FROM: VICE-CHANCELLORDate Released: Sat, 13 March 2010 16:46 +0200
TO: ALL MEMBERS OF RHODES UNIVERSITY
EXCLUSION OF STUDENTS GUILTY OF ASSAULT OF A CPU OFFICER AND
A RESPONSE TO THE SRC OPEN LETTER TO THE VICE-CHANCELLOR
13 MARCH 2010
In a communication to the Rhodes community yesterday (Friday) it was reported that three students who appeared before the University Proctor were, on Wednesday 10 March 2010, found guilty on disciplinary charges of assault with intent to do grievous bodily harm to an off-duty CPU Officer, and attempted malicious damage to property.
The charges related to an incident that occurred on the campus in the early hours of 9 February 2010.
While two of the accused students were identified early on, it nonetheless took some two weeks to fully investigate the case.
The hearing began on 26 February 2010 and was concluded on 10 March 2010. During this period, the case was postponed for about a week at the request of students, and adjourned once as the extent to the damage of property had to be further investigated.
The Proctor imposed the following punishment on each of the students:
? Count 1: Assault with Intent to do Grievous Bodily Harm
The students are excluded from the University until the end of the academic year 2010. In addition, the students will not receive recognition from Rhodes University for any credits they may complete at any other university during the period of exclusion.
? Count 2: Attempted Malicious Damage to Property
The students are to perform forty hours’ compulsory service, at the direction of the Registrar. The compulsory service is suspended until the end of any period that any of the students may be enrolled in future as students at Rhodes, on condition that they do not commit, during the period of suspension, any offence involving damage or attempted damage to property.
The students, in accordance with the Student Disciplinary Code, have the right to a review of the punishment.
With the case concluded, though under possible review, it is now possible and necessary to respond to the SRC Letter that was handed over to the Deputy Vice-Chancellor on 4 March, placed, as an Open Letter, on the Student Zone section of the Rhodes website on 8 March, and also sent to the media.
The Open Letter is most regrettable on a number of grounds and requires a response.
1. First, the SRC provided a letter to the Deputy Vice-Chancellor on 4 March, in which it expressed various concerns and made numerous demands.
On the same day, the Deputy Vice-Chancellor briefed the SRC President on the University’s approach to dealing with the assault case and dynamics related to the case.
On 5 March the Vice Chancellor’s Office was advised that the disciplinary hearing would in all probability be concluded by 11 March.
Without any further enquiries on the state of disciplinary proceeding, the SRC turned its letter to the Vice-Chancellor into an Open Letter on Student Zone website and sent the letter to the media. The SRC is an autonomous body and is, of course, free to communicate as it sees fit and in the forms that it desires.
In yesterday’s Dispatch the SRC President is quoted as saying: “We gave the university time to come up with something but they delayed … that is why we got very angry.” This is an unfortunate self-justification on the part of the SRC for using the media to achieve its demands, despite being counseled to allow the disciplinary proceeding to take its course.
The University will not be pressurised into courses of actions that compromise administrative justice and human rights to comply with demands and ultimatums from the SRC that are misguided and untenable – the same human rights that the SRC seeks to defend and promote.
2. Second, apart from making various contestable claims, the Open Letter alleges that “to date no formal University statement of condemnation has been issued, nor have students been informed what action, if any, has been taken against the students involved in the attack”.
The facts are as follows:
a) At 20.30 on 10 February 2010 on returning to my office from a function I read a communication from the Head of the CPU regarding the alleged assault by some students of a CPU Officer during the early hours of the morning. I also read statements from the CPU Officer and two wardens.
b) Between 21.00 and 23.00 I contacted the CPU Officer to express my dismay and offer my condolences to him and his partner, and assure him that every effort would be made to bring the perpetrators to justice. I also met with the two wardens, inspected the site where the assault was alleged to have occurred, and talked to one of the wardens on possible ways of discovering the identity of the third perpetrator.
c) On 11 February, I used the meeting of the VC’s Budget Committee to convey to colleagues the events of 10 February. It was agreed that i) the Registrar should institute a preliminary investigation by a Prosecutor; ii) on the basis of this investigation the students should, if warranted, be suspended pending a disciplinary hearing; iii) a full investigation should be expedited and that if there was sufficient evidence the students should be summoned to a disciplinary hearing; iv) thereafter a VC’s Circular should be issued to the University community to inform them of the outcomes of the hearing; and v) that the CPU Officer should be encouraged to, and provided the necessary support to, lay charges with the South African Police.
As indicated, following investigations, the hearing began on 26 February 2010 and was concluded on 10 March 2010. Thereafter, I had to await the written judgement of the Proctor, which I received late yesterday.
The SRC appears to not appreciate that, in the instance of this case, an investigation was required, facts had to be established, evidence had to be gathered, statements needed to be taken, attempts had to be made to identify additional perpetrators and so forth. For example, contrary to the SRC claim that three students were ‘identified’, initially only two students were identified. Once it was established that three students were involved in the assault, attention had to be given to discovering the identity of the third student. In fact, the third student came forward and confessed to his involvement.
It is necessary to carefully apply one’s mind and to exercise judgement about when it is best to communicate a matter to the University community. In this instance, for various good reasons it was deemed best for the Vice-Chancellor’s Office to communicate with the University community once the disciplinary hearing had been concluded and there was an outcome to report. We should be extremely cautious in a clamour for statements of condemnation and action that we do not unwittingly subvert and compromise judicial processes that are under way.
