22 August 2005

Response to Academic Freedom Committee statement

The Academics' Association Executive would like to support strongly the views and concerns expressed by Professor Leslie London in his letter to the Monday Paper (August 15-21, 2005, p.5).

We too cannot but be concerned at possible implications of the statement by the Academics' Freedom Committee for the processes of transformation at UCT.

At this stage of our history, we are really only beginning to address the legacies of colonialism and racism within our society and in our institution, particularly the more subtle forms these may take. One such manifestation is the inhibition that members of the community, especially the less powerful, such as students, may feel in raising issues or concerns of racism as these impact on them in an environment that may be perceived to be defensive of the status quo and not sympathetic to their experience. It is difficult, even for faculty members, to raise the level of debate around how assumptions, which may cause them discomfort and result in reticence and withdrawal of various kinds, circulate in our community. The power of entrenched whiteness in academia makes this a much more prevalent and insidious form of "damping down" of opinion than that referred to in the statement.

Our concern, therefore, is that the effect of the AFC statement may actually be the opposite of what it intends. By inadvertently protecting established opinion, ensuring the perpetuation of comfort for dominant views and attitudes, and encouraging the "policing" of whistle blowing by those who experience marginalisation, it has the potential to limit discussion and foreclose a debate that still needs to happen, rather than to ensure free exchange of ideas on this sensitive topic. That leaves the same people yet again paying the highest price for this subtle form of censorship.

However, we would further note that racism is a serious concern and thus accusations of racism must be taken seriously too. "Ill-considered" and "unfounded" accusations of racism, once they are clearly and fairly adjudged to be such, are reprehensible, in part, because of the effect they have on those accused and, in part, because many will feel that, at least, some of the views of a racist need not be taken into account. Such "ill-considered" and "unfounded" accusations of racism have the effect of depriving a person of his or her voice and so of dampening free discussion. In this vein, the statement by the Academic Freedom Committee (AFC) should be endorsed.

It must be noted that very much a part of the reason for what may be deemed "unfounded charges of racism" is because people are not talking to one another about their inter-personal experiences, and therefore fail to truly understand each other. We fear that the AFC statement, with all its possible noble intentions, may put a damper on debates around transformation, and racism in particular.

We should be opening up these debates, not closing them down.

The AA is therefore calling for an urgent debate around the issues raised by the AFC statement and the subsequent concerns expressed in its wake, such as those expressed by London. We plan, in the near future, to set up such a debate and would urge all members of the UCT community to avail themselves of the opportunity to participate in the debate and speak to the specific concerns they may have in this regard.

Academics' Association Executive

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