As By Fire – Jonathan Jansen on the 2015/6 university protests

The Cape Town launch of Prof. Jonathan Jansen’s latest book, As by Fire: The End of the South African University, was held last week at the Book Lounge. I was invited to be the discussant and, having already read the book a few weeks ago and found it to be worthwhile, was pleased to accept.

On re-reading it in preparation for the discussion, my initial impression persisted: relative ‘insiders’ to the last few years of university politics and protests might not learn much that they didn’t know, while the general public certainly could.

The book is grounded in Jansen’s interviews with 11 other Vice-Chancellors (Jansen was at the time VC at the University of the Free State), all of whom spoke fairly openly about their experiences and the challenges faced as they tried to balance the interests of competing parties – students, whether protesting or not, parents, staff, donors, as well as governing bodies like university Councils.

These people are all deeply-informed, even though they obviously speak from a perspective that is of necessity at least partly managerial. None of them had the liberty of doing whatever they might independently have thought ideal, because of those competing interests, and because many of their decisions had to be made in sub-optimal conditions, before all the facts were available, and under extreme pressure.

Jansen doesn’t hide the fact that the book only speaks from this perspective – he makes it clear, and also explicitly tells us that this perspective isn’t necessarily a privileged one, when set alongside the analysis that might be offered by students, or workers, or staff.

The political, social, economic and emotive weight of the events and background narrative discussed in the book doesn’t lend itself to consensus, whether on the interpretation of individual events, or on their collective overall impact and the consequences for our universities.

It thus seems crucial to me that we remind ourselves of the principle of charity when interpreting the contents of the book, rather than reading it – or engaging with Jansen – in a way that simply confirms our biases. Just as one would hope for Jansen to not dismiss a student perspective out-of-hand (for example, as people did with the infamous #ScienceMustFall clip), we would hope for the same when speaking about Jansen and his book.

That’s unfortunately not what we get in a piece by Zachary Levenson, published on Africa is a Country (AIAC), that describes Jansen as South Africa’s own David Brooks. Brooks, in case you don’t know, is a conservative American author who writes for the New York Times, and who frequently attracts criticism from the left for trading in stereotypes and lazy social analysis to make policy or political claims.

To my mind, Brooks is an example of the kind of conservative I’d hope for there to be more of, in that he at least seems thoughtful rather than irredeemably ideologically blinkered. Be that as it may, the headline is clearly intended as an insult, because AIAC’s editorial stance means that it, and its target audience, would be among those offering the criticisms described above.

But even so, one can be fair in interpretation of what people say, and one can certainly avoid presenting things in a deliberately misleading context. Consider this example (emphasis added):

I’m not in the business of kicking dead horses, but it would be bizarre to read Jansen’s transformation of one university as an indication that South Africa’s higher education system has been substantially integrated, decolonized, or whatever other concept we might apply. But in a talk in Cape Town on Wednesday night, July 12, this is precisely what he did. An employee at the Book Lounge in Cape Town’s city center told the audience that he couldn’t recall a bigger turnout for a big launch in the entire time he’d worked there. It was hard not to notice that the crowd was predominantly over fifty and white. This isn’t to say that it was entirely white — of course it wasn’t — and there were plenty of younger people there. But it’s worth noting that a talk on race in higher education by a black man — though he’d of course disagree that the talk was about race at all — was attended largely by older middle-class whites who seemed to hang on his every word.

How does the comment of a book launch discussant (yes, it was me, not an employee of the Book Lounge (but perhaps Levinson arrived late, and didn’t hear the introductions)) about the size of the crowd relate to university transformation?

How do the demographics of the crowd that he/I said this to make any point besides what we already know about Cape Town, book launches and their over-representation of whiteness? That’s a baseline reality – and a problem, sure, but one you write about in a piece about that problem, rather than shoehorning into a criticism of Jansen, while telling us a falsehood about what Jansen said.

Two paragraphs down, Levenson says

he [Jansen] told the crowd that the South African political scientist Susan Booysen’s edited volume Fees Must Fall (Johannesburg: Wits University Press, 2017) conveys the student perspective — and even includes a couple of actual student contributions, as if it were shocking that people in their early twenties could pick up a pen — and that he was trying to bring the administration’s perspective. We also need workers to write a volume, he added, pushing the pluralism of “rainbow nation” post-racialism. If only the various perspectives could hash it out, everything would be fine.

One could have interpreted Jansen as making the sincere point that it was valuable to hear the student perspective – and would do so if you took him at his word, as described in the book and on the night, that he had an “open door” policy for exactly this reason. It’s an unfounded and uncharitable inference to make that he was being condescending about it (c.f. “as if it were shocking”, in the quote above).

