Academic freedom at the University of Cape Town

The Academics Union at UCT recently organised a panel discussion on academic freedom at UCT, following the dis-invitation of Flemming Rose as the TB Davie Memoral speaker.

The text below was my opening statement at that panel discussion. There are obviously many other issues that could be addressed, and we were asked to limit our contributions to five minutes, so what follows is of necessity restricted in scope.

There are at least two important issues raised by the recent dis-invitation of Flemming Rose. One is whether he should have been invited in the first place, in other words whether the Academic Freedom Committee made an error of judgment.

The second includes both the narrow issue of whether the University Executive made the correct decision in dis-inviting him (I think they did, but that they offered the wrong reasons for doing so), but also the broader issue of when – under which circumstances, and for which reasons – the decision of a properly constituted committee of Senate and Council can have a decision of theirs overturned.

In this case, Council was consulted, but Senate never was. So, there are governance issues to be interrogated, as an entirely separate issue to the question of whether the motivation for dis-inviting Mr Rose was sound.

The problem raised by this particular decision is that a precedent has been set, but on very nebulous grounds. The arguments included a tenuous appeal to limits on free speech set in the Constitution, yet there was never any plausible reason to fear that Mr Rose would utter hate speech (as defined in our law).

A second argument emphasised the possibility of violence, but no concrete evidence of this possibility was provided. Capitulating to hypothetical threats seems to be a good way of encouraging future threats, as they are now known to be effective.

Furthermore, responding to a hypothetical in this fashion paternalises the audience (because why not trust and encourage them to engage critically, rather than violently). And in this case, it’s specifically the potential Muslim audience who might feel aggrieved at having a stereotype about them reinforced by UCT.

The third argument related to Mr Rose’s appearance inhibiting, rather than promoting, academic freedom on campus. It’s difficult to see this argument as coherent, in that we have no idea what Mr Rose was going to say.

The upshot of this is that an imagined version of Mr Rose – one premised on contestable interpretations of events more than a decade ago – stands in for any debate on those events, and precludes the possibility of people on campus having an opportunity to interrogate and respond to those events.

Again, this is also deeply paternalistic, as it not only caricatures Rose, but also the UCT audience, in that many in that audience might have appreciated debating those cartoons and what they signified, as well as having the opportunity to explain why Mr Rose’s justification for publishing them is not persuasive.

It is only the possibility of violence – a significant pragmatic consideration, given our financial situation and the likely costs of securing the venue – that is at all defensible, yet that argument was obscured in the justifications offered.

Having said that, I’m fully in support of the idea that academic freedom needs to be interrogated afresh at UCT, in light of important questions regarding who defines it and how it is defined. This is one reason why we have membership cycles on committees, so that new ideas and arguments can emerge.

This, in fact, is how we should have dealt with the first problem I mentioned – that of whether the committee invited an appropriate speaker. If we did not, the new committee could “respond” by charting a very different course for the Academic Freedom Committee and the TB Davie Memorial Lecture.

In 2016, we find that there is only one non-executive staff member returning to the AFC from the previous cycle, and we should expect and hope that the new AFC will consider these and other issues afresh.

We should also hope that if it is ever the case that oversight is thought necessary in future, it would be conducted in a manner that preserves the authority of university structures, rather than in a manner that supports fears of the sort of managerialism that is itself a significant threat to academic freedom.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.