As former members of UCT's teaching staff we are deeply disturbed that the executive of the University of Cape Town complained to the South African Journal of Science about an article written by a staff member of UCT without even the courtesy of discussing their objections with our former colleague, Professor Nicoli Nattrass
Professor Nattrass is a highly regarded scholar, with an impressive record of publications. The article in contention is entitled ‘Why are black South African students less likely to consider studying biological sciences?’ It appeared in the South African Journal of Science in May.
Professor Nattrass was at pains to point out that the article is ‘exploratory’ and its findings ‘tentative’. Clearly it is preparatory to a larger study. Even if problematically or poorly conceived, the reaction of UCT's executive to the article was extraordinary: it claimed that that it was ‘offensive to black students at UCT; to black people in general …’. It is not our intention to debate these claims, but we would note that those who have read some of Professor Nattrass’s published work will confirm her deep aversion to racism.
Our principal objection to the executive’s action is its belief (or hope) that it - or an influential group of students or academics - can block the publication or circulation of an article. We reject in principle the executive’s right to engage in this form of censorship, without even discussing their objections with Professor Nattrass, and hearing her response.
The episode amounts to a violation of academic freedom, which is protected by Section 16(1)d of the Constitution. We look forward to hearing UCT’s Academic Freedom Committee’s views.