Academic Scholarship – A missing link at University of Pretoria?

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Martin Luther King said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Since 2007, Hussein Solomon, a lecturer at the University of Pretoria, has presented papers on Global Jihad and Terrorism in Africa: Sub-Saharan Africa, Islamic Fundamentalist Ideologies in Africa and most recently, Global Jihad: The South African Front on various academic platforms.

Although at pains to stress that the views represented in the papers are his and not that of the university or the Department of Political Sciences, Solomon enjoys the use and protection of an academic platform under the guise of ‘academic freedom’ to express opinions which are unsubstantiated. What is more troublesome is that he continues to promote spurious opinions under the guise of ‘academic research’ thus giving the impression that UP lacks credible standards for academic research.

After the March 17th seminar, more than a hundred students from UP submitted a signed petition to the Vice-Chancellor, Registrar, Dean of Humanities, Dean of Students and Professor Schoeman- Head of Department of Political Sciences. The petition raised the existence of double standards practised at UP on the grounds that the Faculty of Humanities highlights as its mission ‘the conducting of high-quality research… the production of excellent teaching and research results in the humanities by employing the best possible academics‘ yet allows for the publication and presentation of academically flawed papers.

In response to the petition, Professor Sandra Klopper, Dean of Humanities arranged a meeting with some students to discuss a way forward. According to Klopper, she could not prevent Hussein’s participation in the seminar series since his paper had already been accepted by the chairperson of the seminar series. She agreed however, that a difference existed between academic freedom, academic research and freedom of speech. ‘If freedom of speech infringes on tolerance and sensitivity about other people’s values, then you are in conflict with academic freedom in terms of free speech. There is a context to free speech,’ said Klopper.

She also stressed that it was essential to understand freedom of speech within the limitations prescribed by the SA constitution whilst also identifying what the limits and criteria were regarding academic freedom. In order to address the concerns raised from the seminar and the petition, Klopper suggested working with the Faculty of Law to initiate a debate or seminar that would promote tolerance and provide a working understanding or definition of what qualifies as ‘academic freedom’ and ‘academic research’. Participants and speakers would be allowed to express their views on these concepts whilst establishing a platform for constructive dialogue that would enhance intellectual empathy.

Although the students welcomed the proposal and accepted a nomination to be on the steering committee for such a discourse, the question of academic integrity could not be excused. It is regrettable that rules and regulations in most bureaucracies and institutions undermine and constrain true freedom of speech, but twenty five academics and alumni from the Harvard Academy of International and Area Studies in the US, confronted these restrictions when they openly condemned Dr. Kramer on the 19th April 2010, for a paper that had ‘little scholarly merit.’

In a scathing condemnation of Kramer and the Weatherhead Centre which had lent him credibility (much like how UP lends Solomon credibility through association) the academics stated: ‘…we express our concern that the Weatherhead Centre has lent him its credibility. As academics, we question both the ethical and scholarly basis of Dr. Kramer’s public statements. We maintain that this is not a question of protecting Dr. Kramer’s free speech, as was indicated by the Weatherhead Centre’s response to criticism. Rather, it is about maintaining appropriate standards of ethical and intellectual conduct; Dr. Kramer’s repellent statements evince a clear failure to meet those standards.’

The petition signed by the UP students raised exactly the same argument. The difference, however, between the two universities is that in the case of Solomon it was the students who condemned the academically flawed paper, in the case of Kramer, it was the academics and alumni who stated that ‘ … His argument has little scholarly merit… we deplore Dr. Kramer’s statements as morally reprehensible and intellectually indefensible. Furthermore, we encourage the Weatherhead Centre to re-examine its procedures for evaluating the scholarly credibility of future affiliates.

In light of the stand taken by academics from Harvard, students at UP have now raised the question of academic integrity. Do UP scholars, academics and alumni subscribe to and manifest such integrity or is it masked under red tape and fear of reprisals? Often silence on an injustice can be translated as consent. In all fairness, considering the context of academic development and transformation in SA, one should also be willing to ask – Is it silence or is it a question of being silenced? But then again, as Elie Wiesel said, ‘Ultimately, the only power to which man should aspire is that which he exercises over himself.’

Prior to 1994, UP was a bastion of apartheid and a perpetrator of injustice. Perhaps now, with the proposed seminar/debate to open up dialogue and discourse on those issues that many are afraid to discuss the university can structure a positive role for itself by allowing for academic integrity and tolerance without fear of reprisals. Undoubtedly, the right to free speech should be a right for all-otherwise it simply perpetuates injustice.

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