15 August 2005

Academic freedom versus the race card at UCT - w(h)ither transformation?

The Principal's Circular for June 6, 2005, cited a statement from the Academic Freedom Committee on conditions of public debate on campus, in which the idea was raised that unfounded allegations of racism present a threat to free debate and restrict academic freedom on campus. This statement called on members of the university community to desist from making such unfounded allegations of racism, proposed methods of redress for those against whom these unfounded allegations are made, and called for active whistle-blowing by persons witness to such claims.

On the face of it, such a set of statements may appear eminently plausible. No-one would argue with the idea that use of the "race card" to pursue illegitimate ends should not merit any support.

But as my colleagues and I in the Health Sciences Faculty Transformation and Equity Portfolio have had to deal with issues of racism and racist treatment (of students and staff) on a regular basis, I find the position of the Academic Freedom Committee wholly unhelpful. At best, it is extremely naïve, and, at worst, it will be interpreted as another attempt by the institution (through one of its highly-regarded committees) to close down debate on racism at UCT.

My reasons are as follows:

1. It is not clear who is to decide what is an "unfounded" allegation of racism, or what makes an allegation "unfounded". All the black staff and students who have complained to me or to the faculty transformation coordinator of ill-treatment on the basis of race, have not done so wilfully misrepresenting their case but because they believed they were unfairly treated because of their race. They have voiced their own experience of a traumatic event or series of events. Investigation may or may not resolve the incident and, in some instances, show that it was not based on racist intent. But for the aggrieved person, the experience of the event was racist treatment and edicts from university committees do not change that experience. The university will be making a serious mistake if its policies have the effect of invalidating or rendering invisible the experience of aggrieved staff and students.

2. What worries me are the assumptions underlying the concept of "unfounded" allegations of racism. It would appear that the notion rests on a dichotomy between issues of fact and issues other than fact, and that "foundedness" rests on such a distinction. What this seems to imply is that perceptions of racism are of less importance than racist acts, which can be proved. (This is the hoary argument that we don't have racism at UCT, only perceptions of racism). As we know, proving racism is highly problematic, often shifting the responsibility onto the victimised party.

3. The net effect of such a policy would appear to be to close down any spaces for aggrieved parties to voice their dissatisfaction and to delegitimise claims about racism at UCT. This is extremely worrying given the fact that there is still widespread disagreement, dissatisfaction and disaffection regarding the nature and pace of transformation at UCT. UCT still does not have a credible racial harassment policy or effective mechanisms in place to afford staff and students who feel they have been racially victimised to seek redress. Indeed, the call by the Academic Freedom Committee to allow those accused of racism to complain appears to preempt attempts to establish a more effective racial harassment mechanism on campus, affording those accused of racism a space for action when those feeling aggrieved do not feel they have been provided an effective institutional space. This, of course, is deeply ironic, given that the Academic Freedom Committee's brief is to promote dialogue and openness on campus.

In light of the current debate on the nature of transformation at UCT, it would be more helpful if academic freedom was not viewed as separable from the institutional culture in which debate takes place on campus. It would have been far more helpful for the committee's call to have urged the rapid finalisation of the racial harassment policy and establishment of credible, transparent and fair mechanisms to resolve allegations of racism (and other forms of discrimination) on campus.

Professor Leslie London
Portfolio Manager: Transformation and Equity
Health Sciences Faculty

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