ACADEMIC MOBBING AT UCT: SHOCKING, NEVERENDING STORY?

By Marika Sboros

Academic bullying or mobbing as it has become known is an ugly phenomenon. It’s a scourge, endemic in even the best universities in countries across the globe.

South Africa is no exception, as the extent of academic mobbing at the University of Cape Town (UCT) reveals.

A series of articles in the Cape Doctor magazine covers two egregious examples of academic mobbing at UCT. (Scroll down for a link to the online version.)

In a scorching editorial, editor Dr John Steer hits out at UCT for what many see as an entrenched culture of mobbing.

He also says that UCT failed to protect two of its most distinguished sons from mobbing: the late cardiology professor Bongani Mayosi (pictured, left) and emeritus professor Tim Noakes (pictured) with particularly lethal results.

By nature and definition, academic mobbing (bullying, at heart) is destructive in intent and effect. It can also be deadly. In a worst-case scenario, it kills its victims. Academic mobsters may be university administrators, academics, faculty and students. University leaders at the highest levels can be mobsters.

Even if they are not actively involved in the mobbing, they have the power to stop it. For whatever reason, they choose not to wield that power.

Academic Mobbing’s Terrible Toll

In Mayosi’s case, the mobbing by students began in 2016. It exacted the most terrible toll. It ended with his death by suicide in July 2018.

In comparison, Noakes can count himself lucky, if that’s quite the right word. He has survived a much longer period of mobbing intact in body and mind – if not in bank balance. Cardiology professors, Noakes’s colleagues in UCT’s once-proud,  internationally renowned Health Sciences Faculty, attacked him publicly in the media in 2012. Other faculty professors followed in another letter to the press in 2014.

That set a precedent, as UCT emeritus professor of paediatrics Alastair Millar and I write in the Cape Doctor. UCT had made it open season on Noakes at universities across the country.  And while the mobbing reduced significantly after a legal ruling in June 2018. Behind the scenes at UCT, it continues.

UCT also made it open season on Mayosi as well by not dealing swiftly with the mobbing by students. Not all universities get away with doing that.

Click here to read: Did Wits University Ethics Chief Lose Her Way Just To Nail Noakes?

 

In his editorial, Steer refers to the case of US professor Brett Weinstein at Evergreen University. Student protests forced him to resign. In 2017, the university settled on a $500,000 payout.

And in 2018, a Guardian investigation showed that hundreds of academics have been accused of bullying students and colleagues in the past five years. This has prompted concerns that “a culture of harassment and intimidation is thriving in Britain’s leading universities”.

UCT currently stands out as having that culture but the same may be true of other top South African universities.

UCT’s Response

Millar and I refer to the extensive evidence on public record of an organised campaign behind the mobbing of Noakes. It set the stage for the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA) to launch what his lawyers called a “world-first prosecution and persecution of a world-famous scientist simply for his scientific opinions on nutrition”.

The mobsters may have considered the trial a burgeoning apotheosis. It turned out differently.

UCT hierarchy, including the vice-chancellor at the time (Dr Max Price), tacitly supported the campaign against Noakes, Millar writes. He calls it “disgraceful” that UCT chose to disown him publicly – or at all.

Millar is scathing about UCT’s response to mobbing. He writes too of turmoil raging in its Health Science Faculty even before the tragic death of Mayosi, who he rightly calls “one of UCT’s brightest stars”. The turmoil has grown stronger with the resignation, retirement or absence on sick leave of key faculty leaders and deanery supporting staff, Millar says.

He notes the faculty request for an in-depth review and possible restructuring. “There is the expectation that much good will come of this,” Millar writes.

Others are not so sanguine in light of what they see as UCT’s head-in-the-sand approach to academic mobbing.

In Mayosi’s case, the mobbing by students began just days after he took up his new position as dean of UCT’s Faculty of Health Sciences. The student mobsters were part of the so-called Fees Must Fall campaign.

Click here to read: Will Academic ‘Mobsters’ Silence Noakes?

