Without academic freedom, universities cannot survive
In March 2015, the Academic Freedom Committee (AFC) at the University of Cape Town (UCT) invited Mr Flemming Rose, previously cultural editor of Jyllands Posten, to deliver the annual TB Davie lecture on academic freedom. At an AFC meeting in May this year, the AFC was asked by the UCT Executive to consider withdrawing the invitation to Mr Rose. The UCT Executive presented the AFC with a number of arguments – citing, for instance, “security concerns” and the “threat to transformation” as reasons to disinvite Mr Rose.
None of these arguments was found to be sufficiently compelling. The AFC thus refused to withdraw its invitation to Mr Rose. In July, the UCT Executive overrode the decision of the AFC and withdrew the invitation. Writing on behalf of the Executive to explain the reasons for their decision, Dr Max Price – with no hint of irony – affirmed UCT’s commitment “to the right to academic freedom and freedom of expression”; the Executive also stated that it views these rights “as fundamental and a cornerstone of our institutional culture.”
Despite this avowed commitment to academic freedom, it is clear to many at UCT that the Executive’s commitment falls far short of what it should be, and that far from seeing the right to academic freedom and freedom of expression as a cornerstone of university culture, it is all too often viewed as a hindrance. Although the case of Mr Rose is the most egregious example of this, it is unfortunately not the only one.
In January 2016, the Communications and Marketing Department at UCT capitulated to threats by the Rhodes Must Fall (RMF) collective and removed an exhibition; in March, an exhibition by RMF was itself vandalised by members of UCT’s Trans Collective, and was shut down.
None of those involved in the shutting down of these exhibits was censured. In a shameful display of self-censorship, both the UCT Executive and various Faculties removed many artworks from UCT campuses. To make matters worse, the AFC was not even approached for its views, nor were the views of the wider UCT community solicited prior to the removal of these artworks.