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How the rumour mill can grind a fragile varsity to destruction

Ideas

How the rumour mill can grind a fragile varsity to destruction

These institutions are ideal breeding ground for lies and rumours that work deliberately to destabilise the status quo

Columnist

Last week I was the victim of an email dump. Loads of documents, claiming rampant corruption at the University of Fort Hare (UFH), landed on my electronic desk courtesy of one “Mark Milton”. Having studied university corruption intensely over the past five years for a forthcoming book, I have learnt something about the methods deployed in campus politics to destroy a fragile university. The most common method is the malicious rumour.

The political uses of rumour are fascinating as a scholarly problem but terribly frustrating as a management conundrum. Malicious rumour has three main functions — to sully the reputation of individuals; to destabilise university management; and thereby to enable access to resources, broadly defined. This sort of mongering is normally carried out by aggrieved individuals or factions, on the one hand, and/or those with ambitions within the institution, on the other. The usual target is the head of the university, the vice-chancellor (VC), for if there can be a regular turnover in leaders, the institution remains vulnerable to collapse and opportunity. In fragile universities, such attacks are unrelenting, sometimes violent and on occasion deadly.

One of the interesting characteristics of malicious rumour is that it often contains a combination of blatant lies and marginal truths. It is this potent mix that raises questions and creeping doubt. Take the accusation in the UFH papers that the VC signed off two amounts of more than R60m to a company responsible for the student village; the charge is that the VC only has authority to sign off up to R20m. The lie can be dismissed: there is an approved delegation of authority (the VC can act) in place for matters approved by council in excess of the R20m threshold. The truth should be embraced: it is good management practice to get your council chair to co-sign these levels of payment regardless of the delegation in place. Is there a “violation” of the rules here? No. Can the delegation practice be improved? Absolutely...

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