The canary in the coal mine

Until recently in South African higher education, academic freedom was not a sexy issue. Those arguing in its defence were often perceived to have been using the issue to preserve the status quo in higher education and resist transformation. However, this matter is now perhaps the most interesting and hotly contested one in academic and public debates on higher education, and this discussion is set to grow in significance in the foreseeable future.

While there are many different views on academic freedom, at the base of all the arguments is the recognition of the importance of academics to pursue and construct knowledge in an unfettered way, not for its own sake necessarily, but for the good of society in the longer term. Together with this freedom come responsibilities, of course, and it is in regulating these responsibilities that we seem to be running into difficulties at many South African universities.

Academic freedom and its closely related cousin, freedom of expression, are fragile and seem to be increasingly under attack or being eroded by society, the state, funding agencies and by university managers. A common complaint among academics is that they are feeling boxed in, with their work channelled in certain directions and their voices—particularly critical voices—being muted.

At stake for academics is the nature of academic identity—what it means to be an academic in an increasingly complex world of increased demands for accountability. Most academics are motivated by passion for what they do, a passion for pushing knowledge boundaries and exploring social or natural phenomena to shed new light or new perspectives on them and to share these with new generations of students. But somehow, under the weight of all sorts of external and internal constraints, it seems to becoming harder to keep that passion alive. Why should this be so now? What is driving this? And why is this subject so important?

Academic freedom has often been associated with the right to pursue truth. Part of the problem is that the notion of truth itself has become contested. “Whose truth?” is the real question. This is, of course, a major philosophical argument that is deeply rooted in race, culture, history and also perception and can only be addressed over time in an environment of much more open discourse, not less.

The real issue is whether society in general understands, sees relevance and trusts in what academics do. This relationship of trust has become enormously strained. In a context of political transition and racial inequity, and a contestation around truth, academics are generally not trusted to lead debates on Africanisation, transformation, racism, equity and so on. Many academics are uncomfortable negotiating around these issues. Somehow, these topics now appear to fall outside the ambit of academic discourse and have become more a part of political discourse.

Similarly, academic institutions have also not been trusted with undertaking the project of institutional reform on their own so that a plethora of external demands have been made, ostensibly for greater accountability. “Who is the judge of academic quality and whose standards are we aspiring toward?” are questions that strike at the very heart of what a university should be.

Some universities have been restructured through mergers. Curricula now need to be approved through external bureaucratic processes and organised in specified formats. Funding formulae are designed to re-engineer who and how many get taught in specific fields. External programme reviews and institutional audits are now commonplace. All of these serve to circumscribe academic activity in particular ways that reduce institutional autonomy and academic freedom. A common lament is that there is more management and less action at the chalk face.

Perhaps the most extensive effect of these changes and demands on universities is the way in which the organisational culture has been affected. From relatively laissez-faire management in collegial settings, universities have adopted more corporatist ways of doing business in order to demand greater academic and financial accountability.

South Africa is not alone in following this trend. There are many who believe that a university should be run as a business. With its increased reliance on private sector funding, the development—sometimes at all costs—of an institutional brand has become pre-eminent. Managers have become hyper-sensitive about protecting the brand, and this often militates against an individual’s right to be openly engaging and critical, lest they damage the university image.

Universities now have more powerful councils with more room for external influences. However, this has opened some councils to vested interests, often with disastrous consequences. Senates’ roles have been undermined, and academics are subject to more controls and scrutiny, with the result that few are willing to interact critically with management for fear of reprisals.

The number of high-profile cases of academics in legal trouble with their institutions (leaving aside whether these cases are really academic freedom cases or ordinary labour relations cases) has led to a culture of self-censorship. Nobody wants to be the tall poppy. The result is a general down­grading of the role of the university as a leader in critical debates, which in turn undermines the quality of the research, teaching and community involvement. In such an environment, it becomes increasingly difficult to nurture free thinkers.

Academic freedom is a right, but is often perceived to be a privilege. This is largely because of the fact that discussions on the importance of these freedoms have often only taken place in the hallowed chambers of academia and have not filtered sufficiently well into mainstream society.

Academic freedom will be protected only when society gains a greater appreciation of its significance. It doesn’t help for academics simply to interpret the right of academic freedom as needing to be left alone to do as they wish; nor does it help for individuals who do something wrong to equate academic freedom with a kind of diplomatic immunity.

What people say, however, is a different matter. An argument can certainly be made that universities are such special places that no idea or view, however repugnant or false, should be banned or subject to reprisal. This does not mean that falsehoods should go unchallenged, of course. However, is our democracy mature enough to withstand such a test of resilience?

This and many other facets of academic freedom need to be negotiated and nurtured in a manner that makes sense to ordinary people. It is in this context that academic freedom should be seen to be inherently our contract with society.

A decade or more ago, Mahmood Mamdani related the tale of many African universities being governed first by their colonial masters, then nationalist politicians and thereafter multinational funding agencies. Academic freedom suffered, as did the usefulness of universities to ordinary people. The warning then was that legitimacy or authenticity could only be achieved through responsiveness to local issues in a way that also contributes to global conversations on knowledge. This still rings true now.

Academic freedom is too important an issue not to protect and develop. In many ways, it is the measure of the health of a democracy, the canary in the coal mine. We need to make sure that the conditions exist to keep that canary alive.

In order that we take this debate to a new level in South Africa, academics need to focus much more on the responsibilities that come with academic freedom, and how these should be regulated. How should we respond to claims of curtailment of academic freedom on the one hand, or abuse of academic freedom on the other within the institution if and when these occur? What kinds of processes should the institution have in place to manage these real or perceived infringements? Is it sufficient simply to expose the problem with the view to discussing the matter openly? Or do we need to take a legalistic route?

It will help for academics to move away from the theoretical arguments on academic freedom (as we have done above) to consider more practical tangible situations that will give a lot more substance to many of the essential points. This debate is set to widen much further.

It is the view of Dr Jane Duncan, director of the Freedom of Expression Institute, that it is a matter of time before issues around these principles will serve before the Constitutional Court. We should look forward to this prospect because setting landmark precedents could well help shape the debates that rage on these matters—currently the law does not clarify precisely how academic freedom should be enacted in society.

Nithaya Chetty is associate professor of physics at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and Denyse Webbstock heads the quality promotion and assurance unit at UKZN. They write in their personal capacities, and wish to acknowledge colleagues at UKZN, especially on the change listserver, for continuing to shape their thinking on these important topics

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