“Freedom isn’t won by humouring those in a position to confer rewards. It requires suffering and resoluteness. We must inoculate ourselves against the malice of our oppressor.”
That was the message from Dr Steven Salaita, the Palestinian-American scholar, author and public speaker who delivered the annual TB Davie Memorial Lecture, titled “The inhumanity of academic freedom”, on Wednesday, 7 August.
Organised by the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Academic Freedom Committee (AFC), Salaita’s lecture explored academic freedom in relation to the conditions of humanity “in the midst of brutal inequality”.
The TB Davie Memorial Lecture series, now in its 53rd year, was introduced by students to honour Davie, a former UCT vice-chancellor and defender of the principles of academic freedom.
“Academic freedom entitles us as both faculty and students to say or investigate things that might upset others without fear of retaliation.”
In his address, Salaita discussed the concept of academic freedom, exploring the “myth” thereof. He linked the concept to his own lived experience, telling the audience that academic freedom cannot provide the “very artefact it promises – freedom”.
“I cannot venture a comprehensive theory of freedom or know for certain in what spaces freedom may be possible. But it won’t be in selective institutions possessed of wealthy donors, legislative overseers and opulent endowments,” he said.
“Yet, at base, academic freedom entitles us, as both faculty and students, to say or investigate things that might upset others, without fear of retaliation.”
Reflections of a former academic
He said he did just that in 2014, when he openly experimented with academic freedom. He posted a series of anti-Israeli tweets on the social media platform Twitter, one of which read: “... If you’re defending #Israel right now, you’re an awful human being”.
Subsequently and as a result of his tweets, the University of Illinois withdrew its academic offer of employment, and media houses around the world described him as a “polarising crusader for academic freedom”.
“That’s how we win. That’s how the downtrodden have always won. Every single time. By defying the logic of recrimination. I’ll never compromise the humanity of the Palestinian people in order to assuage a coloniser,” Salaita declared.
He then sued the University of Illinois, and while he won in court, he told the audience that no amount of money or legal recognition will ever replace the loss of his academic career.
“To this day not a single university president has condemned the University of Illinois’s 2014 annihilation of academic freedom.”
Because regardless of his CV and academic record, “academic freedom [still] can’t make any university hire me”.
“To this day, not a single university president has condemned the University of Illinois’s 2014 annihilation of academic freedom,” he said.
Salaita has since found a new job – as a school bus driver, to make ends meet and support his young family.
“We have to be willing to drive buses, sweep floors, stock groceries, wait tables, to do the kind of labour that frees the mind from exploitation of the body. Whatever keeps the idea alive. That’s our greatest source of power.”
Keeping freedom alive
So despite the challenges, this former professor of English at Virginia Tech remains determined to keep alive the fight for academic freedom.
“If I back down from a dangerously simple vision of Palestinian liberation, one intolerant of anything less than equality, then I will have betrayed the people with whom my destiny is aligned.”
Salaita cautioned that academic freedom is critical, especially to a functional university.
He likened it to an instrument that can help faculty and students identify a world unlimited by stagnant policies of pragmatisms.
“Let us imagine what a truly free campus in a free society would look like. Let us not wait for institutions to authorise our imagination. Let us create unactioned solidarities.”
Exercising academic freedom
He told the audience that UCT had exercised academic freedom in its proposal to boycott Israeli institutions operating in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, despite a backlash.
“The process was made according to a democratic governing process, so it presented a classic example of academic freedom in action.”
In March, the university’s Senate adopted a resolution that UCT will not enter into any formal relationship with Israeli institutions operating in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. After numerous meetings between Senate and Council, Senate agreed to a wider consultative process, which the university executive undertook to facilitate.
“[But] the process was made according to a democratic governing process, so it represented a classic example of academic freedom in action,” said Salaita.
“What then are critics of the resolution actually doing? They’re asking upper administrators or outside forces to intervene in faculty governance based on political displeasure, the very thing academic freedom is supposed to prevent.”
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In the classic expression of freedom of speech and assembly, UCT's policy is that our members will enjoy freedom to explore ideas, to express these and to assemble peacefully.
The annual TB Davie Memorial Lecture on academic freedom was established by UCT students to commemorate the work of Thomas Benjamin Davie, vice-chancellor of the university from 1948 to 1955 and a defender of the principles of academic freedom.
Organised by the Academic Freedom Committee, the lecture is delivered by distinguished speakers who are invited to speak on a theme related to academic and human freedom.