Watch over academic freedom - Chetty

24 August 2009

Prof Nithaya Chetty Champions: Prof Nithaya Chetty called on academics to make a strong and unrelenting case for the importance of academic freedom.

While it is something of an international coup to have academic freedom enshrined in the Constitution, it would be "presumptuous" of South African academics to assume that it's always going to come easy.

This was the message of Professor Nithaya Chetty of the University of Pretoria, as he delivered UCT's 2009 TB Davie Memorial Academic Freedom Lecture on 12 August.

Chetty was at the centre of a furore on academic freedom at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in 2008. His lecture was as much a call to academics to be alert to the growing threats to academic freedom as it was a catalogue of those threats. These include a lack of public understanding and appreciation of the need for academic freedom, a poor understanding by academics themselves of their roles and responsibilities, and an "interfering government hand".

But there are also threats from within, said Chetty. Among these he singled out the marginalisation of the academic voice on matters that concern the academic functioning of universities (senates are losing their status, he cautioned), the "increasingly litigious nature of universities" bred by a growing managerialist ethos, and the increase in corporatisation of research.

For much of his lecture, Chetty called on "ordinary academics" such as himself to do their bit to secure academic freedom.

"Academics need to understand much more profoundly the forces that have come to bear on our quest for an academically freer university system," he said. "It is perilous for us academics to simply insist on academic freedom without understanding and engaging with those sectors who, for whatever reasons, view things differently."

In the end, he noted, it will be the academics who must champion the cause.

Find the full TB Davie Lecture here.

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