Black academics must unite

2014-10-22 06:45

I never thought I would ever say what I am about to say. We need to moderate the concept of university autonomy.

I never imagined myself saying this because at the best of times, I have been somewhat of a liberal nationalist.

By that I mean a belief in the classical principles of liberalism?–?particularly, freedom of expression.

The idea of shutting other people up because you do not agree with them is probably the most dangerous in the history of the modern world.

But like any principle there are exceptions?–?so that the principles are not used against their own preservation of the societies that uphold them.

On academic freedom, the idea of being told what to teach or how to teach it or what to research, gives me the creeps. People should be hired in universities on the understanding that they are experts in their subject matter.

I know we have been struggling with that in government departments, but surely it would not be acceptable for universities. But what do you do when the designation of expertise is racialised like it is by our predominantly white universities?

What do you do when academic freedom gives universities licence to exclude in a way that goes against the spirit and letter of the Constitution?

What do you do when universities undermine the very foundations of the inclusive society you are trying to build and yet receive public money?

I read with horror that my alma mater, Wits University, has announced a new programme of distinguished scholars as full professors.

Not one is a black South African of African descent nor a black South African woman of African descent.

Is it really possible that in this country, Wits University cannot find distinguished black academics.

I can anticipate the age-old but tired answer. They are not available or the ones that are, are committed to their institutions.

Let me be clear about two things.

One, I am not shy to say I am a distinguished academic?–?at least according to my appointment at various institutions over the years, including my Harvard appointment.

I am sure there are black academics more distinguished than I am.

The question is: why do we persistently get recognised by high-ranking international institutions before our own institutions? Prejudice can be the only answer.

Two, I am not applying for a job. Critical as I am of UCT, I am committed to staying. The point I am making is more general.

Why is it so easy for predominantly white liberal universities to see white academics as distinguished when they are not or when they are not as distinguished as their black counterparts?

These universities and the vice-chancellors can say they have the prerogative to make these ultimately subjective decisions.

Wits Vice-Chancellor Adam Habib has written that proportional demographic representivity is not an issue in the leading universities in the world. I am not sure which universities he has in mind. I know it’s an issue at Harvard.

I also know that in none of those universities is the majority of the population under-represented as is the case in South Africa.

For as long as our universities practise this racial exclusion, they must contend with black voices who argue that they should not be receiving public funding if they are going to consistently favour whites over blacks.

These practices do not only go against what we fought for, but mean that my taxes go to subsidising such discrimination.

This brings me to my second point. Black academics at UCT have come together to form a body to engage the university on its appalling racial statistics.

But we would be making a mistake if we thought this was something that can be fought on a campus-by-campus basis.

Universities will simply undermine such initiatives by poaching the distinguished academics among them.

Like Steve Biko said in 1968, I think we need a national union of black academics, particularly at white liberal universities.

Maybe if we got together that way we would find strength not only in our meagre numbers at these institutions, but also in our collective intellectual strength.

It is then and only then that the universities and government will listen to us.

Mangcu is an associate professor at the University of Cape Town and Oppenheimer Fellow at the Hutchins Center, Harvard University

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