Critical minds no longer welcome on campus

March 9, 2001

Struggling to get some sleep on the London flight, I thought about how often I had made the journey, and why this was the first time since my return to South Africa in 1983 that I had left without a home to go back to. Around me, a good percentage of my fellow passengers, at least the whites, might also have in mind that their return would not be as permanent residents but as visitors. But while they were leaving in search of a life free of violent crime and a more certain future in the job market for their children, I was forced into a new life because the old one shut its doors on me.

In 1983, when I went to live in Cape Town after 22 years away, I was filled with the desire to contribute to the political and social transformation that was already in the air. In those days, "academic freedom" meant simply the right of universities to choose who should teach (or give public talks on campus), who should be taught and what should be taught. Curiously, in light of what has happened recently to Rob Shell at Rhodes University and to me at the University of Natal, being too outspoken was never an issue. We took for granted that robust debate and sometimes savage disagreement between, and criticism of colleagues was the stuff of academic life. Today, we have both been dismissed for this "misconduct".

The struggle in South Africa has always been about equality and justice. I have worked to advance this goal for those disadvantaged by prejudice, whether sexism or racism. The University of Cape Town reformed its discriminatory employment practices and conditions of service as a result of my efforts and those of the women's group I founded there. Other universities have followed suit and "affirmative action" pioneered there has been adopted in employment equity policies designed to benefit previously disadvantaged groups -in part at least, at my insistence. On returning to South Africa, I hoped to contribute most in my role as a teacher and researcher and in the transformation of academic institutions. My research was policy and development related: the domestic division of labour, employment, housing for the homeless, energy use among the poor and the promotion of civic culture. Funders ranged from the African National Congress Women's League to the Ford Foundation. Projects involved training black researchers. I introduced innovative methods in my own teaching and encouraged colleagues to pursue learning strategies appropriate to the less advantaged students who have come increasingly to take their rightful places in our universities. In 1997, I returned to what I regarded as my true metier -university teaching. Invited to take the chair of social anthropology at the University of Natal, I responded enthusiastically to the challenges of a department that needed to revise its teaching methods and courses. I was commended for my contribution in the first difficult 18 months. It came as a shock to be told, six months after a sharp exchange of letters with the dean about his handling of a student complaint (the first in my career), that I was to be suspended pending a disciplinary inquiry into five charges of misconduct. I was banned from teaching and marking, not allowed to go to my office or to the library, or to attend any function on campus. A year and two inquiries later, and after I had turned down an offer of R453,000 (£40,000) to resign, last December I was dismissed. None of the original five charges was upheld. Instead, I was found guilty of an offence to do with the powers of deans but "more seriously", I was found guilty of emailing friends about my suspension and, in the process of expressing my shock, failing to give the university's side of the story.

Dr Shell, an historian of slavery and an Aids researcher, was summoned back from Princeton to face disciplinary charges only days after my dismissal. He had also returned to contribute to the transformation of universities and conduct relevant research. His dismissal, too, has been recommended not for poor academic performance -but because he has been critical of his superiors.

It seems that academics must learn the hard way to stop doing this. The freedom to argue with and criticise peers in administrative positions has gone. Those who thought that the freedom to criticise administrative actions was inseparable from the freedom to criticise academic ideas are mistaken in South Africa in 2001. If you do it to the wrong people, you will be looking for another job and who will employ you when you have been sacked for misconduct?

That is why I am on this plane. Dr Shell may well be on the next plane - an unwilling part of the brain drain that South Africa can ill afford.

Caroline White was professor of social anthropology at the University of Natal, Durban, until December 2000.

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