Controversy around the dismissal of former politics professor Rupert Taylor has continued to his Wikipedia page which has been changed more than 50 times in the past two weeks by rival editors.
Taylor was dismissed in September following an investigation into accusations of sexual harassment by Wits.
The editing, mostly by anonymous users, started in September with a simple change noting Taylor’s dismissal in what was then only a two paragraph biography.
“Professor Taylor was reportedly fired by Wits University in September 2013 for sexual harassment,” read the edit.
The next day another user substantially lengthened the biography to eight paragraphs and changed the line referring to Taylor’s dismissal.
“In 2013 Professor Taylor was, according to Wits University’s Head of Communications, put on special leave and ‘escorted off the campus’,” read the change.
Shortly thereafter, the Wiki war over Taylor’s page was in full swing with this sentenced removed only to be added again the next day. Several other changes were made, back and forth, to the page.[pullquote align=”right”]Removed links as it is misleading, all false reporting pertaining to Taylor’s case [/pullquote]
A major change was made on October 7 when Taylor’s page was changed to suggest that the professor was dismissed due to racism on the part of Wits.
The edit read: “In 2013 Professor Taylor was dismissed for ‘improper conduct’ by the historically-white Wits University for having had an affair with an African student; in a context within which that University has become increasingly ‘toxic’”.
Links to news articles on the allegations of sexual harassment were added and removed several times during the Wiki war.
Wikipedia requires that users give reason for editing a page. One user who had removed links to the news articles justified the action by calling them “false reporting” and threatened other Wikipedia editors with “civil legal action”.
“Removed links as it is misleading, all false reporting pertaining to Taylor’s case will be facing civil legal action so please do not repeat on this page,” read the edit.
Editing to Taylors’ Wikipedia page has continued throughout the month and it is not clear when the tit for tat editing will end. The page was last edited on Wednesday.
In September 2012 Taylor stepped down as head of the political studies department following allegations by students of inappropriate behaviour were published in Wits Vuvuzela.
Taylor was put on special leave in March 2013. At the time he denied the allegations and told Wits Vuvuzela he was considering legal action.
By Nokuthula Manyathi and Pheladi Sethusa
As Dean of Students Prem Coopoo spends her sixth week on special leave, the rumour mill churns out speculation and the university remains silent about the reason.
Week to week Wits Vuvuzela has been given the run around when trying to find out more about the situation.
Initially staff and students had been informed Coopoo’s absence would only last for a week.
Wits spokesperson Shirona Patel told Wits Vuvuzela last month that Coopoo was placed on special leave pending investigations but would not specify the nature of the investigation.
This week director of special projects, Oliver Seale, said Lamese Abrahams had been appointed the acting dean of students.
He went on to say: “University management is currently in negotiations with Ms P Coopoo on this matter.
We will notify the entire university community on this matter as soon as the negotiations are concluded.”
Some of the rumours Wits Vuvuzela has heard include that the university has plans to change the position of the dean of students, taking away the title of dean. Seale responded to this by saying that was not the case: “Please note that the negotiations with the current incumbent and (sic) not on the job title.”
Wits Vuvuzela contacted six members in executive management, including Vice Chancellor Adam Habib, but could not obtain further comment.
THE DEAN of students, Prem Coopoo, has been on special leave for the past two weeks, since August 2, with little clarity on when she will return.
Wits spokesperson Shirona Patel told Wits Vuvuzela that Coopoo had been placed on special leave pending an investigation.
Elaine Milton, head of employee relations at Wits, said the reasons behind Coopoo’s absence are “personal and private” and she could not comment on them.
Wits Vuvuzela tried numerous times to get in touch with Coopoo and other members in management for more information but to no avail.
Head of Residence Life Rob Sharman has been named acting dean of students while Coopoo is on special leave.
According to the university’s website, the office of the dean of students facilitates student life and the academic life of students. It also assists with programmes and services to students.
The dean of students also provides “the strategic direction and co-ordination of all student affairs operations” and sets “clear and specific expectations for staff involvement in facilitating students’ experiences”.
By Caro Malherbe and Ray Mahlaka.
SEXUAL harassment allegations against Wits university lecturers have dented the university’s reputation. At least three academic staff members have been suspended for alleged sexual harassment and have been put on special leave, pending an inquiry.
