UCT's climate turns toxic

David Benatar says the poisonous environment at the university is being fuelled by naked racial politics

Academic climate change at UCT: An inconvenient truth

Universities are all too frequently not the realms of critical thinking that they should be. Orthodoxies are prevalent and alternative views are often crowded out. University campuses can be unpleasant places for those who challenge the moral and political dogmas of the academy. This is true even in the freest societies.

It is in full cognizance of this disturbing baseline that I say, without exaggeration, that the climate at the University of Cape Town (UCT) has, in the past two years, become deeply toxic. Obviously it could be worse – and it may yet become so. Nonetheless, the current situation is deeply disturbing in its own right. Unless the problem is addressed urgently, it does not augur well for the future of UCT. Because UCT is a leading university in South Africa, the implications for the country as a whole are also of concern.

The turning point was the dumping of human waste on the Cecil John Rhodes statue in March 2015. That act and the protests and disruptions that it inaugurated set a new poisonous tone. (Christopher Marlowe might say that it was “the waste that launched a thousand shits”, for buckets more of excrement, both literal and figurative, have since been strewn. In one of the literal instances, an 8-month pregnant woman had to be virtually carried over the sewage to escape the foul odour, the stench causing her to vomit on the way.)

The campus toxicity is not attributable solely to the protests and disruptions. However, these and the University leadership’s indulgent response to them have emboldened pre-existing and independent elements of campus intolerance.

The broad pathology affecting (and infecting) the campus is that of self-proclaimed “progressives” who are anything but that. Instead they are deeply intolerant, closed-minded and unprincipled ideologues for whom particular conclusions and agendas come first, and then “arguments” and “evidence” are invoked selectively to support their preconceptions.

For example, the expression of views they do not like is characterized as “violence”, while actual violence and real threats of it are perpetrated, championed or, at the very least, vigorously defended. Those who defend free speech and criticize real violence are denounced either as racists or as enemies of transformation, while those who seek to silence, not least through violence, are lauded as transformational progressives.

It is because UCT, despite ample opportunity, has not addressed, let alone corrected this pathology, that details of the problem must be made more widely known. UCT is a national resource and members of the public should know what is happening to it.

The culture of intimidation, intolerance, and bullying is so pervasive that a full accounting cannot be provided here. However, rather than merely speaking in generalities, I shall refer to a significant number of specific instances in order to give a taste of how prevalent the problem is. For this reason, and because I shall also provide some analysis, this essay provides quite a long account of what is happening.

I shall usually not name names or otherwise identify people. (The exceptions are cases where the details are already in the public domain.) This is both to protect those victims who are vulnerable to ongoing vilification, as well as not to sink towards the level of the perpetrators, who routinely engage in defamation of their adversaries – sometimes orally, and sometimes on so-called “social” media. (Anti-social media is often the more apt description.)

Some of the unpleasantness is already well known. On spurious grounds, the University Executive disinvited Flemming Rose, who had been invited by the (previous) Academic Freedom Committee to deliver the TB Davie Memorial Lecture. Various self-styled “progressives” defended the disinvitation, while others merely criticized the initial invitation. This sort of intolerance is part of a more general trend. When the chairperson of a faculty “transformation committee” said (in another context) that we must not allow unacceptable views to be expressed, we should be left in no doubt about what that ever-slippery term “transformation” entails.

Protestors, whose list of demands keeps expanding, have shut down the University on a few occasions, the most recent instance resulting in the loss of a third of a semester. They have engaged in arson, and have burned vehicles, historic paintings and the Vice-Chancellor’s office.

Artworks that offend have been censored by being removed from, or covered up in, their places of exhibition, including the University library. An exhibition – about Rhodes Must Fall no less – was shut down because it offended an intolerant splinter group. During the 2017 Orientation Week, students at a Pro-Life stall were forced to pack and leave after protesters who had been verbally abusing them then began dismantling the stall.

Protesters have inflicted personal violence, including vicious attacks on security officers and a punching of the Vice-Chancellor. A final-year law student was racially abused and had his cellphone knocked out his hand by a sjambok-wielding protester, who then claimed that he wished he had “actually not been a good law abiding citizen & [had] whipped the white apartheid settler colonial entitlement out of the bastard”.