In the same vein, unless you think that only one perspective has any explanatory value, it’s to Jansen’s credit that he would like to see more student perspectives (from both protesting and non-protesting students), as well as worker perspectives. That’s how we get the full picture, which is what those seeking understanding should want.

The motivated reading and motivated reasoning go on. When Jansen uses Stanford to make the simple point that one can do more with more resources, and that it’s thus a shame for resources to be destroyed in protests, Levenson asks

“Why was he comparing one of the richest schools in a country with some of the top universities in the world to a place in which all major universities are public?”

Well, because the point would hold true for that comparison, just as it would if he were to compare the relative value of having access to resources at a university with the same general value of having a well-resourced chicken farm.

Levenson then turns to some more Jansen-as-Brooks derision, before telling us “I couldn’t help but wonder why Jansen was focused so intently on signs of elite status in a country attempting to remedy the effects of decades of apartheid schooling” – on an evening where Jansen explicitly told us of his desire to get involved in fixing South Africa’s schooling system.

Then we move to decolonisation, a topic on which Jansen offered a fairly lengthy, and animated, exposition. I’d suggest that anyone who thinks we have a clear, and shared definition of what this means in practice at our universities is treating their ideological stance as non-negotiable, and that seems to be what Levinson does, in saying

“Let’s not overstate the problem,” Jansen continued. “Let’s not name it wrongly because that is disingenuous.” Given how frequently he was reminding the audience of his academic training as a social scientist, I couldn’t help but wonder why he would reveal that he hadn’t read any postcolonial theory written in the past forty years, or why he would feign ignorance, as if he couldn’t actually understand the meaning of the concept in its current context.

In naming the three books that he thinks foundational in understanding decolonisation, Jansen by no means confesses to not having read any others. And again, if you leave open the possibility that multiple viewpoints can help to clarify complicated issues, you don’t speak about “the meaning of the concept”. Jansen might think it means something different to what you do, just as I’ve heard various competing student interpretations of the concept.

Levinson then discusses the questions posed by Chumani Maxwele, who was present. Curiously, he doesn’t mention Maxwele by name, which made me wonder whether Levinson is indeed as informed as he presents himself as being.

The reason why Maxwele wasn’t named, according to Africa is a Country tweets, is that

One easy fix would be to leave that part (Maxwele’s questions) out of your account entirely, but that would be unfortunate, as Maxwele asked good questions. Which is precisely why, as this response notes, he should have been credited and identified:

AIAC then proceed to dig themselves a deeper hole, by claiming that they were trying to avoid the polarisation and sensationalism practiced by other publications, pointing to a TimesLive account of the same evening as example.

As the same Twitter user (@tomtom_m) responds, it’s perfectly possible to identify Maxwele without going down the silly distraction route that TimesLive chose – Maxwele’s questions, and Jansen’s answers to those, didn’t mention Drs Price and Surve at all, though the TimesLive reporter (who also tried to get me to comment on that) seemed intent on making that the story.

In short, this comes across as a very weak cover story for a writer having either failed to recognise Maxwele, or for having partially erased Maxwele’s voice, either of which would be unfortunate oversights in a piece that claims authority as well as purports deep affinity with the student protests.

In conclusion, another (long) paragraph from Levenson, describing the audience reaction to Maxwele’s question about why the black parents walking to and from work outside were not in the room:

I could see audience members rolling their eyes. It was the most substantive question of the evening, and easily the most thoughtful, yet Jansen gave it short shrift. He insisted that we can’t keep emphasizing race in every conversation, as if excising the concept from our repertoire would correspond to an eradication of racism (let alone racialism) in everyday life. But this corresponds precisely to the ideology of post-racialism in contemporary South Africa: it’s less about a verifiable observation than a strategy for shutting down any discussion of race whatsoever. No one could argue with a straight face that South Africa’s higher education system is anything approximating integrated, or that the geography of apartheid schooling doesn’t persist in a novel public v. private guise. But here was Jansen advocating an elitist schooling model in a post-apartheid context, all without so much as mentioning race, save for selectively denigrating the very concept.

This is a misrepresentation of Jansen’s answer, where Jansen made it clear that race isn’t the only important feature of an audience, and that there was value in talking to audiences of all descriptions. He was certainly not “denigrating the very concept”.

In fact, his answer even left room for Jansen agreeing that it would be ideal if those parents were in attendance – but that this doesn’t mean that gatherings without them are worthless. As Voltaire said, don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Jansen also pointed out that this audience was a sample of one, and that he regularly addresses audiences where those parents are present. He proceeded to invite Maxwele to join him at the next one. Hopefully we’ll hear whether that happens or not in due course, and hopefully we’ll get a more honest account of the event.

