An open letter to Dr Steven Salaita regarding his plans to deliver the 2019 TB Davie Memorial Lecture at UCT

Dear Dr Salaita,

We understand that you have been invited to deliver the TB Davie Memorial Lecture this year at the University of Cape Town. We have some concerns that we would like to raise with you in this regard.

TB Davie is remembered by UCT as a fearless defender of the principles of academic freedom. As Vice-Chancellor, he courageously championed the causes of academic freedom and university autonomy, and resisted the attempts by South Africa’s racist, illiberal Nationalist government to determine who shall be taught, who shall teach, what shall be taught and how it should be taught. He stood firmly against racial segregation in universities at a time in which it was difficult and dangerous to do so. The lecture, named for him, aims to continue his legacy by promoting the themes of academic freedom and freedom more generally.

In 2016, the lecture was supposed to be given by Flemming Rose, cultural editor of the Jyllands-Posten newspaper and a notable defender of freedom of expression. However, the University Executive, in order to pander to intolerant, radical elements among students and staff (known to use violence to get their way), disinvited him shortly before he was due to deliver the lecture. UCT management did this despite the protestations of the (then) Academic Freedom Committee, which is responsible for inviting the TB Davie memorial lecturer. This was a flagrant breach of academic freedom, which the lecture is ironically meant to promote.

Our first concern, therefore, is that you cannot give this lecture in good faith until such time as the University corrects its violation of academic freedom with respect to Mr Rose’s dis-invitation.

Moreover, since 2017, the Academic Freedom Committee has been captured by people who have no regard for academic freedom at all. Many of its members are single-issue activists who wish to use their position on the Committee to try enforce a University-wide academic boycott of Israeli scholars and institutions, while maintaining a chilling indifference not only to the behaviour of any other state, but also to the rights of the members of UCT to associate with, or learn from, whoever they like. The Academic Freedom Committee’s commitment to academic freedom has become dubious, to say the least.

Thus, our second concern is that by your accepting an invitation from a compromised and disingenuous Academic Freedom Committee, you are condoning and supporting the declining protection for academic freedom at UCT.

Finally, we would like to register with you a concern we have about your planned lecture topic, ‘The Inhumanity of Academic Freedom’. We are told that you will be arguing that academic freedom is a ‘myth’ and that some ‘political movements’ should be prioritised over this principle.

As proponents of academic freedom, we believe wholeheartedly in your right to say and think whatever you like about academic freedom, including trashing it or calling it a myth. However, this is not in line with the spirit of the TB Davie lecture, the premise of which is that academic freedom is important and should be protected. Your using the TB Davie lecture as a platform to denigrate the principle of academic freedom is akin to someone using a lecture in memory of a prominent feminist activist to promote the idea that men are inherently superior to women. It will be a travesty.

Thus, we urge you to do the honourable thing, and refuse to deliver the TB Davie lecture until:

1. Flemming Rose is invited back to speak at UCT.

2. The Academic Freedom Committee that invites you publicly affirms its commitment to real academic freedom, not some politicised version of the concept distorted to suit a narrow ideological viewpoint.

3. You change the topic of your lecture so that — with due respect for the memory of TB Davie — it promotes academic freedom, rather than trashing it.

Yours sincerely,
Scott Roberts

Secretary: Progress SA; Department of Private Law, University of Cape Town

9 Reasons Why You Should Vote to Reject the Israeli Academic Boycott

Dear Senator

On 13 September, you, as a member of Senate, will consider a proposal for UCT to not enter into any formal relationships with Israeli academic institutions operating in the occupied Palestinian territories as well as other Israeli academic institutions enabling gross human rights violations in the occupied Palestinian territories.

The latter half of this proposal – to prohibit academic relationships with Israeli institutions that enable human rights violations – is purposefully phrased in broad and vague language. Ultimately, any Israeli academic institution might be argued to enable human rights violations, given the fact that research might benefit the Israeli government, or that Israeli universities are obliged to allow students to fulfil their national service obligations.

Furthermore, while the boycott movement claims to merely be against institutional co-operation with Israeli academics and not about boycotting individuals, attempts at institutional boycotts in South Africa have resulted in notable individual boycotts. A recent example of this is the dis-invitation last year of moderate Palestinian Professor Mohammed Dajani (and a number of Israeli scholars) from a conference at Stellenbosch University last year, because extremist pro-boycott activists did not like his view on the conflict and bullied the conference organisers into cancelling his invitation.