Protesters have threatened violence against many others to whom I have spoken but who, like this victimized law student, are fearful of being publicly identified. People can be intimidated even in the absence of threats of violence. One student reports that during protests she did not enter via the main entrance of one campus, for fear of being stopped and interrogated by protesters who wanted to know why those students continuing with their studies were not joining the protests.

The University leadership has repeatedly capitulated in the face of this appalling behaviour, thereby emboldening the perpetrators. It was thus unsurprising that the 2016 Annual General Meeting of Convocation was disrupted. When one academic rose to speak and complained that the University Executive had not consulted staff during negotiations with the protesters, one protester shouted repeatedly “Shut up you bitch”.

In some cases the threats are not directed at specific or named individuals, but the severity of the threat is alarming. For example, in a Facebook post it was said that “the slaughtering of the gusha [sheep] is symbolic of what is going to happen to all counter-revolutionary forces and those who stand in the way of free quality decolonized education in 2017”.

Although it is difficult to prove, there is some evidence that endless concessions and manipulations have resulted in pass marks for some students who before the interventions had failed.

Another contaminant of the environment is authoritarianism from some people in leadership positions. In one faculty there has been a suspension of normal committee meetings in favour of centralized, ad hoc decision-making by a small group, which includes some people who do not hold formal positions of authority within that faculty.

Two deans have been described as authoritarian or mercurial, or both. One dean summarily suspended an academic staff member, causing that person untold trauma. Due process had not been followed, the suspension was eventually reversed, and the accusation that had prompted the Dean to act precipitously was found to be groundless. There were no repercussions for the Dean who proceeded to act with impunity in a string of other cases. One academic eventually laid a carefully documented complaint against this Dean for unprofessional behaviour, but the complaint was simply ignored.

A deputy director of a university-wide non-academic unit, who, in fewer than three years, lost at least two grievance complaints and a disciplinary hearing for bad behaviour against staff, was promoted to a directorship!

The poisonous environment is fuelled by naked racial politics. Anything can be contorted to be a racial grievance, which, in the contemporary South African context, has all the chilling effect of liquid nitrogen. It is quite common for students to respond to their own failings by attributing the consequences – such as refusal of “duly performed” certificates, failure of a course, or disciplinary action – to racism. One student went so far as to write to a “White Course Convenor at UCT” as follows:

“This thing of you giving me low marks ever time I submit to you is becoming problematic, I’m starting to think that its personal motivated. On top of being dispossessed as a black child, you of all people you are continuously dispossessing my marks, knowing well we were not attending lectures due to the shutdown … how on earth do you expect a protesting student to write an assignment same as the student who was studying during the protest receiving provisions from your Offices especially white students and you expect the same outcome. It is people like yourself who perpetuate black academic exclusion in UCT because you have a personal vendetta against black people, you hate the fact that we exist in this space, continue to fail me I will rise again no amount of hatred will demobilize me. We will continue to fight racism in these racist departments with whites masquerading as sympathizers of black people.” (sic)

In other words, a student participated in shutting down the university, thereby preventing all students from accessing the usual teaching activities. That student failed to take advantage of the department’s learning support and was aggrieved that other students did take advantage of it, but then believed that his or her resultant low marks were a manifestation of racism rather than poor academic performance. Welcome to UCT’s Wonderland!

Charges of racism are infinitely malleable. When the mannequins on which medical students practise cardio-pulmonary resuscitation are all “white”, this is attributed to racism. When the images of genitalia with sexually transmitted infections are “black”, that is attributed to racism. It makes no difference to those laying the charges that the vast majority of people in the country and an even greater share of patients in the public sector are “black” and it would thus have been surprising if the clinical images gathered in this context did not reflect that. Moreover, if the images of genitals with sexually transmitted infections had been “white” that too would likely have been deemed racist – perhaps “Euro-uro-centric” – because such images would have been of less help in the local context.

Similarly, to the extent that the African experience is not included in the curriculum, there are calls for decolonizing the curriculum, but when “nonblack” academics do teach about “black … practices and experiences” they are sometimes accused of “fetishizing, appropriating, and exotifying” those practices and experiences.

