancellor appointment process heats up

Battle between senate and council at UWC over vice-chancellor appointment process heats up
Professor Vivienne Lawack. (Photo: UWC) I The University of Western Cape. (Photo: ER Lombard/Gallo Images) I UWC Council Appoints Professor Robert Balfour as New Vice-Chancellor. (Photo: UWC)

University of Western Cape structures squabble over the appointment of the incoming vice-chancellor Professor Robert Balfour.

A tit-for-tat brawl between senate and council continues at the University of the Western Cape over the appointment of incoming rector and vice-chancellor (R&VC) Professor Robert Balfour.

UWC has been embroiled in the debacle among structures relating to allegations that the statute has been overlooked by council during the appointment process — allegations that have been repeatedly denied by the governing body.

The process led to the appointment of Balfour, whose term will commence on 1 January 2025.

Outgoing vice-chancellor, Professor Tyrone Pretorius’s term expires at the end of the 2024 academic year.

The debacle between the senate and council last year led to the council terminating the process and announcing that it would restart it from scratch.

But, the council later backtracked on its decision to cancel and restart the process saying that new information relative to the process had been received and that the director of legal services was tasked to seek legal advice on the appropriate way forward.

Read more in Daily Maverick: UWC council ‘U-turns’ on critical decision to cancel and restart VC appointment process

Daily Maverick learnt that on Tuesday 9 April, an announcement made by UWC council chairperson Xoliswa Daku about Balfour’s appointment had ruffled feathers within the university community.

Daku announced Balfour’s appointment to the university community on 4 April.

An insider alleged that Daku ignored governance requirements when Balfour, the second preferred candidate, was appointed and not Professor Vivienne Lawack, who was “twice confirmed as the Primaria candidate by Senate, Senior Appointment Committee of Council (SACC), and Institutional Forum (IF)”.

But, UWC registrar Dr Nita Lawton-Misra said Balfour was appointed following a rigorous deliberation and a vote by the council in full compliance with the university statute.

“The chairperson merely announced the council decision,” Lawton-Misra said.

Some members of the senate, Lawton-Misra said, requested clarity and it was agreed that council would meet with them at the end of April.

The meeting

The senate and council finally met on Wednesday, 24 April.

However, insiders told Daily Maverick that the meeting was a disaster.

One insider said Daku insisted on an in-person meeting.

“But you would think that she was going to engage senators. All she told us was the outcome of the voting and everyone knows who they selected. How is this giving us insight into their thought process?

“It is shocking and disappointing that the highest governance body at UWC does not see it necessary to engage with one of its key stakeholders namely professoriate,” the insider said.

A second insider said what was clear was that Daku did not think she owed any explanation to the senate and that “this council does not have the best interest of UWC in mind”.

“The mood is very sombre,” the insider said.

A third insider said there were questions that remain unanswered relating to the council voting process.

“The Student Representative Council (SRC) were totally resistant to Balfour at the interview,” the insider said, adding that the SRC then made an about-turn at the council meeting, which voted in favour of Balfour.

Seasoned academic at UWC Professor Alan Christoffels, who is also a member of senate, said: “We need the relationship between council and its stakeholders restored”.

For this to happen, Christoffels said, he would like to see the council resign.

“This will send a strong signal that UWC is determined to restore its governance processes, after a protracted period of reputational damage while searching for a new vice-chancellor,” he said.

UWC spokesperson, Gasant Abarder confirmed that the meeting took place at the senate building and that Daku and her deputy, Bhekabantu Ngubane were in attendance.

“Both of them engaged senators and answered all their questions for close to two hours. The engagement was frank and robust and certainly not one-sided,” the spokesperson said.

The university said the selection process was explained in detail, the statutory mechanism was confirmed to have been followed and, as a result, there is no legal challenge.

“The senate has not resolved to challenge the council decision in any way and the appointment of the new vice-chancellor is complete.”

