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.

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