No, that doesn’t actually beg the question

Greetings from the Franschhoek Literary Festival where, when we’re not sitting in panel discussions, you might often find us sitting drinking wine and debating important matters. Today, after our table resolved the issue of whether you should wear your name tag in a visible (to some, ostentatious) fashion (yes), we moved on to talking about whether it was worth contesting the increasingly prevalent misuse of the phrase “begs the question”. Continue reading “No, that doesn’t actually beg the question”

The (unbearable?) whiteness of philosophy

There’s an interesting – and important – discussion going on in South African professional philosophy at the moment. You can read about it on the Mail&Guardian, but the nutshell summary is that tensions regarding the “apparent supremacy of European philosophy over African philosophy” have resulted in the president and “several black philosophers” resigning from the Philosophical Society of Southern Africa (PSSA). Continue reading “The (unbearable?) whiteness of philosophy”

Emotion trumps evidence in a post-fact world (same as it ever was)

As you’ve no doubt heard, “post-truth” has been named “word of the year” by Oxford dictionaries. But that shouldn’t lead us to think that truth or evidence has ever mattered as much as we might prefer, or that this post-truth world represents a complete break from the past.

All of us have always been susceptible to various forms of irrational thought resulting from bias in how we interpret – and even recognise – evidence, as elegantly illustrated in the work of people like Kahneman and Tversky, as well as in popular science books by Dan Ariely and others (like me and Caleb Lack (sorry not sorry)). Continue reading “Emotion trumps evidence in a post-fact world (same as it ever was)”

Brief notes on a crisis: #FeesMustFall

The University of Cape Town’s Senate met this morning. I had to leave at 12:15, but the meeting – which started at 10:00 – had up until that point merely confirmed what we all know is the case: that there are no easy answers, and very little agreement on how to proceed.

What agreement there was consisted of a general consensus that we’d like to be able to teach, and that students would like to be able to learn. Teaching and learning are obviously core business for a university, and why most of us are there, so agreement on this is no surprise. Continue reading “Brief notes on a crisis: #FeesMustFall”

Academic freedom at the University of Cape Town

The Academics Union at UCT recently organised a panel discussion on academic freedom at UCT, following the dis-invitation of Flemming Rose as the TB Davie Memoral speaker.

The text below was my opening statement at that panel discussion. There are obviously many other issues that could be addressed, and we were asked to limit our contributions to five minutes, so what follows is of necessity restricted in scope. Continue reading “Academic freedom at the University of Cape Town”

On opinions, and how the world needs editors

The reading material for my “Evidence-based Management” course at the University of Cape Town contains an early draft of what ended up becoming chapter 1 of Critical Thinking, Science and Pseudoscience.

Springer book coverIn the book, Dr. Caleb Lack and I argue that phrases like “everybody is entitled to their opinions” are typically trite or misleading.

They can be meaningless, in the sense that of course it’s true that everyone is legally entitled to hold whatever opinions they like.

This doesn’t seem to be what we mean when using the phrase, though – we typically say: “well, you’re entitled to your opinion” precisely when an opinion has been expressed, where we disagree with the expressed opinion, and where we express that disagreement by using the phrase in question. Continue reading “On opinions, and how the world needs editors”

Flemming Rose and the UCT TB Davie Academic Freedom Lecture

The University of Cape Town Executive have decided to countermand the invitation extended to Flemming Rose by the Academic Freedom Committee (AFC) to deliver the annual TB Davie Academic Freedom Memorial Lecture.

While the AFC (a committee that I currently chair) has released a statement on this decision, I would like to offer some additional comment. Any views expressed here should not be assumed to be shared by anyone else, in particular other members of the AFC. Continue reading “Flemming Rose and the UCT TB Davie Academic Freedom Lecture”

The mutual symbiosis of a “regressive left” and a “reactionary right”

It’s not insightful to say that social media are probably unrepresentative of what the common person thinks, nor that platforms like Twitter encourage hyperbole and argument.

I do however think that the hyperbole is an expression of the same lack of charity and unwillingness to find a middle ground that we see in newspaper coverage of contentious issues such as Hilary vs. Bernie, whether Trump is a fascist or not, or whether South African students need to be applauded or pilloried.

It’s possible for us to disagree with each other, but to do so in such a way that doesn’t caricature, and that doesn’t disincentivise any future attempts at debate. And, there is of course little chance of persauding someone that they are wrong, if they are no longer talking to you.

