Fort Hare attempts to stem ‘downward spiral’, appoints acting vice-chancellor

2019-04-25 17:56

Professor John Hendricks has been appointed as the acting vice-chancellor and principal of the University of Fort Hare.

This follows the suspension of Professor Sakhela Buhlungu.

Buhlungu was placed on precautionary suspension with full pay pending an independent investigation into allegations of misconduct against him.

READ: Fort Hare issues its boss with suspension letter

Hendricks’ appointment was confirmed in a scathing memo sent out by interim council chairperson Sindile Toni today to the university community – students, staff, alumni, labour unions, friends of the university – and Naledi Pandor, the minister of higher education and training.

Hendricks was the university’s interim deputy academic vice-chancellor before his appointment to acting vice-chancellor.

City Press has learnt that Buhlungu was considering taking legal action following his suspension, but this had not been confirmed at the time of writing by his office or whether he had taken action yet.

This story will updated once a response has been received from Buhlungu’s office.

Yesterday, his office said, while responding to question from City Press: “The University of Fort Hare has received legal opinion and advice from two sources: our internal legal division as well as from an external legal counsel. The two opinions are unanimous in clearly stating that the meeting held on April 12 2019 by nine council members (out of a total of 27 members) was invalid and that the decisions taken at that meeting are therefore, of no legal force or effect.

"Accordingly the vice-chancellor has informed the nine council members about the illegality of their meeting and decisions taken at that particular meeting, and has reserved his rights.”

City Press has seen the legal opinions over whether the meeting of April 12, when a decision was taken to suspend Buhlungu, were invalid or not.

Besides raising issues over whether the meeting did quorate, there’s also an allegation that the university registrar sent out communication to council members postponing that meeting, which resulted in other members not attending.

In his memo to stakeholders – which painted a bleak picture of a university in crisis – Toni said these contestations would be aired in court.

“I must state for the record that since operationalising the decisions of the council meeting dating April 12, there has been serious contestations by some council members including the now suspended vice-chancellor, Professor Sakhela Buhlungu.

"It would seem that the relationship that existed between the executive management [which Buhlungu headed] and the council before my election made the lines blur on the distinctive roles played by the executive management versus the council as the board,” Toni said in the memo.

“Section 59 of the university’s statute outlines clearly the functions of the vice-chancellor and principal. These are about being the chief executive of the university responsible for the day-to-day management and administration of the university.

"Section eight of the university statute read together with the Higher Education Act imposes an obligation to the university council to govern the university and exercise oversight responsibility on the functioning of the executive management, approval of policies and the strategies of the university ... I make specific reference to these provisions to draw council’s attention to the need to make a distinction about the separation of powers between the executive and council,” Toni said.

Toni said in the memo that the purpose of the correspondence was to take into confidence and update the university community of the current state of affairs within the university.

He said the university had been marred by governance deficiencies for a very long time and that the past two yeas had seen an unprecedented decline and collapse of governance systems to unimaginable proportions.

These governance deficiencies, Toni said, had been confirmed by the latest Ernst and Young audit report, which “painted a very bleak picture of a university whose direction has taken a downward spiral”.

Among the deficiencies noted by the audit, he said, were:

* The inability of the council to make lawful decisions owing to the lack of convening lawful and properly constituted meetings;

* The lack of functioning of the council committee as prescribed by the university statute;

* The instability at the executive management level where all the executives except the vice-chancellor are on acting capacity;

* The relegation of stakeholders such as labour unions and student representatives to none entities not worth of any engagement on matters that concern the university;

* The inability of the university to submit legislative reports to the higher education department; and

* An inability to approve the university’s annual budget and new policies to replace outdated ones, among other issues.

“The resultant effect of the council being unable to meet through a properly constituted meeting has led to the council being unable to honour, at the very least, the number of meetings it ought to have per academic period [four meetings]. Decisions are taken through round-robin [a process of seeking a decision via email from council members], thus posing serious limitations to council members from executing their fiduciary duties as prescribed by the Higher Education Act and the university statute,” he said.

The first two meetings of this year alone, Toni said, could not quorate.

These were the emergency council meetings of January 16 and ordinary council of April 5.

On January 16, Toni said, the council was forced to ask other members of council to be excused in order to rearrange the quorum for the lawfulness of the decisions to be taken.

“This situation is unsustainable and cannot go on without being arrested. The interim registrar has been at pains to run the university council through legal opinions that were not even commissioned by the university council. To date it is reported that the legal fees emanating from legal opinions and buying out of officials amount to millions of rands.

"A possibility also exists that the fruitless expenditure, if properly analysed, could be running into thousands if not millions of rands owing to last-minute cancellation of council meetings, because as the consequence of cancelling meetings, flights, car bookings and accommodation for council members outside the province must be cancelled, catering must be cancelled, and all those costs come at the expense of the university.”

Toni said the department was well aware that the university had not been able to submit legislative reports in line with the act until today.

“The budget for the 2019 academic period has not been approved to date. The risk register and the annual performance plan of the university have all not been approved ... All these challenges combined has seen a university council unable to hold the executive management accountable of its decisions and at the lack of achieving the set strategic objectives of the university.

"The issues of quorum date back to years, and at the centre of them not being addressed efficiently, with me having seen the level of patronage that has characterised decision making at council level to an extent of turning a blind eye to maladministration, thus not holding the executive management accountable, I am convinced that the council itself is partly to blame for the chaotic state of affairs.

"The three [council] vacancies should have long been filled, the statue is clear on how this is done, even prescribing a three months period before expiry of a council member’s membership. To now claim ignorance of not exercising proper oversight role is indigenous of any of us,” Toni said.

He said the university would hold its extraordinary council meeting on May 10, when it would deal with matters of governance.

He said the agenda of that meeting will cover some of the imminent issues raised by stakeholders such as insourcing, payment of performance bonuses, salary increases for 2019, role of stakeholders within the university and censorship of stakeholder in communicating with the university, among others.

“Lastly, the cries of the employees have been heard through the stakeholders. The challenges confronting our university are not new, we are not immune from the challenges experienced by many other organs of state and other parastatals.

"What is key is to ensure that there is decisive leadership that performs its fiduciary duty without fear or favour, as the interim council chairperson, I am familiar with this kind of terrain, in fact I have faced the worst cases. We will turn the corner.

"The University of Fort Hare will continue to hold its historical legacy of producing leaders that go on and change the world. All challenges we face are surmountable if we all work together and provide leadership together with key stakeholders,” Toni said in the memo.

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May 24 2020