UCT prof at centre of race storm hits back, accuses varsity of ‘hatchet-job’ response

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Students at the University of Cape Town.
Students at the University of Cape Town.
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  • UCT professor Nicoli Nattrass has accused the university of bending to political pressure when it condemned paper she authored as "offensive to black students".
  • The paper, according to Nattrass, was part of exploratory research to understand why conservation biology at UCT struggles to attract black South African students.
  • Nattrass claims the university's actions have prevented debate on transformation.

The author of a research paper, condemned as "offensive to black students", has spoken out against the University of Cape Town (UCT) after it distanced itself from the paper.

The paper by Professor Nicoli Nattrass, based at the university's Institute for Communities and Wildlife in Africa (iCWild), titled "Why are black South African students less likely to consider studying biological sciences", was published in the South African Journal of Science at the end of May. 

Nattrass has had 130 papers published in peer-reviewed journals or as chapters in edited collections.

The two-page paper speculated inequalities in schooling, "materialistic values" around occupation and income, "experience with pets" and "attitudes towards wildlife", "shaped by a student's socio-economic background", played a role in black students' willingness to study biological sciences. 

In a statement, UCT's executive said it had launched an investigation into the matter.

"The paper is offensive to black students at UCT, black people in general and to any academic who understands that the quality of research is inextricably linked to its ethical grounding," its executive said.  

However, Nattrass has, in a statement, rejected the accusations levelled against her, insisting that the paper spoke to the issue of transformation at the university.

READ | 'Offensive to black people’ - UCT launches probe into Biological Sciences paper on black students

Nattrass says she conducted exploratory research with students on the pressing question on why conservation biology at UCT struggles to attract black South African students.

"We presented our results to an international institutional review panel chaired by a deputy vice-chancellor (a member of the executive). I was encouraged to publish a commentary as a contribution to the important debate on transformation," she said.

She said the council's statement "bears the hallmarks of a rushed, error-filled, hatchet job in response to political pressure from the Black Academic Caucus (BAC) and student activists".

The Black Academic Caucus at UCT has said there were a "variety of tropes about black students and black people and their 'culture'" that play out, leading to "some disturbing conclusions from the author". It said publishing this sort of material was not unprecedented in the "long and intertwined histories of research advocating eugenics".

In response to these allegations, Nattrass says the BAC rejects her analysis "because it does not comply with the BAC's narrow, ideological and paradigmatic approach" and because she is white.

"In the face of political pressure, the executive has abrogated to itself the right to pass summary judgement on scholarship outside of their fields, and without following any recognised process or ever asking me to respond to criticisms. By unfairly condemning my research as flawed, the executive has legitimated scholarly intolerance," she said.

"These are not the actions of a university committed to scholarly practices and processes. It impedes reasoned and evidence-based debate on the important issue of transformation."

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