In favour of free minds

I am often asked, “Why is academic freedom important for me—as a physicist?”

Let me respond by discussing a physics-related example: South Africa is embarking on a revitalised nuclear energy programme, and we will in all likelihood return to enriching uranium. Several nuclear power plants are planned for the next 20 years. This is an exciting time for nuclear physics and engineering in the country and I am supportive of this renewed thrust as it bodes well for the future energy needs of our country.

But I don’t think we should leave it to government agencies, technocrats and bureaucrats only to make decisions that have a profound effect on our lives. Society needs an independent, credible and technically competent voice to pay attention to issues of safety and the environment, and to protect the interests of society.

Society also needs to be protected from uninformed and reckless voices (remember the Aids dissidents?). Green movements are important for society, but they often lack a rational scientific approach and this causes more harm than good.

It is not simply a matter of having expert scientists adjudicate on the matter. What we need are expert scientists who are critical and independent, who are socially conscious, unstinting in seeking the truth, who are morally and ethically bound in telling the truth and courageous in acting on the truth. Academic freedom is our constitutional protection for pursuing the truth.

Another example drawn from the public health system relates to smoking. For a hundred years the large tobacco companies held sway and managed to persuade successive governments that there were no harmful effects to cigarette smoking. They backed their arguments with aggressive advertising and “research”—usually of an expensive nature—and they used their financial power to muscle their way against the small tide of independent and critical voices.

We now know better, of course, but it is worth our while to look back at those scientists who, it seems, acted without integrity and gained materially from this situation. This was a flagrant abuse of scholarly freedom.

How can we ensure that society is not taken for another ride? What lessons can we learn from this fraud?

Who should society rely on for the truth—or the best version of the truth? Or better still, how can society make up its own mind on matters that concern it?

Contract with society
I can go on in this fashion discussing examples that provoke further thoughts of the need for critical and independent public intellectual voices, but the point I wish to make is that for academic freedom to thrive, it is society that needs to appreciate the need for academic freedom.

Academic freedom is not a privilege accorded to academics, but is a responsibility and obligation of academics to be critically engaged with society. This is our contract with society.

Thus far much of the public discourse on academic freedom has been of an esoteric and intellectual nature. This is fine of course and helpful for practitioners of academic freedom, namely the university academics. For example, the recent Council for Higher Education task team reports on higher education, institutional autonomy and academic freedom are a significant contribution to the debates on academic freedom that are afflicting our universities.

But academics need to give more practical meaning to academic freedom and we need to engage directly with society about its importance. The need for academic freedom cannot be taken for granted.

Academic freedom under threat
Academic freedom is under threat at our universities and the future does not bode well. There are many reasons for this decline, which have been covered by concerned public voices in recent years.

The threats to academic freedom may be summarised as: a lack of public understanding and appreciation of the need for academic freedom, a poor understanding by academics themselves of their roles and responsibilities as demanded by the principles of academic freedom (or is it a lack of courage in acting on that understanding?), an interfering government hand in higher education that erodes institutional autonomy, the increasing corporatised model that sees research and education as a business enterprise, and an excessively managerialist ethos at our universities.

The ubiquitous university manager
The internal threat to academic freedom from university managers is the greatest threat to academic freedom. My comments apply to a growing number of South African universities, and are a foreboding of what is to come at other universities, especially if one does not think carefully enough about our broader changing society.

Academic freedom appears to be an inconvenient truth for our university managers. I do not know of any university manager who openly claims to reject the notions of academic freedom. Clearly, it would not be in vogue simply to say so. But their actions often belie their intentions and the principles of academic freedom seem to get in the way of many of the things they wish to do.

I worry about the increasing bureaucratisation of the university environment and the resulting increase in subsidiary university legislation that is at variance with our constitutional norms. For example, academic free expression is under threat at our universities as dissenting voices are being quashed.

This managerialist ethos has bred a more litigious environment, for how else can one force compliance with the quagmire of intellectually offensive rules and regulations that have come to govern our universities? Lawyers with an often brutal legalistic interpretation of what a university should be are having a greater say in defining the university culture than academic professors. University managers are abdicating their responsibilities to the courtroom and this is having a catastrophic effect on academic morale.

This in turn has led to a rise of union activism and militancy and the environment for rational academic discourse has become even more squeezed. New university statutes have vested more power in the hands of the university council and the senate has become just another university committee in an unwieldy bureaucracy rather than being the academic authority of the university. This makes a mockery of the concept of academic rule.

The transforming university
I turn my attention now to the subject of transformation, which has been the central guiding policy for our higher education system post-1994. The challenge for us all is to find a way to ensure that the transformation agenda is not counterposed by the agenda of academic freedom, but that we find ways in which these two thrusts complement each other rather than diverge. This calls for debate and dialogue and for creative thought about our future.

How can one address the challenges of transformation while respecting the principles of academic freedom? One needs to address this question proactively rather than reactively or we run the risk of an uncertain future.

I believe the means to a transformed higher education system is as important as the end goal of a more equitable and representative system. Who is to say that intellectual freedoms are not important in a transformed university? We undermine the goals of transformation if we do not pay sufficient attention to democratic and participatory ways of changing the system.

If academic freedom is on the decline at our universities, then it is up to us academics to keep the idea of academic freedom alive. When society finally wakes up to the importance of an independent, critical and credible academy, let it not be that we look about and cannot find that which we can call a university.

Nithaya Chetty is a physicist at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. He writes in his personal capacity

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