In at least one department, certain areas of research are perceived to be off limits to “white” students. Such students are expected, when making class interventions, to preface their comments with an acknowledgement of their (purported) privilege. Failure to do so can elicit accusations of “overt displays of whiteness”, which in that environment is akin to being accused of “being a colonizer or a racist”. If the “disclaimer [about purported privilege] is not made genuinely enough”, one will similarly be put in one’s place.

The charge of racism is wielded with paranoid – or cynical – abandon. It functions just as terms such as “kulak”, “communist”, “witch”, and “heretic” have functioned in other contexts, namely as a tool for settling scores, persecuting, and silencing. It wields such power if directed at a pale(r)-skinned person and especially if leveled by a darker-skinned person.

Anything the purported “racist” says in response is taken as confirming evidence of that person’s blindness to his or her own racism. The irony is that those wielding gratuitous charges of racism are real racists, although the context makes the counter accusation inert, and may even bolster the perceived force of the initial charge.  

That same context explains the following recent incidents, which are but a small sample:

- A student protester ascended a stage, stood next to a visiting African academic and invited him to request that all “white” people leave the venue.

- A student leader stated publicly that “white people are hectic”.

- Some students have told “white” classmates that on account of their “whiteness” they may not comment on certain issues in class.

- A student squelched a classmate’s candidature for class representative by accusing him of having a “white saviour complex”.  

- In one faculty seeking a new Dean there is such a strong presumption that no “white” candidate could be successful, that some people from this demographic are not even bothering to apply.

- A small group of medical students objected that a patient invited to address the class about his personal experiences of illness was “white”. They alleged, falsely, that this patient would not have benefited from therapy if he had been “black”. They also said that in future a “black” patient should be invited so that students could better identify with the patient, even though there are patients of different “races” who are invited to speak to students in other teaching events. (The invited patient has spoken regularly to third year medical students for the past six to eight years. Feedback had always been immensely positive – until this occasion in 2016. The patient felt the objecting students had been angry and hostile.)  

This is not to say that darker skinned people are immune to vilification if they express an “unorthodox” view. One alumna was labeled a “porch negro” for daring to “suggest that the agreement reached with a small group of students though with university wide consequences was illegitimate”.

One senior academic went on extended leave following comparable personal attacks for insufficient fealty to the protesters’ agenda. Various members of the University’s senior leadership have been called “colonial administrators” on those occasions when they do not completely capitulate to the revolutionary agenda. 

Race-baiting is not the preserve of students. The Black Academic Caucus (BAC) has an overt racial agenda, as its name suggests. The BAC has put racial solidarity ahead of principle, not least by targeting those melanin-deprived individuals who insist on the rule of law. Functioning like a contemporary Broederbond, it had no formal standing within the University until January 2017. Yet it had deployed its cadres to “serve within key structures of the university” and said that it has played a leading role in “initiatives that emerged directly from the demands of RMF, FMF, and other student groupings”.

In January 2017 the BAC entered into a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with UCT even though UCT has not yet formulated the principles and criteria that will govern any other groups seeking official recognition. The MOU uncritically accepts the BAC’s narrative, noting that the BAC was founded “with the purpose of challenging the slow pace of transformation that continues to maintain hegemonies and reproduce colonial relations of power”. As part of the memorandum of understanding the BAC seems to be seeking formal representation on “university structures such as Council and Senate, and other university committees”. Given that BAC members are already serving in other capacities in university governance, this is a bid for double (or treble) counting.

A senior academic and member of the BAC referred to a junior colleague as “just another fucking white woman”. (A complaint was not lodged because the person about whom this was said “felt, rightly or wrongly, that the complaint of a white academic regarding racist remarks would not be considered in the same serious light as a reverse scenario”.)

Given these sorts of academics and their fellow travellers, it should not be surprising that many classes have become hostile environments for those students not in the grip of the current orthodoxy. The situation may be worst in the Faculty of Humanities, where vast swathes of academics endlessly repeat tropes about race, gender, transformation and decolonization.

In one department a lecturer announced that “blacks” and “whites” cannot be friends. He then set an exam question that read as follows:

“Write detailed notes on race and racism. In your answer take care to specify the reasons for the impossibility of friendship between blacks and whites.”

