TB Davie lecture - Honouring academic freedom

25 July 2011

On 4 August UCT's 46th TB Davie Memorial Lecture will be delivered by Professor Nadine Strossen of the New York Law School. Here we glance back on the founding of the lecture series, its founder, and those who have spoken out against any infringement of academic freedom.

The annual TB Davie Memorial Lecture, a highlight of the UCT calendar, is named after former VC Thomas Benjamin Davie, who led the university during the crucial development years post-World War II, from 1948 until his death in 1955. He is remembered as a fearless defender of the principles of academic freedom, and this legacy continues in the memorial lecture series.

Davie courageously championed the cause of academic freedom and university autonomy, defining academic freedom as the university's right to determine who shall be taught, who shall teach, what shall be taught and how it should be taught, without regard to any criterion except academic merit.

The policy of successive Nationalist Party governments since 1948 was to entrench segregation through legislation. The first such legislation dealing with universities, the Extension of the University Education Act, No 45 of 1959, was enacted by Parliament in the same year.

Controversial in its mandate, the Act provided that no black person who was not registered as a student in one of the existing - mainly white - South African universities when the Act came into operation on 1 January 1960, might attend that university without the written consent of the responsible minister.

From the time it was first mooted, UCT opposed the draft legislation that became the Extension of the University Education Act.

On 12 December 1956, the Council passed a resolution opposing academic segregation on racial grounds in principle. On 7 June the following year, members of the UCT community marched through the streets of Cape Town to protest the introduction of the Act.

UCT was joined by Wits University, contesting every step the government took to place this plan on the statute book, as did many other political opponents and organisations. Nevertheless, the Bill became law in 1959.

That same year, former chief justice and UCT chancellor Albert van de Sandt Centlivres delivered what would be the first TB Davie Memorial Lecture.

Years later, in 1983, the government introduced a Bill to repeal both sections of the Extension of University Education Act regulating the admission of students to universities. At the same time, however, amendments were proposed to the Universities' Act to allow the minister to set conditions subject to which other population groups might be admitted.

The amending bill was vigorously opposed by UCT, Wits, Rhodes and the University of Natal. Nonetheless, the Bill passed into law as the Universities' Amendment Act, No 83 of 1983, and the provisions allowing the minister to set conditions regulating admission became law.

In November 1983, the minister decided not to exercise the power to set racial quotas. He did, however, set a condition: that African people would require the written consent of a minister to register for undergraduate degrees and diplomas in medicine, paramedical programmes, nursing and surveying. In 1985 the minister withdrew this condition, and in 1991 the offending clause in the Universities' Act was repealed.

Today, the TB Davie Memorial series is managed and organised by the university's Academic Freedom Committee, who invite distinguished speakers to talk on a theme related to academic and human freedom. In the "classic expression of freedom of speech and assembly", UCT's policy is that its members will enjoy freedom to explore ideas, to express these and to assemble peacefully.

Note: Prof Nadine Strossen has written, lectured and practised extensively in the areas of constitutional law, civil liberties and international human rights. As president of the American Civil Liberties Union from 1991 to 2008, she became the first woman to head that nation's largest and oldest civil liberties organisation.

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Monday Monthly

Volume 30 Edition 10

25 Jul 2011

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