“Find a common cause in defence of Academic Freedom” – Prof Sakhela Buhlungu

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“In the current period, striving for academic freedom and institutional autonomy in one university is a futile exercise. Yet in the current context, the public higher education system is extremely fragmented as institutions and their leadership increasingly retreat into an inward-looking and competitive posture. It is my considered view that the association of university vice-chancellors can do much better by finding common cause in defence of these freedoms,” said Prof Sakhela Buhlungu.

Prof Buhlungu, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Fort Hare (UFH) was delivering the 57th annual TB Davie Memorial Lecture hosted by the University of Cape Town (UCT). Organised by the Academic Freedom Committee, the lecture on academic freedom was established by UCT students to commemorate the work of Thomas Benjamin Davie, VC of the university from 1948 to 1955 and a defender of the principles of academic freedom.

On delivering the address this evening, 23 August 2023, Prof Buhlungu joined the list of distinguished speakers of this prestigious lecture that includes Prof ZK Mathews, UFH’s first graduate (1924) who delivered the 3rd Lecture in 1961, titled: “African Awakening and the Universities”,

In his lecture titled: “Academic Freedom and Institutional Autonomy: A View from the Thyume Valley,” Prof Buhlungu identified four moments that marked the introduction of ethnic education and assault on academic freedom at UFH – the Extension of University Act of 1959, the appointment of Broederbonder Professor JM De Wet in 1968, the closure and subsequent annexation of the Federal Theological Seminary to UFH in 1974/5, and the handing over of the university to the Ciskei Bantustan in 1981.

The VC captivated an audience that filled the New Lecture Theatre on UCT’s campus who listened attentively as he, through his address, created a conversation between TB Davies (UCT) and ZK Mathews (UFH) – two academic freedom fighters as he narrated the current landscape of the resistance and the fight for academic freedom at UFH, universities in the country and in the world.

Prof Buhlungu took the audience back to 1959 “the year that marked the first major assault on academic freedom and institutional autonomy at Fort Hare,” when parliament passed the Extension of University Act of 1959 where strict parameters were set for the college adherence to which was to be monitored by the Department of Bantu Education. “One of these was that the institution was to cater specifically for Xhosa-speaking students. Within the institution segregation governance and administration structures were enforced, including the creation of separate Council and Senate structures for blacks.”

He eloquently and boldly narrated the events that characterise the state and context of academic freedom at Fort Hare such as the arrival of Professor Johannes Marthinus de Wet, a member of the Broederbond in 1968 who seemed to be on a mission to intensify state control over the University, its staff and students.

The VC did not only limit the impact of the assault on academic freedom and institutional autonomy to Fort Hare but also the outwards effect, specifically at the neighbouring Federal Theological Seminary of Southern Africa (FEDSEM) in Alice.

He further marks crucial moments relating to academic freedom and institutional autonomy during the Bantustan Years, from Apartheid to Democracy, and to the Fort Hare he inherited in 2017.

Often people ask me, had I known about what was awaiting me at Fort Hare, would I have taken the job of Vice-Chancellor? I still do not have an answer to that question. Indeed, I often ask myself, did I accept a poisoned chalice at UFH? Again, I have not formulated an answer yet! However, the six and a half years that I have spent at the helm of the University of Fort Hare have provided me with invaluable insights on issues of academic freedom and its handmaiden, institutional autonomy.”

“The story of Fort Hare of the last six years has been told by others, particularly through the media. Sadly, the way the story has been rendered has not always been paid sufficient attention to evidence and close examination of how the institution ended up where it is.”

He outlined some of the underlying issues that led Fort Hare to be where it is currently, such as the heavy burden of bureaucratic micromanagement and the spectre of physical violence and its implications for Academic Freedom.

He ends his address by making four propositions.Firstly, he reminds the audience that in the public higher education sector, academic freedom and institutional autonomy are shaped by context. “They mean slightly (but at times vastly) different things to different institutions because of these institutions’ different socio-political contexts and histories. Thus, we should allow the diversity of experiences in the higher education landscape to shape our understanding of academic freedom. This also means that the enablers as well as the threats to these freedoms will vary from one institution to another, one region to another and one country to another.”

Secondly, he highlighted how crucial it is for the association of university vice-chancellors to find a common cause in defence of these freedoms. “This also includes standing up when a Dean of Faculty of a former black university is murdered in cold blood for taking a stand in defence of the integrity of academic qualifications!”

Thirdly, the VC underlined the increasing burden of bureaucratic ‘tick box’ reporting which infringes on the powers of University Councils”. "In the last decade or so, we have witnessed serious incursions into, and erosion of, academic freedom and institutional autonomy in the public higher education sector. Furthermore, the emergence of universities as “exploitable resources” (Jansen, 2023) means that governance structures have the potential to contain members who can pose a threat to institutional autonomy as they seek to promote interests of vested interests inside and outside the University.”

Lastly, he emphasized that, in the global age, the impulse to intervene and set limits to academic freedom and autonomy is present among all state officials, regardless of their well-meaning intentions and parameters set by legislation. “We would do good by making all state officials and university leaders learn from the catastrophic consequences that state control did to the University of Fort Hare through the Extension of University Act of 1959 and the Annexation of the University to the Ciskei Bantustan in 1981.”

The lecture ended with a robust and insightful question-and-answer session, and in response to one of the questions, the VC reminded us that: “Academic Freedom is not frozen in time, it is something that needs to be shaped by all of us.”

Watch the recording of the live stream here: https://www.news.uct.ac.za/news/videos/-article/2023-08-25-2023-tb-davie-memorial-lecture-presented-by-prof-sakhela-buhlungu