In other words, this ideologue gave students no option to disagree with him. His conclusion was assumed and then students were expected to trot out whatever explanation he gave them for this patently vicious claim.

It should not be surprising that the same lecturer also complained that there were “too many white females” in a postgraduate course of his.

He also told students in an undergraduate course that rationality and reason are Western constructs and that if anybody tells them that they are being irrational or unreasonable, they should simply reply that they do not want to think “white”.

With this sort of self-crippling drivel being peddled by academics, it should come as no surprise that at least some of those demanding the “decolonization” of the curriculum think that science and such phenomena as gravity are “products of western modernity” which should be scrapped, and that science should then be started from scratch from an “African perspective”.

Any attempt to contradict this is deemed a hostile intervention that has no place in the “progressive space”. This is a stark illustration of how the insistence that some position is “progressive” does not make it so.  

Similarly the talk of “safe spaces” is disingenuous. What is typically being called for is a space in which the intolerant can safely intimidate without challenge. In other words, they want safety for those with approved views. They pay absolutely no attention to the “safety” of the space for those with whom they disagree. In this way the university becomes safe for the intolerant, and hostile to others.

Intolerant students demand that “action must be taken against staff members” who are alleged to “diminish the dignity and well-being of students in any manner”, while those students defamed particular staff members, blocked access to their offices, humiliated them, posted aggressive notes on their office doors, and posted personal and derogatory drawings of individual staff members online.

After castigating one of their professors, protesting students responded to her resultant breakdown by saying that they did not care about her tears. Yet these same students were demanding “the right to protest without victimization”, which would be a perfectly reasonable demand if by “protest” they did not include illegal activity, and by “victimization” they did not include enforcement of the law. On their view, real victimization of staff members is acceptable, but a disciplinary response to students’ patently illegal behaviour is not.

In an environment in which an obsessional, delusional, and weaponized narrative of racial and other grievance predominates, various forms of psychopathology – including paranoia and narcissism – become adaptive. While I do not think that all or even most of those seeking to “transform” the university are mentally ill, there is certainly no shortage of disturbed people who have found a niche.

Given all this, it should come as no surprise that morale has plummeted – at least among those staff members who are not among the causes of the problem. Those causing the problems may well be in their element. They are riding the crest of destructive wave. There are no hard data on the levels of morale, not least because no “institutional climate” survey has been conducted since things turned excremental.

I encourage the University leadership to conduct such a survey. (Here I assume, charitably, that the University leadership cares enough to find out what most people actually think. The leadership ignored earlier calls for a referendum on opening campus against the protesters’ wishes.)

However, there is plenty of other evidence that morale has plummeted. Some staff have already resigned or taken early retirement. Others are looking for positions elsewhere. Those remaining have withdrawn. For example, some Heads of Department have stood down rather than deal with impossible Deans, colleagues or students. Others are not making themselves available for leadership positions within their departments and faculties, preferring to keep a low profile. It should come as no surprise that a disproportionate number of those willing to fill the gaps are those most likely to make matters worse.

A number of proctors in the University’s Disciplinary Tribunal system have resigned as they feel that their time and energies are wasted if those convicted are then granted clemency. The likely effects of this should be obvious to all but the most doctrinaire.

Many members of staff – along with students – are cowering. They know that if they speak up against those poisoning the campus atmosphere they will be branded either as racists or as sell-outs. Given just how personally damaging these attacks are – and what a global reach they have as a result of the internet – most people keep their heads below the ramparts. The “progressive” staff members feel entirely comfortable writing under their own names, but more often than not those disagreeing with them feel that they must write or speak anonymously for fear of victimization and retaliation. Similarly, students feel fearful of speaking out if they can be identified. (I write under my own name despite the risks and the unpleasant experience of having already been targeted many times. I do so because I want to invite students and staff to share their unpleasant experiences with me. I shall not use any information without permission and will always protect the identities of informants.)

It should certainly be acknowledged that some of the pathology I have described above is rampant in South Africa more generally. For example, the resort to accusations of racism or betrayal is standard fare. Instead of engaging the arguments and positions of political opponents far too many South Africans will drop the dirty “R-bomb” (or the “Uncle-Tom bomb”). It might thus be suggested that UCT is not anomalous, given the national norm.

