A very strange invitation

David Benatar says UCT’s Academic Freedom Committee has failed again


Consider the case of an American academic whose tweets include the following:

“You may be too refined to say it, but I’m not: I wish all the fucking Mexicans would go missing”. (Tweeted after three Hispanic teenagers in Texas, were abducted and murdered by members of a white supremacist group.)

“At this point, if Mugabe appeared on TV with a necklace made from the teeth of white farmers, would anybody be surprised?”

“The logic of ‘racism’ deployed by African nationalists, if applied in principle, would make pretty much everybody [who is] not a sociopath, ‘racist’”.

“African nationalists in South Africa: transforming racism from something horrible into something honorable since 1994”.

Should this person have been invited to deliver the 2019 Steve Biko Memorial lecture, which he has entitled, “The inhumanity of liberation”? If you answer this question negatively, then be assured that this case is entirely fictional, as it could only be in the current context. Nobody with a track record like that would be invited to the University of Cape Town (UCT) to deliver any lecture, let alone a Steve Biko Memorial lecture.

Now ask yourself whether an American academic who tweeted the following should have been invited to deliver the 2019 T.B. Davie Memorial Academic Freedom lecture at UCT?:

"You may be too refined to say it, but I'm not: I wish all the fucking West Bank settlers would go missing." (Tweeted after three Jewish teenagers were abducted and then murdered by members of the demonstrably antisemitic Hamas.)

"At this point, if Netanyahu appeared on TV with a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children, would anybody be surprised?"

"The logic of 'antisemitism' deployed by Zionists, if applied in principle, would make pretty much everybody [who is] not a sociopath, 'antisemitic'.”

"Zionists: transforming anti-semitism from something horrible into something honorable since 1948."

This case is entirely true. The UCT “Academic Freedom Committee” has invited Dr Steven Salaita to deliver the 2019 Academic Freedom lecture named in memory of Dr Thomas Benjamin Davie, former UCT Principal who fought the imposition of Apartheid on UCT in 1950s. Dr Salaita’s topic is “The Inhumanity of Academic Freedom”.

It remains to be seen what Dr Salaita will say under that heading. Whatever it is, no matter how vile, he has a right to say it and I would oppose any call for him to be disinvited, heckled, or otherwise silenced. (I am not aware of any such calls, at least as yet.) It does not follow, however, that he was a fitting invitee to deliver an academic freedom lecture in memory of Dr Davie, or that anybody should go listen to him.

One reason for thinking this is to be found in considering the first (and fictional) case I presented. If such a person should not be invited to deliver the Steve Biko Memorial lecture, then Dr Salaita should probably not have been invited to deliver the T.B. Davie Memorial lecture.

Why might Dr Shuaib Manjra, who nominated Dr Salaita, and the UCT Academic Freedom Committee, which endorsed the nomination and issued the invitation, think that Dr Salaita would be a suitable speaker? The most charitable answer is that Dr Salaita’s own academic freedom was threatened at one university and later infringed by another.

In 2013, while he was teaching at Virginia Tech, there were calls for his dismissal following his publication of an article in which he rejected the “Support Our Troops” slogan. While Virginia Tech distanced itself from Dr Salaita’s comments, it said that it supported his right to freedom of expression. Yet, some people found Virginia Tech’s statement “wholly unsatisfactory” and “placing in doubt its commitment to academic freedom”.

Dr Salaita subsequently accepted an offer of a position at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. However, before his appointment was confirmed (and after he had already resigned his position at Virginia Tech), the offer of a position at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was rescinded following a series of tweets (including those above) that he made during the Gaza-Israel war of 2014.

After a settlement in which the University agreed to pay him $875 000, he was left without a job. He was hired for a year at the American University of Beirut, but was not renewed in that position. He has not found an academic position since then, and is now working as a school bus driver in Washington DC.

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign did indeed violate Dr Salaita’s academic freedom, with momentous effects for him personally. It may well have had a chilling effect on others. However, if the UCT “Academic Freedom Committee” wanted to hear from somebody who had been silenced by a university, it should first have invited Flemming Rose, who was silenced by none other than UCT. (In addition to the other advantages, this would also be an act of redress, to which UCT purports to be committed.)

Mr Rose had been invited by the previous Academic Freedom Committee to deliver the T.B. Davie Memorial Lecture in 2016 and was subsequently disinvited by Dr Max Price and the then University Executive. Subsequent to that disinvitation, Mr Rose has been re-nominated by multiple people. One nominator, in justifying his nomination, said that in the face of Mr Rose’s earlier disinvitation, “the very continuation of the T.B. Davie Academic Freedom lecture is a farce. The only way the lecture can be redeemed is by ensuring that Mr Rose is invited to give the lecture he had earlier been invited to give and was then barred from giving”. Evidently the Academic Freedom Committee found this (and the rest of the motivation) “not convincing enough for the nomination to be reconsidered”. Instead, it concluded that because Mr Rose “was previously regarded as an inappropriate speaker for the T.B. Davie Lecture, it would abide by that decision”.