 

Ironically, Mayosi actively supported their grievances and their right to express them. But then, the grimmest of ironies almost always punctuates academic mobbing.

The students refused to leave his offices for two weeks, an action Mayosi’s colleagues called an “occupation”. Those sympathetic to his worsening plight called it an “invasion”.

Precipitous Descent Into Depression

What is not at issue is that students subjected Mayosi to a sustained campaign of vilification, harassment and threats that went on for weeks, 24/7. They called him a sell-out and a “coconut” (brown on the outside, white on the inside). They left threatening messages on his mobile phone throughout.

And when he tried to step down from his position, UCT pressured him to stay. Thus, the mobbing precipitated a downward spiral, a precipitous descent into the depths of depression from which Mayosi would never recover.

Media reports on how UCT dealt with the protests are illuminating. University administrators and leaders took the line of least resistance with protesting students in general and the mobbing of Mayosi in particular.

Colleagues minimised the mobbing to Mayosi himself. They suggested that he was over-reacting. After his death, they downplayed and dismissed any suggestion of complicity in not helping him or stopping the mobbing.

In a media interview, UCT vice-chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng blamed the student protests for Mayosi’s death. Predictably, the students vehemently rejected that opinion. Two days later, Phakeng backtracked in another interview.  In “no way” did she mean that the student protests were to blame for Mayosi’s death, she said. But while the protests “were not wrong”, they were also “not kind” to Mayosi.

Mayosi’s colleague UCT surgeon Lydia Cairncross also tried to absolve UCT of all responsibility for his death.

Clashing Universes

Writing in the Daily Maverick just days after Mayosi’s suicide, Cairncross was expansive in praise of him – and the students. She called the protests “a transformative moment in our history as a faculty”.

Seldom had she seen political protest unfold “so spontaneously, so respectfully, so democratically, so beautifully as that particular protest did”, she wrote. Having been “lucky enough to be present in a few of those moments”, Cairncross claimed that she could not recall a single instance where “Bongani Mayosi, the man, was disrespected, called names or denigrated in any way”.

She added as an afterthought: “Though, of course, there may have been isolated instances of this.”

Through an extraordinarily positive lens, Cairncross, she saw the protests as “principled political action to hold accountable the representatives of the structures of power in a flawed system”.

It was as if Cairncross were inhabiting a very different universe from the one in which Mayosi existed at that time.

Steer is critical of Cairncross’s opinions, which she has yet to retract. He pointed out that internationally renowned Prof Jonathan Jansen, a Stanford graduate, considered the students, who many called “Fallists”, to be “fascists”.

‘They Vandalised His Soul’

At Mayosi’s memorial service, his sister, Ncumisa,  was visceral in response. The students had a “do-or-die, scorched-earth approach” to her brother, she said.

“The vitriolic character of student engagements tore him apart.

” To be clear, Bongani believed in the studentsʼ cause. But the personal insults and abuse that were hurled at him without any justification whatsoever cut him to the core.”

The students “completely vandalised (his) soul”, she said.

“Put simply, this unravelled him.”

UCT leadership did make a belated attempt to admit responsibility in Mayosi’s case. At Mayosi’s memorial service, UCT Council Chair Sipho Pityana said that UCT had to “question whether there had been enough institutional and peer support for (him) during this time”.

There were “lessons for all of us in (Mayosi’s death)”, Pityana said. Among those: “How we channel our expectations of black excellence and excellence, full stop. And how we express those expectations.”

“We need to ask ourselves if we have become so bloody-minded and entrenched in defending our own positions, whatever they may be, that we have lost an ability to listen, to view each other as human beings and act with empathy and kindness.”

Mobbing Leaves Questions In The Ether

Pityana declined an emailed request in 2017 to comment and intervene on Noakes’s behalf. UCT academics and leadership at the highest echelons also declined throughout his trial.

