Academic freedom

2008-03-11 00:00

The pursuit of academic freedom in South African universities during the apartheid years involved a noble and tenacious battle against the interfering role of the state. Images of gowned scholars in solemn public protests still linger in the minds of those engaged in this quest for liberty. Freedom to teach what they wished and whomever they desired to admit as students was for them a fundamental principle.

It is disturbing to note that, so far as the University of KwaZulu-Natal is concerned, the site of struggle for academic freedom has shifted into the inner sanctum of the university itself. A feature article in this newspaper has drawn attention to a battle taking place in the university's senate, which is the highest academic governing body in the institution. Many of the senate's members are feeling stifled and strangulated by what they perceive to be an authoritarian vice-chancellor Malegapuru Makgoba who has refused to allow a place on the senate's agenda for a discussion paper on academic freedom. This leaves an impression that free and open debate is no longer encouraged. Instead, the professor of mathematics, John van den Berg, who is one of the authors and promoters of the discussion paper, has allegedly been accused by the vice-chancellor of racism and insubordination.

Behind this kind of intolerance and altercation lies a bizarre approach by the university's management structure which treats academics as workers and students as customers. A model of robust and mutually respectful debate can hardly operate in such an environment. A totalitarian ethos has taken over which easily cultivates a culture of fear and undermines the very nature of what a university should represent.

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