SRC hits back

UWC SRC acting president Siyabonga Sgudla said they never declared a preferred candidate during the recruitment process.

“The SRC was not rude to any candidate at the public presentation and interview stages,” Sgudla said.

He said they noted the council decision to appoint Balfour.

“The SRC condemns the behaviour of academics which has potentially brought the university’s name into disrepute, and distances the student community from the conduct of these academics including the open letter and contents.”

A statement was released by the SRC on 16 April relating to the open letter that was issued by “Concerned UWC Staff” on 11 April and the petition, which had been circulated by academics seeking signatures to meet with council on 9 April.

The SRC stated that they condemn the attempts made by “disgruntled academics” to use students to sign the petition to pursue their own selfish and factional battles.

“It is important to note that whenever students are in genuine protest against an injustice, these disgruntled academics and staff members are nowhere to be found and always rush to defend the injustices that students are subjected to and rubbish any student struggle that is advanced,” the statement reads.

It further stated that the SRC has an obligation to protect the interests of students and “will not allow university staff members to involve students in their irrational and senseless squabbles”.

The open letter

The letter noted Balfour’s announcement with “great concern”.

It stated that the appointment process has been long and arduous.

“For the sake of those reading this letter who are external to the university, the process started in February 2023. This process included the drafting and approval of new standing orders for the SACC, which set out the process to be followed; the drafting of the advertisement for the R&VC post; and subsequent consultation with all statutory stakeholders on both process and requirements for the position.”

The advertisement was made public from 1 April 2023, and the finalisation of the appointment by council was planned for September 2023.

The letter states that it was certainly not foreseen that the process would only culminate almost seven months later in April 2024.

After the first deadline for applications, it states, the SACC recommended that the application date be extended to increase the pool of applicants.

Subsequently, the letter states that the senate and IF undertook a shortlisting exercise based on a list of screened applicants provided to them by the SACC.

“It is worth noting that the senate is the largest governance structure at the university, comprising multiple stakeholders, including its most senior professors, numbering over 200 persons,” the letter reads.

Presentations by the three shortlisted candidates Lawack, Balfour and Professor José Frantz eventually took place on 2 October 2023.

The SACC recommended Lawack as primaria, with Prof Balfour as secundus.

“The SACC recommendations were unanimous, with no dissenting voice nor vote recorded. This recommendation was strongly supported by the majority of the senate (79%). Given the overwhelming support by the senate of the decisive and unanimous recommendation of the SACC there was absolutely no reason why the SACC recommendation should not be upheld by the UWC council,” the letter reads in part.

Council, the letter states, voted on 28 March meeting, “on the face of it without any rational basis”, when it appointed Balfour.

“We maintain that the council has not served the interests of UWC in view of our history and the interests of transformation in the broader South African Higher Education sector.  The UWC council had the opportunity to make an historic appointment of a qualified and experienced black female Vice Chancellor (a first for this University) with the overwhelming support of the institution’s governance structures – but failed to do so, ignoring the currently accepted norms for both gender and racial equity.”

In response to the letter, Abarder told Daily Maverick that the council adhered to required governance procedures.

“We confirm that Professor Robert Balfour was appointed after thorough deliberation and a formal vote by the university council in strict accordance with the university statute,” Abarder said.

Additionally, Abarder added, following requests for further clarity from some senate members, that Daku agreed to meet with them.

Balfour referred questions relating to the letter and appointment process to a university official, who never responded. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • the university sent a mail to its staff today who are deadlocked in a wage despute after the opening bid was set at 0 percent and the university is claiming poverty after a supplier increase of 7,5 percent and the purchase of land and buildings for millions. The teaching staff who are now protesting over lunch break were threatened this morning being told that no pay would happen (even though it’s over lunch break) and that they would be fired. It’s a circus with leadership suppliers being person friends and have huge influence and increased wages while the academic teaching staff who show up for work relentlessly are not being heard. The entire thing leaves us with a bad taste of corruption and the teaching staff with no support.

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