Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Update on the case of Fethi Ahmed, Wits University head of school dismissed for gender-based bullying

Fethi Ahmed
Late last month I wrote about the case of Fethi Ahmed, formerly head of the School of Geography, Archaeology, and Environmental Sciences at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Ahmed was dismissed from Wits after a three member hearing panel found him guilty of gender-based bullying at the university--and after the findings were upheld on appeal (the appeal was heard by two former Constitutional Court judges.)

A few days after my blog post, the South African newspaper The Sowetan published its own article about the case, which included some details of the accusations against him and revealed Ahmed's name in the South African media for the first time (I cannot link to this article because it is only available to me on PressReader, but if you Google his name and the name of the publication you should be able to find it.)

This article, by reporter Prega Govender, quotes Ahmed as saying that the matter was now being heard by South Africa's Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration. The Ahmed story fits into a larger context in which the Wits Gender Equity Office, formerly directed by Crystal Dicks and which was very successful investigating a number of misconduct cases, is now under fire by the Wits administration and allies of some of the abusers. The attack on the GEO has already led to Dicks' firing, a matter I will write about later on.

I know a lot of people at Wits, both through my reporting as an anthropology correspondent for Science and a visit to South Africa I made for Science several years ago on assignment. Thus the following information about this case is based on multiple sources; but to protect them, I must be somewhat circumspect about my knowledge of the details. Most worryingly, Ahmed has managed to convince some colleagues that the charges against him are baseless and that the accusations are the result of some kind of plot against him by women in the School. He has been helped in this by Wits' original decision to not even name him after he was dismissed, and the university's lack of transparency about what the exact charges against him were. That has led some at Wits to conclude that they were not all that serious.

In fact, nine complainants, from diverse backgrounds and levels of academic experience, accused Ahmed of misconduct. They were able to make their case over six days of hearings, two of which were devoted to Ahmed's questioning of his accusers. Here is a brief summary of the kinds of allegations made:

--Ahmed's bullying of them led to serious psychological and emotional trauma, and some of the complainants had to seek medical treatment as a result.

--The complainants described being consistently belittled by Ahmed, and some used the term "gaslighting" to describe their experiences. That is, Ahmed would tell clearly distressed women that their experiences did not actually take place.

--The complainants were very consistent in the stories they told about Ahmed's bullying, thus describing a common pattern.

--A number of complainants described hostile and aggressive outbursts by some faculty at meetings, which was tolerated by Ahmed.

--Two of the complainants who had children described Ahmed's insensitivity to occasional urgent childcare situations that required them to be absent for short periods of time.

--A number of the complainants had approached a supportive faculty member over the past several years, often in tears, to describe being bullied by Ahmed; that faculty member gave evidence to the hearing. This faculty member was also a direct witness to some of the abuse that occurred.

--Ahmed was allowed to have witnesses in his defense appear at the hearing, and a number of them did so. In some cases they described his talents as a supportive mentor to students and other faculty.

--The hearing panel was aided in its evaluations by a faculty member in the School of Psychology who provided expert input on the subject of gender-bullying.

--The hearing panel unanimously upheld the accusations made by seven of the nine complainants, but did not find enough evidence to support the allegations of the other two.

--At the time of this hearing, Ahmed already had a warning in his personnel file for another case of misconduct, although the panel apparently did not take that into account.

--The three-member panel unanimously recommended that Ahmed be dismissed from the university. This recommendation was made on 21 December 2018.

I want to repeat that the information above is based on multiple sources with direct knowledge of the situation, and that I have necessarily left out many details to protect those sources. No one should make any assumptions about who they are, as those assumptions could easily be wrong.

After news of Ahmed's dismissal became public, former colleagues at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, where Ahmed had previously been on the faculty, publicly revealed that he had behaved in a similar fashion while there. This post by Shirley Brooks, formerly at UKZN and now at the University of the Western Cape in South Africa, is followed by a number of interesting comments from other witnesses of the time.

I will update this post as new information arises and it becomes appropriate to do so.

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