I certainly recognize the broader context within which UCT finds itself, but it is nonetheless the case that the University leadership could have done much to preserve academic freedom, ensure the rule of law, prevent intimidation, and counter the race-baiters.

For one thing, it would have been good if Max Price had followed his own advice. When he first arrived at UCT he expressed ideas that also found their way into his inaugural address on 19 August 2008:

“The universities parted ways with the church and the two have continued in parallel partly because, with the rise of scientific rationalism it was a space which encouraged new ideas, controversy, argument, challenges to orthodoxy. This is the primary purpose of a university, and its success depends on a culture within the institution which is tolerant of heretical views (I use that term deliberately), which is not tolerant of attacks on people based on their background, what they believe in or who they are, but insists on the debate being about ideas and their evidence and their logic. It means that a university requires that people respect each other and give them the benefit of the doubt that all are equally committed to seeking truth. It means that one may not call someone a racist as a way of challenging their views since this closes down the space for constructive debate and the expression of different opinions.”

Of course, Dr. Price did then draw a moral equivalence and added that “one may not label someone an affirmative action appointee since it communicates diminished respect for that individual and assumes their individual intellectual contribution and contribution to the institution to be less worthy without evaluating the substance of their views.”

I won’t engage that here, save to say that: (1) public charges of “affirmative action appointee” are vanishingly rare if they exist at all, whereas charges of racism are ubiquitous, probably because there are powerful social forces militating against making the “affirmative action appointee” accusation publicly; (2) one cannot actively engage in strong forms of affirmative action and then think that there will not be affirmative action appointees; but (3) Dr. Price is quite right that an accusation of “affirmative action appointee” is an inappropriate substitute for engaging that person’s views or actions.

This is exactly why it is so surprising that, on more than one occasion, an academic has been told by members of the University’s senior leadership that he has to speak differently to a “black” person than to a “white” one. Although a greater level of deference – or indulgence – was being recommended on both occasions, the implicit injunction was to patronize, which is not to treat people as equals.

I am not suggesting that Dr. Price and his executive should have silenced anybody. Nobody committed to freedom of expression thinks that censorship is the appropriate response (although defamation is not protected by freedom of expression). However, what the University leadership could have done is to express itself quite clearly with speech of its own. For example, it could have unequivocally condemned those who defamed their colleagues or teachers and those who hurled appalling epithets.

In a statement issued on 13 March 2017 the Executive did condemn one academic who had defamed a colleague of his. The statement stated that the University “will not tolerate such behaviour”, yet by refusing to take disciplinary action against the offender despite his refusal to “retract his allegations and to correct the public record”, the Executive has shown that it will in fact tolerate such behaviour. Moreover, there are many other instances of abusive language that have not elicited any reproach from the University’s leadership.

Curiously UCT’s Council felt it needed to distance itself from one of its members who had expressed disdain for the crude racial politics, authoritarianism and intolerance of the Fallist protesters, but there has been no comparable distancing from real instances of harassment and intimidation, online and elsewhere.

The university leadership could also have stood firm on freedom of expression. It should have allowed Flemming Rose to speak and defended his right to do so. It should not have countenanced nor continued to permit the censorship of works of art. It should have responded forthrightly to lawlessness, drawing a clear line, and demonstrating that this sort of behaviour will not be tolerated. Similarly, it should not be fawning in the face of absurd and extremely dangerous rhetoric. (If it ever leads to bloodshed, probably against racial minorities, the University leadership, like the country’s leadership, will have even more to answer for.)

In appointments, and especially senior ones, it could have paid more attention to standard academic and leadership requirements, such as intellectual capacity and achievement, administrative and leadership experience and ability, and the absence of those personality problems that poison work environments. There are consequences to appointing comrades and commissars instead.

It gives me no pleasure to expose details of the toxic climate that currently prevails at UCT. I do this not to damage the institution, but to offer a very clear caution that unless these problems are taken in hand, what we should all expect is, if not a “great leap backwards” then an unrelenting series of steps in that direction.