This motion, therefore, must be considered an attempt to enforce a complete ban on UCT’s contact with Israeli universities and scholars.

Here are nine reasons why you should attend the Senate meeting on 10 May, speak out against the proposal, and vote to reject it:

1. AN ENFORCED ACADEMIC BOYCOTT OF ISRAELI INSTITUTIONS WILL VIOLATE OUR ACADEMIC FREEDOM

Academic freedom is the principle that freedom of enquiry and freedom of association by faculty members and students is essential to the mission of an academic institution, and that academics should not have to fear institutional repercussions for thinking or communicating things with which others do not agree, or for associating with scholars others do not like.  

Some of humankind’s most important academic discoveries were highly controversial in their time, and people in power tried to stifle them, often on ‘moral’ grounds. An example of this is Galileo, who was tried and imprisoned for his view that Earth revolves around the Sun. Because of the fact that (even good) ideas can be controversial, freedom of academic enquiry – the protection of ideas from stifling authority – is now recognised by most reasonable people as an essential component of a university. This freedom necessarily includes choices about who one can learn with: one cannot be said to have freedom of enquiry unless they are also able to choose the circumstances in which that enquiry takes place.

Academic freedom and freedom of scientific is also enshrined in section 16(1)(d) of the Constitution of our Republic, as a fundamental aspect of the right to freedom of expression.

The proposed boycott is a clear violation of this indispensable principle, because it forces the University to adopt a particular political position as policy. When a political position becomes University policy, members of the University who choose not to take that position become subject to potentially severe consequences such as firing, or disciplinary record entries on a student’s academic transcripts. When members of a university have to fear serious repercussions for their choices of which scholars they can learn and study with, this undermines the entire academic project. Instead of being a space for free enquiry and the fearless exchange of ideas, the university becomes an indoctrination chamber for a narrow set of political interests.

Furthermore, academic freedom involves the freedom to collaborate with scholars in the field in which one is working. If universities and scholars start boycotting one another, this undermines the academic project as it will reduce co-operation, create boundaries between institutions and stifle dialogue across these boundaries. If we are not free to discuss and challenge ideas because of boundaries, this undermines scholars’ ability to advance human knowledge and understanding.

2. IF WE ACCEPT AN ENFORCED ACADEMIC BOYCOTT OF ISRAELI INSTITUTIONS, WE ARE BOUND IN PRINCIPLE TO ACCEPT ACADEMIC BOYCOTTS OF MANY OTHER COUNTRIES, TOO

According to Human Rights Watch, human rights violations, crimes against humanity and/or war crimes are currently taking place in more than 90 countries and territories across the world.

Saudi Arabia continues its assault against civilians in Yemen, having already killed tens of thousands of innocent people. The Saudi government has murdered dozens of journalists such as Jamal Khashoggi, and continues to oppress women and LGBT people, who are thrown in prison or executed for ‘immorality’. Turkey, a prominent critic of Saudi Arabia, continues to persecute journalists, academics and politicians who criticise its President, Erdogan. In addition to dozens of other ongoing repressive practices, the Chinese government continues to operate ‘re-education’ camps for over one million Uyghur Muslims in the Xinjiang region, in an attempt to force them to disown their Islamic faith and distinct ethnic identity. In Myanmar, government forces have, since 2017, carried out genocide ethnic cleansing and mass gang rape against Rohingya Muslims. Almost 700 000 Rohingya have been forced to take refuge in neighbouring Bangladesh.

Closer to home, on the African continent, human rights abuses and crimes against humanity have recently been observed in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, South Sudan, Burundi, Nigeria, Uganda and Zimbabwe, to name but a few.

If we are willing to sever ties with Israeli institutions on the basis of their enabling human rights abuses, we are morally bound to be willing to sever ties with institutions who play a similar role in other countries in which systematic human rights violations are taking place. This would severely impact UCT scholars’ ability to collaborate internationally, especially with scholars from the developing world.

On the other hand, if we are willing to single out Israeli human rights abuses as the only good justification for an academic boycott, we will find ourselves in the morally untenable position of regarding, as an institution, some victims of human rights abuses as being more ‘important’ or worthy of our institutional attention than others. A willingness to accept such inconsistency also raises doubt about whether the proposers of this motion have moral reasons for their proposal after all or are rather motivated by political and/or discriminatory intentions instead.

