UCT and the question of academic freedom

Opposition against the University of Cape Town inviting Steven Salaita to give a public lecture has mirrored internal resistance to changes at the university.

It has taken a long while for Steven Salaita to emerge on a public stage. A controversy led to the Palestinian-American’s near banishment from academia five years ago. Salaita, unable to find a job, went from recognised professor to school bus driver.

For a time, he made headlines in the wake of arguably one of the most memorable scandals to hit international academic circles. But when the hype died down and interest in the drama waned, his world quietened. Until two weeks ago.

Over the past four years, the University of Cape Town (UCT) has been in transition. It has grappled with questions of decolonisation, academic freedom and transformation. On 7 August 2019, Salaita  entered this debate. The former professor, who held the Edward W Said Chair of American Studies, made his first public appearance in almost a year to deliver UCT’s TB Davie Memorial Lecture, the university’s most prestigious annual lecture, which honours academic freedom. 

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As he stood before a crowded room, Salaita introduced his theme for the address, saying: “I begin with a straightforward proposition: academic freedom is inhumane.”

Salaita’s 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 on freedom instead of protecting it.  

While his speech was both lauded and criticised, it has also been seen as a symbol of UCT’s changing attitude toward academic freedom and resistance to it. UCT has backed its decision to invite Salaita, despite the uproar from inside and outside the university. 

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 quit his job at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University to take up the new position. But his offer was swiftly rescinded.

University of Illinois staff, students and donors demanded the offer be withdrawn because Salaita had posted tweets they believed to be “anti-Semitic”.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 ‘antisemitism’ deployed by Zionists, if applied in principle, would make pretty much everybody not a sociopath ‘antisemitic’.”

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It was on the basis of the tweets that the university rescinded the job offer and a fierce debate over academic freedom began. UCT was motivated to invite Salaita because of how he was 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 AFC chairperson. On UCT’s campus, however, Salaita’s invite has been seen as hypocritical by some. 

Defining academic freedom

For the past 18 months, the university’s Academic Freedom Committee (AFC) has been developing a working document to 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 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 testerone levels for “female classification”, which roused interest on ethical science. 

Academic freedom threatened?

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. While 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 university senate, published his thoughts on Salaita’s invite, accusing the AFC of being unable to take a stand against the “regressive left” at UCT.

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“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. 

Freedom without harm

Ramugondo believes decolonisation is necessary. She 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.

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When Salaita lost his job offer at Illinois University, he lost almost everything. Court battles left him financially struggling 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.

For the first time in almost a year, Salaita had the chance to speak out on stage after his exile. His invitation, and the resistance to it, has been a symbol of the internal struggle in parts of UCT. “There has been resistance, but we find that this resistance has not been constructive. It has delayed our ability to host this debate on freedom,” Ramugondo says.

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