“Special” leave?

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”.

Sex scandals scar

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.”

Students’ thoughts

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.”



Related articles

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

Wits Legal Office “gags” Politics department

The Political Studies (politics) department has written that it is “deeply disappointed” by the action taken by the Wits Legal Office following allegations of sexual harassment made by Wits Vuvuzela, last year. The department  alleges that it was effectively “gagged” by the Wits Legal Office in its attempt to address the allegations against one of its staff members. A response written by the Head of Department, Professor Daryl Glaser, was widely circulated via email on Monday evening.


“Not long after the publication of this article, members of [the Politics] Department learnt that this report most probably concerned one of our colleagues,” said the open letter.


In an interview with Wits Vuvuzela last week, Glaser confirmed an investigation was underway against the former HOD, but stopped short of confirming the identity of the individual.


But in this latest letter Glaser did not shy away from naming Prof Rupert Taylor as the academic at the centre of the allegations.


 “We have not been impressed with the way in which the university legal department has dealt with this issue”


According to Glaser, the department was informed “at a meeting with the legal office that they would set up an investigation into the rumours and allegations.” They were advised by the legal office “that actions taken by [the] department could potentially complicate any future investigation or other related initiatives.”


The politics department stated in their response: “While we appreciate that discretion and restraint are required here, we have not been impressed with the way in which the university legal department has dealt with this issue.”

Prof Rupert Taylor of the Political Studies department. Pic: Facebook.

Prof Rupert Taylor of the Political Studies department. Pic: Facebook.


“When Prof Taylor stepped down, we were explicitly instructed not to say anything about why there was a new head of department. When we raised the prospect of discussing sexual harassment with our students, we were expressly forbidden from doing so, as it might compromise the investigation,” said Glaser.


Dikeledi Selowa, a former politics first year class representative for 2012, told Wits Vuvuzela that no information was given to the students by the department and they weren’t provided with a platform to discuss the allegations.


The department’s response explained: “When our students wanted to hold a public meeting to exchange experiences and handling of sexual harassment on campus, they were informed that no persons or departments could be named, that it could only take the form of a protest.”


“No public comment of any sort was permissable”


Glaser told Wits Vuvuzela that that no students had come forward with official statements against Prof Taylor. But the department was also discouraged from asking students to come forward “because the act of asking them about sexual harassment would compromise anything that they reported in response.”


He continued by saying: “When we repeatedly pushed for a public statement from the university in response to the Vuvuzela article, nothing was forthcoming. No public comment of any sort was permissible.


“In our opinion, the extreme conservatism and lack of responsiveness of the legal department has been a major stumbling block in addressing this issue.”


The letter stated that until now the legal office has still not communicated with the politics department what happened to the investigation. But instead has “effectively gagged [the] department from making public statements or taking other public initiatives in the name of protecting an investigation.”


Wits Legal office refuses to comment


Wits Vuvuzela tried to contact the Legal Office for a response to the allegations made by the political studies department but they refused to comment.

Tasneem Wadvalla, a spokesperson for the legal office, responded by saying that because of the virtue of their (the legal office) position within the university, where they might have to act as legal representation for the Wits Vuvuzela, they cannot engage in answering questions about allegations or any other legal matters within the university.

According to Wits University spokesperson, Shirona Patel, there were two investigations on sexual harassment currently happening at the university. “The first, where an individual was named, was that of Tsepo wa Mamatu, while the second was a campus-wide inquiry where all people have been encouraged to come forward with allegations of sexual harassment.”

[pullquote]”There is scope for a more effective university response to sexual harassment and sexual violence on our campus.”[/pullquote]


The political department felt that “It is imperative that investigations prompted by the Vuvuzela article exceed the mandate of the announced inquiry” They said that the “conservative” approach to the issue “suggest a desire to avoid grappling with the full dimensions of this critical issue and feel that a general inquiry primarily focusing upon general policy and procedure is inadequate.”


The department said they were “frustrated” that this issue has gone on for so long without a strong public statement by the university, and that there is scope for a more “effective university response to sexual harassment and sexual violence on our campus.”


The open letter suggested that the approach of the legal department needs to be reviewed and “information needs to be constantly and immediately available for students and staff so that they are empowered to secure their own safety.”

“Students and staff need to be heard, involved and consulted in the process of battling sexual violence of all forms on this campus.”