Wits spokesperson Shirona Patel said the coverage of the sexual harassment cases in the media has cost thousands of rands in reputation damage.[pullquote align=”right”]”Reputation is everything in academia as well as the world of corporate and consumer brands”[/pullquote]
“We have adopted an open and transparent approach pertaining to this matter, without compromising the legal processes underway…However, we can facilitate the communication as much as we like, but if we do not fix the real problems in our system, these issues will recur,” Patel said.
Communication strategist Sarah Britten said that in a country where people are aware of gender based violence, institutions such as Wits should be criticising society.
“Scandals like this [sexual harassment] could scare off potential students and staff and cost Wits money in lost fees and the inability to attract the best academics. “Reputation is everything in academia as well as the world of corporate and consumer brands and this has been damaging,” Britten told Wits Vuvuzela.
Britten said that the Sunday Times article on senior drama lecturer Tsepo wa Mamatu will linger in people’s memories. “In cases like this, it’s important to create the perception of transparency and swift action. I’m not sure they have actually done this,” she said.
Word of mouth can harm the reputation of the university more than the reported stories in the media, said Britten.
Public relations consultant Chris Vick said the university has been “relatively successful” in demonstrating that it will not tolerate sexual harassment. “But the key is to maintain momentum by formulating and announcing steps, such as policies and practices, to ensure this does not happen again and to communicate these to students, in particular, in a convincing way.”
Melissa Lowrens, 2nd year BA, said she felt the scandals that were exposed this year have caused “irreparable damage to Wits’ reputation.”
Lowrens said people often tell her: “Oh, that school that was in the paper for sexual harassment.” However, Imra Schaik, 2nd year BA General, said that he remains a proud Witsie even after the scandals. “My friends who are at UJ [University of Johannesburg] still think I’m a boss for getting into Wits.”
Wits Vuvuzela April 19, 2013: Sex accused kicked off campus
Wits Vuvuzela April 13, 2013: Wits staff in sex harassment inquiry
Wits Vuvuzela March 11, 2013: New lecturer in harassment allegations
Daily Maverick April 8, 2013: Scared out of their Wits: Sex predator scandal stalks university
Four cases of sexual harassment in Faculty of Humanities are among those that are the subject of an university-wide inquiry by the law firm of Bowman Gilfillan.
“There are a number of cases being investigated by Bowman, four cases in the Faculty of Humanities,” Prof Libby Meintjes, head of the School of Literature Language and Media.
The inquiry follows allegations of sexual harassment against Wits staff members including suspended senior drama lecturer Tsepo wa Mamatu, former head of the political studies department Prof Rupert Taylor and former head of the media studies department Dr Last Moyo.
Meintjes emphasised that Moyo was on “special leave” and not “suspension”. “Dr Moyo has been placed on special leave with no access to the campus pending the investigation,” she said. [pullquote align=”right”]“Students, feel free to speak out openly, without fear.”[/pullquote]
She said Moyo has not been suspended, as there have not been enough formal complaints made.
Director of employee relations Elaine Milton told Wits Vuvuzela it is better for a staff member who is the subject of an investigation to be off campus while such an investigation is taking place.
Milton said proceedings were at a “very delicate stage” and she could not disclose the names of staff members involved as this will prejudice the investigation.
She said that “special leave” is a leave of absence without the loss of benefits or remuneration in order for the university to be able to conduct an investigation in an “unfettered” and an unhindered” manner.
Milton added that Taylor, who stepped down as head of the political studies department last year following sexual harassment allegations, has not been formally placed on special leave.
Meintjes stressed that students should not fear to come forward with complaints about sexual harassment. “If they take [their complaints] to the correct sources, to the correct persons, there will be no backlash,” she said.“Students, feel free to speak out openly, without fear.”
Dr Mehita Iqani, acting head of the department of media studies, said: “There is a lack of trust in the institution. I don’t think anyone should HAVE TO work in an environment where there is a sense of fear…Students need to know that if they have a complaint against staff confidentiality will be absolutely protected.”
University Registrar Kirti Menon said the university is hoping to receive feedback from the Bowman Gilfillan attorneys by the end of next week.
Meintjes said: “We are hoping it will be concluded very soon.”
“I don’t think we’ve heard the end of this.”
While the investigation into the sexual harassment allegations is being conducted, a separate inquiry into the university’s procedures for the reporting of sexual harassment is also taking place.
The vice chancellor’s office has asked Norton Rose Attorneys and the Centre for Applied Legal Studies at the university to conduct the inquiry into the university’s policies and mechanisms dealing with sexual harassment. This inquiry is expected to be concluded by August.