/ 23 August 2019

UCT stuck on academic freedom

Steven Salaita
Steven Salaita (John McCann/M&G)



“I begin with a straightforward proposition: academic freedom is inhumane,” said Steven Salaita at the University of Cape Town’s TB Davie memorial lecture last week.

His message for the night was that academic freedom, although important, cannot be divorced from economic or political power relations. It could be used to infringe upon freedom instead of protecting it, he said.

Whereas his speech was both lauded and criticised, it has also been seen as a symbol of the university’s changing attitude toward academic freedom and the resistance to this from some quarters.

The university stood by the decision to invite Salaita, despite the uproar it caused. It was the former professor’s first public appearance in a year, and opposition to the decision to invite him to deliver the university’s most prestigious annual lecture — which honours academic freedom — has come from both inside and out the institution.

Salaita’s career has been mired in controversy, sparked by tweets he posted about Israel a few years ago. It led to the Palestinian-American’s near banishment from academia —he went from recognised professor to school bus driver.

Salaita’s academic exile

Salaita’s exile from academia began in 2014. The University of Illinois, in the United States, had made him a conditional job offer and assigned him classes to teach that year.

He had resigned from his job at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University to take up the new position. But the offer was swiftly rescinded after his tweets came to light. University of Illinois staff, students and donors demanded the offer be withdrawn because Salaita had posted tweets they believed to be anti-Semitic.

The former professor is a supporter of Palestinian rights and has been vocal on social media. One of the contested tweets that came under the university’s review read: “The logic of ‘anti-Semitism’ deployed by Zionists, if applied in principle, would make pretty much everybody not a sociopath ‘anti-Semitic’.”

It was on the basis of the tweets that the university rescinded the job offer and a fierce debate over academic freedom began.

When the furore had died down, after arguably one of the most high-profile scandals to hit international academic circles, his world quietened … until two weeks ago, when he delivered the lecture at UCT.

Over the past four years, the university itself has been in transition. It has grappled with questions of decolonisation, transformation and academic freedom (a scholar’s freedom to express ideas without risk of official interference or professional disadvantage).

On August 7, Salaita entered this debate. UCT was motivated to invite him because of how he had been affected by academic freedom.

“Salaita fell victim to an infringement upon this right as an academic when his offer for a tenured position as a professor at the University of Illinois was revoked following a series of controversial social media postings. Freedom of speech and academic freedom, although not the same, are related,” says Elelwani Ramugondo, a UCT professor and chairperson of the university’s Academic Freedom Committee (AFC). On UCT’s campus, however, Salaita’s invite has been seen as hypocritical in some quarters.

Defining academic freedom

For the past 18 months, the AFC has been developing a working document to fully define academic freedom through key principles. At the heart of it is a question over whether academic freedom is absolute, whether it should be protected and if it causes harm.

The process may have been faster had it not been for the fervent debates and disagreements, which have led to delays. Nine principles have been agreed upon by consensus but the tenth, which considers research intended to harm, was contested.

“[The tenth principle is that] the notion of academic freedom may not protect you if your research is aimed deliberately to harm people even if it ticks all the boxes for scientific vigour,” Ramugondo says. “Some in the AFC thought it can be dangerous to have such a principle in a working document of the AFC because it can be abused.”

The tenth principle has been considered a limitation on research by some in the AFC. But a series of recent events motivated debate on the value of the principle, including an article on coloured women and “low cognitive functioning” from Stellenbosch University; a paper published by an affiliated UCT academic linking slavery to intelligence; and the International Association of Athletics Federation’s ruling on testosterone levels for “female classification”, which roused interest on ethical science.

Threat to academic freedom?

A group that includes UCT students, staff and alumni — known as Progress SA — has initiated a process to form their own “alternative” AFC after unsuccessfully calling for Salaita to refuse UCT’s invite to deliver the lecture. Although Progress SA is not an official structure of UCT, its secretary and one of its founders, Scott Roberts, says the group has a core membership of 30 people and 350 signed supporters. The group believes that “ideologically obsessed and biased” members of the AFC have put academic freedom at UCT under threat.

“We are not a Zionist organisation, nor are we a Palestinian nationalist organisation. Our interest is solely in the protection of civil liberties for members of UCT and for South Africans in general,” Roberts says.

UCT philosophy professor David Benatar, who is also a member of the senate, published his thoughts on Salaita’s invite, accusing the AFC of being unable to take a stand against the “regressive left” at UCT.

“All the threats to academic freedom at UCT come from the regressive left, whose views are the current orthodoxy. They champion the limitation of academic freedom, but only when that freedom is used for purposes they do not like,” Benatar writes. “Chillingly, the chair of the AFC has reminded her committee of the ‘context in which it was decided that academic freedom at this university needed to be reconsidered’ — namely the ‘call for decolonisation’,” he adds.

Ramugondo, however, says that while the current AFC may be more diverse than its predecessors, it still includes a variety of ideologies. The present AFC was appointed in 2016 in the aftermath of #RhodesMustFall, where calls for the university to be decolonised were heightened nationally.

“Often people suggest that during 2016, UCT capitulated to a new orthodoxy and that you have a cabal of regressive leftists who are taking over. It’s simply untrue. You have people remaining in positions of power. Within the AFC no one was kicked out. We have people with very strong conservative views and then liberal perspectives on academic freedom,” Ramugondo says. She believes decolonisation is necessary, and has also seen resistance to efforts to decolonise the UCT curriculum. Her views are that at UCT there is an old guard of liberal thinkers who have not yet embraced transformation.

“It’s impossible for historically white universities to claim a liberal approach to academia when we have a legacy of exclusion for the majority of South Africa’s population in the academy. It doesn’t fly,” she says.

She says a liberal position on academic freedom would protect those freedoms without fully respecting the harm such freedom might inflict.

Deconstructing the resistance

When Salaita lost his job offer at Illinois University, he lost almost everything. Court battles left him struggling financially to the point where he had to forfeit his health insurance. He finally reached a settlement agreement with the university amounting to $875 000 (about R13-million), but he could not find an institution across four continents that would hire him.

“They took my career. They continue to patrol academe to make sure I never return — that’s why they’re complaining about my presence here at UCT; they’re sending a message: don’t even dream of hiring this guy; don’t even consider it,” Salaita said in his lecture.

His invitation and the resistance to it lay bare some of the internal struggles in parts of UCT. “There has been resistance,” Ramugondo says. “But we find that this resistance has not been constructive. It has delayed our ability to host this debate on freedom.”

This is an edited version of an article first published by New Frame