Emotions ran high during a staff meeting at the University of the Witwatersrand last week over the much-criticised police and security action on campus during last year’s violent fee protests.
Campuses were calm this week as students returned to class. But, with the possibility that protests may resume, the “securitisation” of campuses remains a burning issue.
At a meeting between academics from the humanities department and Wits vice-chancellor Adam Habib, some academics raised last year’s presence of police and private security guards on campus, which, according to a senior academic, resulted in “heated exchanges”.
“The university believes it had no choice but to bring in the police and private security and Adam reiterated those arguments,” said the academic.
But there were “people who strongly raised concerns about the consequences of the securitisation of universities and what it means for the academic project and for the nature of universities,” he said.
“Adam reiterated the administration’s reasons for doing it and people voiced their opposition again. It was collegial but heated.”
The humanities department comprises five schools, namely, social science, arts, education, language literature and community development.
The academic said Habib had agreed that a round-table discussion, “where we can engage openly and robustly” on the education crisis, including the nature of protests and securitisation, would be convened by the dean of humanities, Professor Ruksana Osman. For me, that was the main outcome of the meeting.”
The academic said the meeting was not unusual, adding: “Adam has been going around meeting all the faculties and consulting academics about a range of issues, including plans for the year and budgets.”
He said the criticism was “about securitisation. None of the criticism was directed at Adam personally. It was about the kind of general situation around securitisation and the funding crisis.”
Another senior academic did not believe that the discussion was heated. “People put their views quite strongly but I wouldn’t call that heated.
“It’s clear there are very different views in the faculty about whether the way the student protests were handled was appropriate or not.
“I thought that the interventions from the auditorium, including mine, were quite calm and reasoned. There wasn’t a kind of a confrontational approach.”
Wits spokesperson Shirona Patel said universities were open spaces for the contestation of ideas and freedom of expression.
“Academics, including the vice-chancellor, are free to raise and debate issues and ideas on contentious topics. The vice-chancellor has been meeting staff in all faculties in recent weeks and has debated several issues, including those related to student protests, funding of the higher education sector, security, transformation, research and teaching and learning.”
She said these were key topics, which needed debate and discussion.
Patel said that at the humanities meeting, four or five academics raised issues about the securitisation of the campus. “This was by no means a heated meeting. It was, however, a robust engagement in which the vice-chancellor clarified to individuals that, if they had an alternative analysis or solutions, they were free to publicly write about these, as would be the case at any university that prizes the contestation of ideas.”
She said the humanities faculty held a wide range of views, and these questions and thoughts were presented by only one group in the faculty. “We must not assume by any means that there is a single homogenous view in any of our faculties.”