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