(It did not carry this logic through to Dr Salaita who has been regarded as inappropriate for an academic position. In this case the UCT Academic Freedom Committee had the “courage” to stand up to the University of Illinois. It just lacked the courage to stand up to the University of Cape Town.)

Nor is Flemming Rose the only person to have been silenced by or at UCT. His case may be the most ironic and the most explicit, but there are numerous other examples, overt and covert. Many artworks have been covered up and removed to placate intolerant elements, without any protest from the current Academic Freedom Committee. Worse, two members of the committee – the Chair and one other – have actually defended the censorship.

There are also innumerable other instances of academic freedom having been infringed upon, through intimidation, threats, disruption, violence, and vandalism. All of the worst offenders have been let off. Others were never charged. The toxic climate at UCT has resulted in self-censorship. Many people are cowering, fearful of expressing their opinions. Those who have expressed their views have been threatened, shunned, censured, or otherwise victimized.

One such example is Dr Kenneth Hughes, a longstanding defender of academic freedom at UCT. After he published a letter, “Appeasing the UCT Taliban”, his next History of Economic Thought lecture was disrupted by protestors seeking his removal as course lecturer. This is exactly what they achieved. The remaining lectures for the year had to be posted on the web and, by some contrivance, the course, long assigned to Dr Hughes, was conveniently assigned to somebody else from the following year onwards.

None of the threats to academic freedom at UCT come from reactionaries or conservatives (both vanishingly rare species at South African universities) or from liberals (a now endangered species.) 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. (Chillingly, the Chair of the Academic Freedom Committee has reminded her committee of the “context within which it was decided that academic freedom at this university needed to be reconsidered” – namely the “call for decolonization”.)

In other words, those on the regressive left have no principled commitment to academic freedom. An Academic Freedom Committee worthy of its name would be testing and challenging that orthodoxy, not pandering to it by inviting one orthodox speaker after another into the echo chamber that UCT has become.

Instead, after re-inviting Mr Rose (who has stood up to threats to freedom of expression from both the left and the right), a UCT Academic Freedom Committee worthy of its name would invite people who have stood up to the intolerance of the regressive left. There is no shortage of such people, but two outstanding examples are Professor Nicholas Christakis and Dr Bret Weinstein.

Both scholars are on the political left, but not its regressive strain. Both were harangued by intolerant, narrow-minded, cry-bullies, but admirably retained their composure and attempted to engage their persecutors. Both paid a high personal price. Dr Weinstein and his wife, Dr Heather Heying, were driven from their positions at Evergreen State University where campus police had told him that they were unable to protect him and advised him to remain off campus. Nicholas Christakis remains at Yale, but his wife, Dr Erika Christakis no longer teaches there. Both of them stepped down from their positions as Masters at Yale’s Silliman College, after months of pressure to do so.

The unfailing decency of Nicholas Christakis and Bret Weinstein stands in contrast to the intemperate, vituperative, and prejudicial comments of Steven Salaita. This is yet another reason why they rather than he would be much more fitting speakers for a lecture in memory of Dr Davie, who is recalled (by Benjamin Pogrund) as “a man of honour, integrity and commitment to academic freedom, and also a man who treated everyone with impeccable courtesy”.

Finally, Dr Salaita has spoken of a “Palestinian exception to … free speech” in the United States, alleging that those expressing pro-Palestinian views are silenced in that country. Is that a reason to invite him? Whether or not there is an element of truth to that claim in the United States, it is certainly not true in South Africa, where there have been not only an endless stream of such speakers who have had no difficulty being heard and hired, and where the national government condemns and shuns Israel and cosies up to the Palestinian Authority and even Hamas. Whether (so-called) pro-Palestinian views can be expressed is thus not a test of academic freedom in South Africa or at UCT. One test, instead, is whether pro-Israel views can be expressed.

Professor Elelwani Ramugondo, current Chair of the UCT Academic Freedom Committee has said that she does “not think that we can speak of academic freedom, and ever be certain that in inviting one speaker, and not another – we can avoid offending some members of our community”. That may well be true. However, the question to ask her and her committee is why they are willing to offend again and again those with non-dominant views, and never offend those with the dominant ones. The test of freedom of expression and academic freedom is whether non-dominant views can be freely expressed. UCT has repeatedly failed that test. The current Academic Freedom Committee at UCT should start doing its job, which is to promote academic freedom and to take appropriate action when it is infringed.


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