OPINION | Professor Nicoli Nattrass: Tumult at UCT Part 1 - the challenges of transformation

Students at the University of Cape Town.
Students at the University of Cape Town.
Getty Images

Since the Rhodes Must Fall protests, UCT has grappled anew with the emotionally charged challenges of transformation.

There is an ongoing, at times passionate, debate over how to address racial and economic inequality, how to make the campus more inclusive and our research and teaching more relevant and inter-disciplinary.

UCT has continued to grow the number of black students and faculty, improved access to financial aid, widened representation in policy-making structures, removed statues and renamed buildings, and "decolonised" courses. 

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Students and scholars steeped in post-colonial theory have injected energy into transformation by highlighting the ways that language and academic practices can reflect and consolidate "white privilege" even in our transformed institutional environment. Many of us (older, white) scholars have been pushed to re-examine our assumptions and behaviour.

The Manichean character of transformation

Most of this has been for the good. But the continuing push for transformation has a Manichean underside of intolerance: If you do not comply with the approved vision of the future, you must be pushed aside. At UCT, a section of the Black Academic Caucus (BAC), together with some student activists, appear to want to institutionalise a new and intolerant hegemonic project.

Their utopia is my dystopia: A university where self-righteous thought police curtail the kinds of research that can be conducted and by whom, and censor any results or writing that do not fit their preconceptions and biases.

I have now run into the thought police as a result of a 2-page "commentary" published in the South African Journal of Science (SAJS). Led by the BAC and others, the UCT executive rushed to pass judgement on my commentary, condemning it as conceptually, methodologically and ethically flawed, with a thinly-veiled verdict of racism.

The executive took the apparently unprecedented step of releasing a statement – and tweeting it to UCT's more than 200 000 Twitter followers

What is especially ironic is that my commentary was engaging with transformation.

In this Part 1 of my reply, I address the background to my contentious commentary. In Part 2, I shall examine what the growing influence of the thought police means for UCT as a university.

The challenge of diversifying the student body

UCT, like other universities, invests considerable energy and resources in diversifying the student body, which has been interpreted primarily in terms of racial transformation and, specifically, the recruitment of larger proportions of black South African students. Diversified classes are not only good for society, they are also good for our students and – in my experience – make teaching much more rewarding.

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The transformation of the student body has not, however, been even across the university. Some departments have struggled to attract black South African students and have struggled to retain them through senior undergraduate courses and into postgraduate work

Conservation biology is one field which has been notably unsuccessful in this. This is a huge concern to those of us in UCT's Institute for Communities and Wildlife in Africa (iCWild). I myself, am an economist, but most of my current research is through iCWild. While iCWild has been very successful in generating exciting new research about human-wildlife conflict and building a global reputation, it remains very white.

Long discussions prompted us to try to initiate some exploratory research on why conservation biology has struggled in this respect. 

It has been well established that access to (and progress through) higher education is massively constrained by socio-economic factors.

What is less clear is how students choose what to study (i.e. how they exercise agency). If we take UCT students – who by definition have the qualifications to get into UCT and then access to funding if they are from disadvantaged backgrounds – what factors inform their choice of what to study? Specifically, why are more black South African students at UCT not attracted to conservation biology? 

Our exploratory research

A small team of social science students – black and white – and I began to workshop a survey questionnaire through informal discussions with students. We drafted a questionnaire and, put it through UCT's ethical review process, making clear that this was exploratory research, with an opportunistic (or convenience) sample. The goals included providing students with (paid) experience in survey research and suggesting the kinds of issues for further and more systematic research into students' subject choices. When piloting the questionnaire, we found that it needed minor tweaks – in response to what student respondents told us, i.e. to the prevailing "narratives" among students. 

We found that the students in our sample who self-identified as black South Africans were less likely than others to have considered studying biological sciences (i.e. the undergraduate major leading to conservation biology).

This was linked most strongly to career aspirations. This is consistent with existing (but now dated) research on South African students' subject preferences (most notably by Michael Cosser at the Human Sciences Research Council), which suggests that black students tend to prioritise job opportunities over interest in the subject while the opposite is true among white students, most of whom come from relatively privileged backgrounds.

Across the world, "post-materialist" values are more common among higher-income individuals and in richer societies. We used the standard international set of questions to assess how materialist the students were in our sample. It is hardly surprising that students with post-materialist values are more attracted – and students with more materialist values less attracted – to a field like conservation biology. We also asked students questions about other cultural issues (including attitudes to evolution), and found that some of these also correlated with whether students had ever considered studying biological sciences.

Conservation biology is a multi-disciplinary field with one foot in zoology (the study of animals) and the other in social science (the study of humans). Researchers in iCWild typically study the interface between humans and wildlife, for example between baboons and residents of Cape Town's South Peninsula, between sharks and water users in False Bay or rats and people in urban neighbourhoods. Researchers typically need to handle dead and live animals. Attitudes to animals are therefore likely to have a bearing on whether students are attracted to the field. We found that, among our small sample of UCT students, attitudes to animals correlated with having considered studying biological sciences.

I presented these results at an institutional review of iCWild, chaired by a deputy vice-chancellor and including two eminent external reviewers. The reviewers encouraged me to publish the findings because, although the research was exploratory, they were not aware of any other research on this topic. As the exploratory research was not designed to produce scientific research output and was based on a limited and non-generalisable sample, I submitted it to the SAJS as a "commentary".

The SAJS clearly distinguishes "commentaries" from "research letters" and "research articles". Commentaries are short. They are not peer reviewed. They may have various purposes, but one is to present preliminary research that can inform policy-making of one kind or another. They are not intended to present fully developed, scientific research output. Most of my critics have failed to appreciate this and have criticised the commentary as if it was a fully-fledged scientific paper. Revealingly, the BAC document criticising my commentary is twice as long as the commentary itself. 

The critiques

The BAC never engaged with me about the motivations and practices that inspired and shaped the survey. Rather, in an emotionally laden register designed to perform and mobilise "outrage", the research was depicted as driven by a white supremacist agenda, seeking to "disqualify" black aspirations.

The survey was condemned as racist for even asking all students whether they agreed or disagreed with statements such as: "Addressing social inequality is much more important than wildlife conservation. Such questions, opined the BAC, were necessarily "irrelevant, racially problematic and prejudicial to black students".

Some of my colleagues – black and white – have engaged me in serious and respectful debate over the commentary. I am learning from these discussions and have no doubt that any future research will be much improved as a result of reasoned and critical discussion of the initial, exploratory research. Science – including social science – is always work in progress, improving through critical engagement.

The BAC and their fellow travellers are not engaged in this kind of constructive critique. They are engaged in a silencing project: I, as a white researcher, should not be permitted to conduct research on students if some of them are black, the questions we asked should not be permitted, our methodology – and perhaps all quantitative social science – should be banned, and our findings should be suppressed. If the SAJS was a book, they would be burning it in the main avenue of the university. It seems that the BAC already knows the truth – the one and only truth – and all other subversive thoughts should be prohibited. 

Now the UCT executive has, in effect, chosen to legitimise the BAC-led critique, without providing any reasons for their summary judgement – and without ever consulting me.

In Part 2 of this piece I shall examine what it will mean to the university if this approach does becomes hegemonic.


Nicoli Nattrass is a Professor of Economics at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. She is the Co-Director of the Institute for Communities and Wildlife in Africa (iCWild) and former Director of the Aids and Society Research Unit at the University of Cape Town.

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