In a bid to placate politics on race UCT fails to protect academic freedom

A little more than a decade ago, several of us battled at the University of KwaZulu-Natal for the soul of the university. That was the hardest time in our lives. We lost. Many of us were driven out because we could not comply with the destructive, racist agenda of the then vice-chancellor, Malegapuru Makgoba, and the attack on the basic tenets of academic freedom. The real loser was the university, because many academics fled for their academic lives. The university is a shadow of what it could have been in post-apartheid South Africa.

Through those lonely and difficult times, we were glad to have been supported by the Academic Freedom Committee at the University of Cape Town (UCT), and the Wits Academic Freedom Committee.

I have followed Professor Nicoli Nattrass’s story in the media, and have been deafened by the silence of the UCT Academic Freedom Committee. That is a great worry for what this says about the future of intellectual freedoms in South Africa.

I do not agree with Nattrass’s viewpoint and premise, but I respect her right to write about her work from an academic point of view. I think the peer criticism she is experiencing is far tougher than any investigation might lead to. And that is more useful for the broader discourse that this has engendered.

The South African Journal of Science published her work in the first instance. The journal could have rejected it at the outset or retracted subsequently but didn’t. Instead the journal has created an opportunity for others to give rebuttals and Nattrass’s right of response. This legitimises the academic process, and it respects Nattrass’ academic freedom. It keeps the discussion within academic rules of robustness and collegiality.  She has the intellectual freedom to decide how she will respond. My hope is she will acknowledge academic criticism of her work and adjust her underlying thesis. It is her chance to set the academic record of her work straight.  Academics should allow this to play itself out in this time-honoured way.

But I am not oblivious to the political debates that have raged around Nattrass’s work. When we stick our necks out publicly, there will be repercussions.

It is useful to distinguish more carefully between academic discourse and political discourse. The academic process is based on independent, critical thinking, on evidence-based research, on reproducibility, on pursuing the truth and so on. Sometimes, from a flawed set of ideas emerge new thinking and new notions, through interrogation, scientific inquiry and iteration.

Political discourse is a different type of conversation, and it is seeping more and more into our universities. It is often based on group mentality, on populism, on expedience, on convenience, sometimes on exploitation, often on untested ideas, usually on emotion, but it is a power struggle. Much of it is vitriolic, harsh, irrational and inconsistent. The result can be extreme divisiveness, and difficult to counter in an academic setting that thrives on mutual respect, personal courage and an environment that respects the circulation of ideas.

Is this duality peculiar to discussions on race? Is this the only area where we should cringe, and abandon all notions of intellectual engagement? The answer is no. I can imagine a scientist writing about energy security, say, on shale gas exploration, in an academic journal and being lambasted by the environmentalist movement in the popular media, or the other way around. There will be many other examples.

Does this make political discourse inappropriate at a university? The answer here is, surprisingly, no. Our universities are strongly coupled to the societies in which they are embedded, and academics need to be prepared to defend themselves in the public setting. The public pays our salaries, and so we need to open ourselves to public scrutiny. Increasingly now we are being asked to have a more positive tangible effect on society, but the entire academic system cannot be solely directed in this way. More importantly, we should be prepared for attack. This has now become par for the course for anyone who takes a public position on just about anything, especially in this time of rapid social media. My only recommendation would be that academics develop a thicker skin in dealing with political criticism.

And so, I don’t understand the UCT management call for an investigation, and I worry about the wider implications this will have for the broader academic system. There has also been a call for Nattrass to retract her commentary by the university, which is also problematic. I have grave concerns for the threats that she faces and for the attack on her freedom to pursue research in an unfettered way. UCT, in its haste to placate a political discourse, has abdicated its responsibility to protect its academic principles.

My experiences at the University of KwaZulu-Natal have shown me that the hardest battle is to prevent the first step down the slippery slope of the erosion of academic freedom. Once we enter the murky world of intellectual decline, there is no stopping just how far we will plummet. Sometimes, we can recover, but often it is not to where we could have been.

I’ve encountered too many people who have looked the other way in the hope that this first step is but an aberration. History shows that when you wait on the sidelines, and when you slip far enough down the road to intellectual bondage, the abnormal becomes the normal. It always comes back to that first step when not many stood up to be counted when it really mattered.

That is why we need to stand firmly on principle, for Nattrass’s right to engage in research in an unfettered way. I think the broad academic system is robust enough that scholarship is quickly challenged, in an academic, intellectual, collegial sense. We don’t need a bureaucratic, managerial system to police that. The academic system is self-correcting, and eventually good ideas stand the test of time. And that is how progress is made.

The first step to intellectual decline is often a tiny step. It can often be overlooked. It could be wished away. Not many will see where that can lead to. But by the time they do, it will be too late.

The UCT Academic Freedom Committee of a decade ago stood by me in my time of need, but there seems to be an absence of their voice in Nattrass’s time of need. Academic freedom is delicate and necessary at our universities. Let us protect it for future generations.

Nithaya Chetty is dean of the faculty of science at the University of the Witwatersrand and vice-president of the International Union for Pure and Applied Physics. He writes in his personal capacity.

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