Pityana has left salutary questions hanging in the ether: Why did UCT not extend empathy and kindness to Mayosi before his tragic demise? And why did UCT extend neither to Noakes for the mobbing, more so, since it continues?

Noakes’s mobsters have grown muted since the HPCSA’s thorough vindication of him on all aspects of a trumped-up charge of unprofessional conduct. However, behind the scenes, they’re still at it. And not just at him.

A reliable source within UCT has told me of other instances of mobbing of Health Science Faculty academics. Most recently, faculty mobsters subjected a fellow academic to harassment and threats of disciplinary action. The academic came to a mutually acceptable agreement with UCT and has found a position elsewhere. Luckily for UCT, the academic has chosen to stay silent on the mobbing – for now.

Financial cost of mobbing

Legal analysts say UCT’s reluctance to admit to any responsibility is likely because of the legal implications. As Steer points out in the Cape Doctor, admitting liability can be costly.

One of the logical consequences of all the mobbing is that it has rubbed much of the gloss off UCT’s once-proud, global reputation for research excellence, tolerance and commitment to academic freedom. After all, academic mobbing is inherently antithetical and anathema to tolerance and academic freedom. It effectively undermines research excellence as Noakes’s case shows.

Mobbing Against LCHF

Millar writes that the mobsters sought to silence him because they disagreed with his research-based views on optimum nutrition to treat and prevent the epidemic of chronic disease sweeping South Africa. In particular, they took strong exception to Noakes’s views on low-carb, high-health fat (LCHF) diets to treat and prevent obesity, type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

It’s probably no coincidence that all the UCT mobsters support conventional “wisdom” and a low-fat, high-carb (LFHC) and the orthodox, pharmaceutical approach to all these diseases. All also have links to food and drug industries.

Click here to read: Why won’t UCT just say sorry to Noakes for the mobbing? 

 

Millar questions the motivation of UCT Health Sciences Faculty members who wrote the open letter to the media in 2014 attacking Noakes in inflammatory, defamatory terms. The authors tried to create the impression that their concern was for patients’ health and wellbeing. Instead, Millar says, their letter “really aimed at undermining (Noakes’s) academic credentials and reputation”.

He also questions why so many UCT academics became involved in the  HPCSA case against Noakes. And why they supported a heavily conflicted dietitian with a business to protect and a grudge against him and LCHF.

“Lurking in the shadows behind all this were Big Pharma and those with vested interests in the sugar and cereal food industries,” Millar says.

The Faculty has yet to acknowledge public or privately that the HPCSA has totally vindicated Noakes or to apologise to him privately or publicly.

‘Incestuous Web Of UCT Academics’

The reality remains, as the Cape Doctor series makes clear, that mobsters could not ply their awful trade against Mayosi or Noakes or others without  UCT administrators and leaders looking the other way.

I make that point in the book that Noakes and I have co-authored on his trial. Penguin published it for the South African market, under the title Lore of Nutrition, Challenging Conventional Dietary Beliefs in 2017. We have since revised and updated it under a new title: Real Food On Trial, How The Diet Dictators Tried To Destroy A Distinguished Scientist (Columbus 2019) to take in the June 2018 appeal ruling. The ruling confirmed the first comprehensive vindication of Noakes by another HPCSA committee in April 2017.

In it, I pose the question: could the HPCSA’s trial of Tim Noakes have happened at all were it not for an incestuous web of UCT academics that spread to other universities? The question hangs like a pall over the mobbing of Noakes and Mayosi.

Willingness To See

UCT ignored all my emailed and phone requests for comment during Noakes’s trial. The university responded comment on the Cape Doctor articles by Millar and me, but only to deny all claims. Yet the evidence on academic mobbing of Noakes by UCT and other academics is out there, uncontested, in plain sight, on public record at his trial.

All it requires is a willingness to see. And to speak up.

The deafening silence around academic mobbing at UCT and elsewhere is both pernicious and dangerous. A quote by Nazi hunter Eli Wiesel that I have included in my book with Noakes encapsulates it:

“We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere.”