Opponents cry ‘freedom’ as UCT grapples with decolonisation

22 February 2019 - 07:04 By Dave Chambers
The University of Cape Town is struggling to find a united approach to the decolonisation of its curriculum.
The University of Cape Town is struggling to find a united approach to the decolonisation of its curriculum.
Image: 123rf/Peter Titmuss

A safe space for ideas or a citadel of ethno-fascism? That’s the discussion raging at the University of Cape Town as it prepares to finalise the decolonisation of its curriculum.

The cover of UCT's document proposing how the curriculum should be decolonised.
The cover of UCT's document proposing how the curriculum should be decolonised.
Image: UCT

A new activist group, Progress SA, escalated the debate this week by posting a critique of UCT’s curriculum change framework.

The framework was developed by a working group set up in April 2016 by then vice-chancellor Max Price in the aftermath of #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall unrest. (Download the framework here.)

Progress SA invited academics, students and alumni to attach their names to its open letter about the framework’s supposed shortcomings. Dozens have done so.

The letter is addressed to vice-chancellor Mamokgethi Phakeng, a member of the working group that finalised the framework at the end of 2017.

It calls on her to clarify the purpose of the framework and state “whether management intends to propose the document to senate to be adopted as university policy”.

It also wants an affirmation of UCT’s commitment to the principles of academic and intellectual freedom... “rather than as a space where management can impose a narrow ideological framework upon students and staff”.

And it wants an assurance that UCT will not introduce “a colour bar for lecturing in any discipline or at any level”.

Former UCT vice-chancellor Max Price launched the curriculum review after protests in 2015 and 2016.
Former UCT vice-chancellor Max Price launched the curriculum review after protests in 2015 and 2016.
Image: David Harrison

When he released the framework document in June 2018, Price said he hoped it would “stimulate discussion”, and UCT has posted several critiques on its website.

UCT spokesperson Elijah Moholola told TimesLIVE on Thursday the university’s teaching and learning committee was now evaluating comments on the framework “with a view of integrating different aspects of a curricular review”.

He added: “The aim is to have a document for senate in the second semester, having been presented in the faculties first.”

Progress SA’s letter, which UCT said would be considered alongside the other comments, says the framework is “fraught with linguistic indeterminacies and technical jargon that impair, rather than aid, comprehension. Many of its claims and arguments are so ambiguous or obscure that bona fide attempts at understanding, let alone critique and rebuttal, are near impossible.”

Then it asks: “Is it intended as a code of conduct for teaching, that will become university policy? Or is it merely a platform intended to raise points for discussion? The answers to these questions are of grave importance, and weigh greatly on whether UCT remains a free and open university.”

Mamokgethi Phakeng took over as vice-chancellor of UCT in July 2018.
Mamokgethi Phakeng took over as vice-chancellor of UCT in July 2018.
Image: Esa Alexander

If the document becomes university policy, it says, it will mean dismissing curricula “informed by what some of humankind’s most reliable methods of evidence-gathering” purely because they were built on colonial ideology.

“There would, for example, be a risk that a lecturer in the department of biological sciences would not be free to teach Darwinian evolutionary theory as the most plausible scientific explanation for objectively observed physical phenomena, but only as a case study of a theory manifesting colonial, cis-gendered or heterosexist power relations.”

The introduction of a colour bar for teaching would have grave moral and constitutional implications

It is vital, the letter says, that academic and intellectual freedom, as well as diverse points of view, survive at UCT so that students are empowered to think for themselves. “This approach is what separates education from indoctrination.”

The letter criticises the framework’s “apparent endorsement of the idea that a colour bar should be introduced to prevent lecturers of the ‘wrong’ race from taking charge of curriculum in general, or else in certain disciplinary areas”.

It adds: “The framework document does not distance itself from this proposal. On the contrary, it echoes it in its statement that the curriculum change working group itself needed to be ‘black-led’ in order to have ‘legitimacy’.

“The introduction of a colour bar for teaching would have grave moral and constitutional implications.”

However, in its recommendations the working group said only: “Effort should be made to ensure a diversity of tutors reflecting racial, class, gender and sexual identities, as well as different forms of disability.”


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