Academic freedom is never-ending quest

10 January 2003

Delivering the 40th TB Davie Memorial Lecture, political analyst and businessman Dr Frederick van Zyl Slabbert described academic freedom as a never-ending quest.

Speaking at Jameson Hall on October 16, Van Zyl Slabbert said that dismissing academic freedom would result in dismal consequences and would ensure submission to dogmatism and orthodoxy that emanates from those who control power.

In his address, (he changed his original title: Benchmarking South Africa's Transition) Is Academic Freedom Still an Issue in the New South Africa?, Van Zyl Slabbert focused on three values of academic freedom. First, is the freedom that a university enjoys to appoint teachers and students to its own community and to teach what they feel should be taught. Second, is the autonomy an institution enjoys in relation to other institutions, such as the government. The third value, the one Van Zyl Slabbert felt strongest on, was that of institutional neutrality.

This refers to the situation where a university, as a corporate entity, does not allow its members to be coerced into taking a collective stand on controversial societal issues, usually ideological or political in nature.

"This is a difficult one, because there may be causes that can be so morally compelling that it is difficult to think of somebody not agreeing with you. Yet, I believe it is the lifeblood of intellectual inquiry to say to someone, 'you have the right to disagree with me'. Of course, this is not an unfettered right."

According to Van Zyl Slabbert, a university as a community can urge its members to adopt a collective view but it must never compel them to do so by discriminating against those who do not comply.

"An example of this was when, in 1604, King James I under the Act of Uniformity, required all professors to take an oath of loyalty to the Episcopalian Church," he explained. "And more recently, when I hear the President of Harvard University saying that any criticism of Israel in its struggle with the PLO is an act of anti-Semitism, I know that the principle of institutional neutrality is under siege."

In concluding, Van Zyl Slabbert said that South Africa was caught up in a process of institution building and that the country's universities should never be complacent as they are fundamentally important in this building activity.

"A commitment to academic freedom, in all the variations I have tried to sketch, will play a crucial role in our transformation."

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