Academic freedom in the 21st century: why the case of UCT and Professor Nattrass is important
Academic freedom is there to protect the rights of intellectuals to “freedom of scientific research”. Thanks to the efforts of the brave late Etienne Mureinik, it was included as one of our basic rights in our Constitution – alongside freedom of speech and freedom of the Press – and we would be remiss not to defend it. It is a fundamental feature of Universities throughout the world, and South African Universities will damage themselves if they do not stand up and defend it whenever it is attacked.
When Nicoli Nattrass was told, in public, by her University management that it would “distance” itself from an article she published, and moreover that the same article was, to use their words, deficient, probably racist, and methodologically problematic, we need to take notice.
What the University did was an abrogation of Prof Nattrass’s rights to academic freedom precisely because it was done by the University management, which was itself pressured by a group on campus calling itself the “Black Academic Caucus”.
Deciding thus on a particular piece of work’s quality is not the job of University management. And when a managerial body to yields to the demands of a political interest group on campus this sets a dangerous precedent. Those working in the evolutionary sciences would be right to be worried about such an action, for example.
Cases abound of schools and Universities in the US banning work in this sphere because of pressure from Christian fundamentalist groups who believe it is against the word of God to pursue it. They, too, have submitted to the interests of particular groups, rather than allowing good work to stand, and poor work to be criticized in the normal academic way. This is an example with considerable resonance in South Africa, where belief in evolution is not widespread. How would University managements respond to similar pressure in this field? Badly, it seems, in the case of UCT.