On the other hand, preferably after consultation with the Vice-Chancellor’s Office, nothing precluded the SRC from issuing a carefully formulated statement on this matter to the student body.
3. Third, the Open Letter of the SRC demands “that the University charge the identified students under the University Disciplinary Procedure, for disciplinary judgment, within one week of receiving this letter”.
It should be noted that the SRC letter was received on 3 March 2010. By this time the disciplinary hearing had already been under way since 26 February 2010!
4. Fourth, the SRC Open Letter also states “we demand that the University suspend the identified students within 48 hours, pending the University Proctor’s final judgment, of receiving this letter”.
It should be noted that the SRC demand is to simply “suspend the identified students”, irrespective of evidence. However, inasmuch as the SRC pens its Open Letter in the name of the “violation of human right on our campus”, it appears human rights, administrative justice and such considerations should be waived in relation to their demand.
I have indicated that it had been the intention to suspend the students, as long as the preliminary investigation provided the grounds to do so. On various occasions I urged, given that this was a case of assault, for the investigation to be expedited. However, the preliminary investigation proceeded directly into a full investigation and no preliminary investigation report was provided to me.
It is evident that the student disciplinary system, including its operations, staffing and resourcing, is in need of attention. At the Senior Administration meeting on 10 March it was agreed that this would be a priority of the Registrar during 2010.
5. Fifth, the SRC Open Letter requests that “if these students are found guilty they should be rusticated as they bring our institution into disrepute”.
Inasmuch as the SRC is free to express its views on what it deems to be appropriate punishment, what is appropriate punishment is the decision of the Proctor (not the Vice-Chancellor). During the disciplinary proceeding, the University can, of course, motivate what it considers to be fitting punishment. This did happen. The decision is still, however, that of the Proctor.
There will always be debate on what is appropriate punishment. It should be noted that the possibility exists for requesting a review should there be a view that the punishment awarded by the Proctor is too lenient or too severe.
6. Sixth, there are two particularly troubling features of the SRC Open Letter. One is the assertion that the University has dragged its heels on this issue because of “class prejudice”. The other is the reference in the very opening line of the Open Letter to “three white students” assaulting “a black” CPU Officer.
The SRC contrasts the “swift” public action taken by the University last year when a black professor was racially abused by a white student, with what it perceives as “silence” when a CPU Officer is the victim. It goes on to say that “we cannot but speculate” that this has to do with academics being considered to be more important and that “class prejudice” might be involved.
I wish to dismiss with utter contempt this speculation of “class prejudice”. It is a mistake to think that irrespective of circumstances, every case can and must be dealt with in exactly the same manner as last year’s case of racial abuse, which was different in many respects. There has to be an application of mind, and judgements made must take into account the particular circumstances of each case.
As for the charge of “silence”, I have indicated that a decision was taken on 11 February that a VC’s Circular should be issued to the University community to inform them of the outcome of the disciplinary hearing. This Circular is in accordance with that decision, so the charge of “silence” is spurious.
If the SRC is of the view that in particular or all potential and actual disciplinary cases there should be communication at the outset and during, as well as at the end of the cases (as is usually the norm), this is a matter that should be discussed with the Dean of Students Office.
Finally, with respect to the reference to “three white students” assaulting “a black” CPU Officer: I do not wish to speculate on the SRC’s intentions. The SRC itself is best placed to explicate its intentions in this regard.
I do, however, wish to draw attention to yesterday’s Dispatch headline and opening line: “Varsity ‘race’ attack row” – “An alleged racist attack by three white Rhodes students on a black security guard….
There is no evidence that the assault was simultaneously an incident of racism or racial abuse or was racially motivated. If the SRC has evidence to this effect it is duty bound to make this available.
It is most regrettable that in communicating the outcome of the disciplinary hearing that I have needed also to respond publicly to the SRC. However, once the SRC took the action of issuing an Open Letter an open response became unavoidable.
I have shared this Circular with the SRC President prior to its public release and also offered him the opportunity to contest any aspect of this response.
I place great value on a thriving and effective SRC. I also have great admiration for the SRC members, who sacrifice a great deal in ensuring that students are effectively represented on the governance structures of the University and participate, through the SRC, in decision-making on issues related to the well-being of students and the academic project of the University.
The SRC can rest assured that there will always be action to address any violations of human rights at Rhodes and that we value their role in defending, promoting and asserting human dignity and human rights. While it is regrettable that they released their Open Letter without any further engagement with the Vice-Chancellor’s Office, I nonetheless commend their intention to raise awareness about what they perceived as a violation of human rights.
It is the responsibility of the SRC to continuously provide leadership to students in defending, advancing and asserting human dignity and human rights, as it often does, both on campus and in the wider society.
There is a distressing phenomenon of students disrespecting, abusing and attacking CPU officers, who play an important role in ensuring their safety and security. The prosecution of the three students should be a clear message that the University will not tolerate the abuse of CPU Officers or any other Rhodes staff members, or other students. The exclusion of the three students should be a clear indication of the consequences of such abuse.
It is to be hoped that the SRC will take the lead in positive campaigns, such as “Respect for Our CPU guards”.
Dr Saleem Badat