3. THE FREE EXCHANGE OF IDEAS CAN BE VALUABLE IN ENDING HUMAN RIGHTS ABUSES

Scholars and academics are often the most liberally-minded people in society, and scholarship often plays an important role in influencing society towards a more moral position. Indeed, numerous Israeli scholars have been at the forefront of challenging Israeli government policy. Therefore, if we really care about ending human rights abuses, we should both want to empower progressive scholars to continue their good work and change the thinking of illiberal academics through critique and debate. We can do neither of these things if we are banned from associating with scholars on the basis of their governments’ human rights records.

4. ADOPTING A BOYCOTT POLICY AGAINST ISRAEL WILL ISOLATE UCT FROM THE INTERNATIONAL ACADEMIC COMMUNITY AND DAMAGE ITS INSTITUTIONAL REPUTATION

Over 200 universities and higher learning institutions have considered similar Israeli academic boycott motions and rejected them, citing concerns about academic freedom, freedom of expression and discrimination by virtue of national origin. No prominent Western university has ever implemented an institutional boycott of Israeli institutions. This is because there is a near-universal belief in free societies that universities should serve as open, tolerant and respectful, cooperative and collaborative communities engaged in practices of resolving complex problems.

If UCT, through this motion, shows the international academic community that it does not share these fundamental values, this could have serious unintended consequences for UCT’s relationships with the world’s most valuable institutions. Moreover, it will lower UCT’s reputation in the eyes of donors and prospective students who hold mainstream views about the role of a university in society.

5. BOYCOTTING ISRAELI INSTITUTIONS HARMS ARAB SCHOLARS AND STUDENTS, TOO

A large proportion of Israel’s university-attending population are Arab. Many of these students go on to become prominent academics at universities such as the University of Haifa, the Tel Aviv University and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. A systematic boycott of all these institutions will therefore result not only in Jewish Israeli scholars and students being negatively impacted, but dozens of thousands of Arab scholars and students as well. This defeats the purported reason for the motion, which is to benefit Arabs in Israel and the West Bank.

6. A BOYCOTT WILL LIMIT THE ABILITY OF UCT STAFF AND STUDENTS TO FREELY DEBATE AND DISCUSS THE ARAB-ISRAELI CONFLICT

By adopting this motion, Senate, on behalf of UCT, would be taking a particular political stance on a controversial issue. The University would thus be articulating its support for a specific point of view and creating an ‘institutional line’ to be followed. Even if they had no desire for contact with scholars from Israeli institutions, staff members might be afraid to express opinions that disagree with the ideological position that Senate has ordained, for fear of being ostracised by colleagues, overlooked for promotion and research grants, or not having their contracts renewed. This, in turn, would discourage dissenting staff members from discussing this conflict in the classroom, potentially shutting down students’ ability to freely engage with the issue, too.

7. A BOYCOTT OF ISRAELI INSTITUTIONS SETS A DANGEROUS PRECEDENT

If Senate and Council accept, in principle, that they should be allowed to dictate matters of political conscience and prevent members of the University from making up their own minds on these issues, they might be encouraged to do so on other issues, too. It is the role of neither Senate nor Council to prescribe political beliefs for members of the University community. Attributing these bodies such a role raises the risk of authoritarian control over the University, where the political views of the majority of an (unelected) body are allowed to determine what every else is allowed to say, think and do. At this point, the UCT will cease to be a University and instead become an ideological indoctrination chamber.

8. ACADEMIC BOYCOTTS ARE LIKELY TO FURTHER ENTRENCH THE ISRAELI-PALESTINIAN CONFLICT, RATHER THAN BRING IT TO A RESOLUTION

According to Constitutional law expert Prof David Bilchitz, ‘the BDS [Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions] movement and its normative underpinnings (which can be freely accessed on its own website), clearly is premised upon the Jewish majority in Israel voluntarily acknowledging its own illegitimacy and being prepared to preside over the dissolution of its state. BDS perpetuates the notion that there is a zero-sum game between Jewish and Palestinian claims to Israel.’

The BDS movement, of which the proposers of this motion are part, views the Arab-Israeli conflict as an ‘either/or’ struggle: only one side can win, and have a legitimate claim to their national aspirations. For this reason, the movement offers no explicit solution other than perpetual conflict. Their rare attempts at offering a solution suggest support for one state, rather than using their activism to promote peaceful co-existence within the bounds of a two-state solution. This is exactly the kind of authoritarian logic that many believe has led Israel’s far-right-wing government’s unwillingness to end the occupation of the West Bank and the blockade on Gaza.

Academic boycotts both play directly into this polarising politics and vindicate the actions of regressive Israeli government officials, who rely on polarisation and fear to win elections.

