Maverick Citizen

Maverick Citizen Op-Ed

Come on UCT, we are bigger than this!

Come on UCT, we are bigger than this!
University of Cape Town (Photo: Stephen Koigi / Flickr)

The UCT executive’s opening of a window for deliberation, along with Professor Nicoli Natrass’s affirmation that she has gained new insights from the discussions that have resulted from the publication of the paper, would appear to be a recipe for a constructive way forward. We need to move along these lines, providing Professor Nattrass and her critics with a forum in which to reflect academically on these matters.

I have been following with growing disquiet the opinions and commentaries in response to the article: “Why are black South African students less likely to consider studying biological sciences?” by Professor Nicoli Nattrass of the University of Cape Town (UCT). The article recently appeared in the South African Journal of Science (SAJS). As a UCT academic, I am troubled by the polarised positions that have emerged from within the institution.

Like many others, I was left uncomfortable on reading the article. It is important that we address questions of access to academic programmes and the factors that influence programme choices among black students, as we strive to transform our institution. The article and its analyses are based on assumptions, or as described by the author, hypotheses, that are superficial, racialised and lacking in theoretical grounding. Much has been written about the manner in which the article has been conceptualised, including its lack of “self-awareness, intellectual humility and social caution”. Professor Nattrass would do well to heed the advice of some of these critics.

Other critics need to be more measured in their engagement. The Black Academic Caucus (BAC) at UCT, which has issued a statement of “outrage”, has been denigrated by Professor Nattrass as a form of “thought police”, while being defended by other academics from UCT and elsewhere. This latter group, while appropriately dismantling Professor Nattrass’s characterisation of the BAC as akin to the Broederbond on the grounds that it fails to appreciate the differential power relations in the two cases, nevertheless fails to address the emotive and dare I say intolerant response of the BAC. Ultimately, at a research-intensive university, this discord and controversy should be managed scientifically and academically.

I was pleased when the SAJS announced its intention to create space for such scientific discussion and critique of the article. The presentation in this case of an empirical analysis in an opinion piece published without peer review is an editorial anomaly that the SAJS is addressing. 

I was disturbed by the hasty response of the UCT executive to the article. It bothered me that an investigation could so rapidly be announced into a piece of research that was speculative and raised questions rather than drawing firm conclusions. It also bothered me, as it did others, that the executive would presume to speak for me as a black person and as an academic; that the executive would assume that I was offended by the article rather than trusting my ability to engage with it critically and to draw my own conclusions on the merits of its arguments.

The UCT I know has multiple structures through which such discontent could be addressed. I urge all stakeholders – the supporters of Professor Nattrass and those of the BAC, the executive and the council – to remember that our primary interest should be the university and its academic project, rather than the defence of positions that so easily become more entrenched when they are challenged.

I was reassured by the vice-chancellor’s acknowledgement in a Senate meeting that the executive had reconsidered its statement. I welcomed its willingness to support constructive debate on the questions raised in and by the article, and its recognition that the diversity of views on the article presented a platform from which UCT’s transformation project could be advanced.

The UCT executive’s opening of a window for deliberation, along with Professor Natrass’s affirmation that she has gained new insights from the discussions that have resulted from the publication of the paper, would appear to be a recipe for a constructive way forward. We need to move along these lines, providing Professor Nattrass and her critics with a forum in which to reflect academically on these matters.

Yet I remain troubled; now by Professor Natrass’s open letter in which she appears to cast UCT’s deputy-vice-chancellor for research and internationalisation as being primarily responsible for the collective approach by the executive and for suggesting that she should resign. One cannot call for engagement and deliberation on the one hand, and then demand retribution on the other.

The UCT I know has multiple structures through which such discontent could be addressed. I urge all stakeholders – the supporters of Professor Nattrass and those of the BAC, the executive and the council – to remember that our primary interest should be the university and its academic project, rather than the defence of positions that so easily become more entrenched when they are challenged.

Our academic success relies on our transformation imperative, which is best served if we ensure that we emerge from the current discord as a more cohesive community. Only then can we be an exemplar to the rest of the country on how to manage deep controversy on matters that concern us all. DM/MC

Tania Douglas is a professor in the Division of Biomedical Engineering, and the Department of Science and Innovation / National Research Foundation Research Chair in Biomedical Engineering and Innovation, at the University of Cape Town. She is also the Associate Editor, Engineering and Technology, for the South African Journal of Science.

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