In defence of Nicoli Nattrass and academic freedom

Belinda Bozzoli writes on why the case of UCT and the Professor is important

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.

Deciding on the validity and quality of academic work is clearly the job of that particular academic’s peers, who would normally write an academic refutation or rebuttal of the work they are critical of, and publish it, preferably in the same journal as the original writing. This is the normal way in which academic discourse takes place. It takes place between equals, within the parameters set by the discipline concerned. Our knowledge progresses as good ideas are reinforced and bad ones dropped.

When a University management (ie Nattrass’s bosses) steps into the discussion they are introducing two elements which do not sit comfortably in a world where academic freedom prevails – an element of “discipline” and one of “threat”. “Watch out”, they are saying. “We are in charge here, and you have displeased us. Carry on like this and you might even be subject to our discipline”. That is anathema to the academic project. And by making their displeasure public, by issuing their statement on twitter, UCT effectively made a public target of Professor Nattrass and her work, and she was thrown to the wolves of twitter amongst others.

But there is another lurking problem which arises. That is the creeping authoritarianism of our government. ANC members often do not like and cannot understand the principle of academic freedom, let alone University autonomy. It runs right against their centrist philosophy, and in Parliament they often express hostility to and incomprehension of these ideas. University officials and academics would do well to take note of this.

UCT is particularly vulnerable, for it has already gone fairly far along the path of betrayal of the principles at stake. Its condoning of the burning of art works, its censoring of its own art collection and failure to keep its promises to display it in a museum in due course, its resulting loss of the world class Goldblatt photographic collection, its appalling treatment of, and failure to defend, two others of its most eminent senior staff, the late Professor Mayozi and Professor Benatar, and its use of its annual “Academic Freedom” lecture to undermine the values of academic freedom itself are all signs of moral and ethical uncertainty, at best, and incapacity at worst.

We should be concerned that this respected University is ripe for the picking by an overweening government which casts its own hegemonic net ever more widely every day. It is time the University realized that principles are indivisible. Will UCT suddenly rediscover academic freedom when one of its academics is silenced by government, rather than its own management, as was Glenda Gray? Or will it continue down the dangerous, slippery slope it is on? I fear the latter.

It is to be hoped that Professor Nattrass’s colleagues, both at UCT and at other Universities, step forward to defend her. So far there has been no sign that this is on the horizon.