9. IT IS MORALLY UNDESIRABLE TO PUNISH INDIVIDUAL ACADEMICS FOR THE SHORTCOMINGS OF THEIR GOVERNMENTS

 Academic boycotts can have serious repercussions for the careers of individual academics, who do not necessarily agree with the problematic government policies which the boycotts are targeting. It is unreasonable to subject these individuals to this harm where they have not committed actions which render them personally liable to sanction. This amounts to collective punishment. Just as we do not punish children for the crimes of their parents, or all adherents of a religion for the crimes of their co-religionists, so should we be hesitant to punish individual citizens for the wrongdoing of their governments.

An open letter to Vice Chancellor Professor Phakeng re: The Curriculum Change Framework


Please note: This letter draws on critiques of the Framework document written by Dr. George Hull, Professor Bernhard Weiss, Emeritus Professor George Ellis and Assoc. Professor Sunetra Chowdhury, as well as verbal conversations with several staff from the faculties of Humanities, Law, and Health Sciences. We are indebted to these academics for their brave leadership.


Dear Vice Chancellor,

In June 2018, the Curriculum Change Working Group – a body set up to ‘shape strategies for meaningful curriculum change’ – published a document called the Curriculum Change Framework (‘the Framework document’). The Framework document, we are told, sets out a ‘detailed proposal for curriculum change as a fundamental contribution to building a new identity for UCT.’

There are several issues with the Framework document; some immediate and some potential.

The immediate issues are first, that the Framework document is fraught with linguistic indeterminacies and technical jargon that impair, rather than aid, comprehension. Many of its claims and arguments are so ambiguous or obscure that bona fide attempts at understanding, let alone critique and rebuttal, are near impossible.

The second immediate issue is that management has yet to clarify the Framework document’s purpose. Is it intended as a code of conduct for teaching, that will become university policy? Or is it merely a platform intended to raise points for discussion? The answers to these questions are of grave importance, and weigh greatly on whether UCT remains a free and open university. The greatest issues with the Framework document are therefore what will potentially happen if Senate is to adopt the Framework as a policy document, an authoritative statement of what kinds of teaching are and are not allowed at UCT, and who is allowed to teach about what.

If the document became university policy, this would mean dismissing as colonial ideology and/or purely an expression of power relations curricula which are in fact informed by what some of humankind’s most reliable methods of evidence-gathering and investigation suggest to be true. There would, for example, be a risk that a lecturer in the Department of Biological Sciences would not be free to teach Darwinian evolutionary theory as the most plausible scientific explanation for objectively observed physical phenomena, but only as a case study of a theory manifesting colonial, cis-gendered or heterosexist power relations. Furthermore, the Framework document does not admit that ‘decolonial’ theory may simply be irrelevant to the inquiry of certain disciplines such as mathematics and physics, in which a question such as ‘Will this photodiode emit light?’ simply cannot be answered with reference to theories in the social sciences.

Of course, it would be ill-informed to suggest that the Western academy has never engaged in morally abhorrent practices such as racism, sexism and other forms of oppression and exclusion on the basis of immutable personal characteristics. And we do not deny the usefulness of decolonial and critical theory in drawing awareness to these problems and offering solutions to them. It does not follow, however, that these theoretical frameworks should hold a monopoly on informing curriculum decisions, or even that anyone should be forced to accept their premises and conclusions without question.

No theoretical framework should be made official university policy. Theoretical choices in teaching and learning should be left open. Not only is this mandated by the principles of academic and intellectual freedom, but it also ensures that students are exposed to diverse points of view in the classroom, thus empowering them to think for themselves and make their own theoretical choices. This approach is what separates education from indoctrination.

Another potential issue with the Framework document is its apparent endorsement of the idea that a colour bar should be introduced, to prevent lecturers of the “wrong” race from taking charge of curriculum in general, or else in certain disciplinary areas. One section provides a platform for a small group of students studying at Hiddingh campus, whose views are then discussed sympathetically. The document states: ‘students felt that while white academics had expertise in specific areas, they could not claim authority on blackness, black pain, African ideology, course material and productions, or as overseers of curriculum’. The suggestion in this statement is that lecturing positions at certain levels or in certain disciplinary areas should be restricted to people of a certain racial classification. The Framework document does not distance itself from this proposal. On the contrary, it echoes it in its statement that the Curriculum Change Working Group itself needed to be ‘black-led’ in order to have ‘legitimacy’. The introduction of a colour bar for teaching would have grave moral and Constitutional implications.

Therefore, we the undersigned call on you, Vice Chancellor, as the person who bears ultimate responsibility for the policy and administration of the University of Cape Town, to do the following:

 1. Clarify University management’s position on the status of the Curriculum Change Framework document by specifying the document’s intended purpose and institutional role, and stating whether management intends to propose the document to Senate to be adopted as university policy.

2. Affirm management’s commitment to the principles of academic and intellectual freedom, to the idea of a University as a space for open debate in which theories and ideas from a wide variety of intellectual traditions can be debated and challenged, rather than as a space where management can impose a narrow ideological framework upon students and staff.

3. Affirm management’s opposition to the introduction of a colour bar for lecturing in any discipline or at any level.

Click here to view the current list of signatories (updated 6 March 2019)

Note: By signing this letter, signatories are merely stating their support for the contents of the letter. Signatories do not hereby become members of Progress SA nor declare their identification with, or support of, Progress SA’s principles and other activities.

Name *
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Below is the text of a memo that is currently being circulated to members of UCT Senate, providing reasons why UCT should reject the proposed academic boycott of Israeli institutions, to be voted on on 13 September 2019. 

#IsUCTFree?

WE’RE FACING A FREEDOM CRISIS AT SOUTH AFRICAN UNIVERSITIES.

OUR CAMPAIGN IS AN ATTEMPT TO OPEN UP SPACE FOR FREE SPEECH AND DEBATE THAT HAS BEEN CLOSED OFF BY RADICAL STUDENT POLITICS. FOLLOW US ON SOCIAL MEDIA AND JOIN THE CONVERSATION.

Over the past few years, we have seen a declining tolerance of controversial and potentially offensive opinions, especially those labelled as ‘liberal’, ‘capitalist’ or ‘conservative’.

Marxism and identity politics are enforced as ‘correct’ ideological positions in many undergraduate courses, and those who disagree are ‘labelled’ and excluded.

Racial nationalism and identity politics are ideologies that have become very popular at UCT in the past few years, especially among humanities students and academics. They are both dangerous ideologies that threaten the freedom of the UCT community, and South Africa at large.

Identity politics refers to political positions which are based on identitarian allegiances (e.g. race, gender, religion, etc.) rather than principle. From identity politics’ perspectives, the validity of what someone says is often based on their identity rather than the objective validity of their argument.

One danger inherent in identity politics is the tendency to make assumptions about people based on their race/gender/other immutable characteristics. We then lose sight of the individual being classified, and their personal views and identity. For example, some find it hard to believe that a black person could be conservative, on the assumption that all blacks must be Marxists or radicals. Faced with a conservative black person, identity politicians will often subject that person to verbal abuse by calling them 'sellout', 'coconut', or telling them that they are being controlled by a white person and do not have a mind of their own.

These ideologies threaten freedom because they make people afraid to express their individual identities, for fear of being subjected to some kind of abuse, exclusion, or 'labelling'. Worst of all, this abuse is often thought to be morally desirable by radicals.

One of the lies told by radicals at UCT is that 'racism is all about 'power structures' and therefore, 'black people can't be racist'. This means that some people can say what they like, regardless of how bigoted it is, while others can be called 'racist' without justification.

It's time to remind ourselves of basic moral principles. Racism is prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one's own race is superior. Nothing more, nothing less.

If we don't start standing up for basic moral principles (i.e. don't be racist), our universities will continue to become more hostile and divided, people will continue to be afraid to express themselves and campuses will not be a free academic space.

Given that our campaign is centred around various freedoms, here's what freedom means to us:

Freedom is being able to exist as an individual in society without fear of intimidation or violence.

Freedom is being able to say, think and do what we want - as long as it doesn't unjustifiably harm others - without fear of punishment or harm from others.

Freedom is being able to keep and use the things that belong to us, without being arbitrarily deprived of them by the state or other people.

Freedom allows every person to decide what is good for them, and to take steps towards bringing about that good.

Freedom is being able to start a business without having to contend with governmental red tape and to run a business without being told how to by the state.

Freedom is the ability to practice one's religion as they wish, even if it isn't the majority religion in their country.

Freedom is the ability to think and believe whatever we want to, and to challenge the ideas of others, without subjecting them to abuse.

Freedom is not about the domination of one group over another. It is about ensuring the individual does not have to fear the tyranny of the group.

It is not about state control over our lives. It is about keeping the state out of places where it doesn't belong.

FOLLOW US ON SOCIAL MEDIA AND JOIN THE CONVERSATION.