That last point is why last night, I tweeted:

Consider this example, from yesterday’s Washington Post, titled “College students run crying to Daddy Administrator“. I’m sometimes as annoyed by students as anyone could be – it’s difficult to avoid being so when you deal with 1 500 of them a year. They can be lazy, oversensitive, rude, and so forth.

But, they are also inexperienced at being a small anonymous cog in a large machine that isn’t necessarily geared for giving them personal attention, or for allowing them the time to discover, and explain, what it is that feels alienating, oppressive or offensive.

They also, quite simply, haven’t necessarily learned the conventions and language of what it is to negotiate in good faith in a civil society – why would they have, having grown up on discussion forums, Twitter and Facebook?

Colleges are supposed to be places where young adults develop the critical thinking and social skills to peacefully, productively engage with people with whom they disagree, whose ideas they may even find detestable. But today’s students — and tomorrow’s workers — are discouraged from resolving such conflicts on their own.

They are not learning to use their “logic and reason and words,” as President Obama urged in his Rutgers University commencement speech, during which he chided students for forcing Condoleezza Rice to withdraw from an earlier talk.

That (from the Washington Post piece) is all true. But I think it’s also true that calling people “babies”, or mocking them for taking offense too easily, can serve to simply validate their concerns.

Likewise, insisting that everyone who disagrees with you – no matter whether their disagreement is polite and thoughtful (even if wrong or confused, by your lights) is a member of some out-group like the “regressive left” can serve to simply confirm to them that you’re part of some “reactionary right” – and neither side is then left feeling that there is any point in talking to the other.

It is indeed a problem that people can have overly thin skins, because robust debate and disagreement is necessary to improve our arguments and our characters. But it’s also a problem when you have concerns (even if they might be trivial or unjustified concerns to others), and those you express the concerns to respond with ridicule.

Both these extremes are a problem, and there’s no reason you have to choose either of them.

UCT, art, and the negotiation of transformation

It’s sometimes difficult to know when you’re making the right decision, or whether you’re rather not making a decision at all, so much as being pressured into doing what someone else thinks you should.

Or, perhaps, the right decision can be made in the wrong way – too hurriedly, and without enough deliberation. At UCT, we’ve been treading these fine lines for a year now, where even if you think – as I do – that many of our decisions are correct and long-overdue (for example, the renaming of buildings), you might simultaneously fear that the idea of a university as a place of open debate is at risk.

Of course, calls for debate can privilege the established point of view, and often do so. They can serve to slow things down, or to trivialise the concerns of those who demand urgent action.

It’s in cases like this where we need to be careful of embracing an entirely false dichotomy, though, whereby either you’re on the side of virtue and join the revolution, or you’re an obstacle to it, in appealing for more debate and reflection.

You might be on the side of virtue, yet also see value in being as sure as you can be that you’re making the right decision. Which brings me to UCT’s artwork, and the ongoing discussions around what should be done about it.

To quote myself, from this article in GroundUp:

There are a number of artworks in UCT’s collection that could legitimately be regarded as problematic. Even so, any piece of art is potentially offensive to someone, and the very point of art is to provoke reflection and sometimes, discomfort.

It is therefore crucial that any deliberations around the potential removal of art – while being sensitive to those who feel insulted by any given artwork – are also sensitive to the rights and creative intent of the artist concerned.

Where art is removed for the sake of prudence, in fear of it being destroyed or defaced, that removal must be provisional, and on the understanding that a full objective reassessment of the artwork concerned and what it signifies will follow.

Furthermore, artworks need to be understood in the context of their curation. It is both possible, and often desirable, for an artwork that might be offensive in isolation to serve as a valuable spur to debate, when placed in an appropriate context.

That curation is not a task for which everybody is equally qualified. I’m not qualified at all, having zero expertise in art or art history. So, if I were offended by a particular piece of art, I have an epistemic duty to listen to the views of experts, and to give them an opportunity to explain to me that my offense is misplaced.

My opinion, and my subjective feelings of offense, are less relevant data points, and can even be entirely irrelevant to the decision, because only the most benign or even meaningless pieces of art could ever offend nobody at all.

There’s a danger here of overcompensating, and conflating art that is productively offensive with art that is gratuitously so, in the sense that it uncritically reflects racial or other stereotypes. This is why the deliberations need to be conducted carefully, and by experts.

A recent UCT communique includes the following (my emphasis):

It is important to understand that we are not censoring any artworks. Much of the negative public comment fails to recognise that current removals are provisional. It is our belief that the artworks will all ultimately be on display once curatorial policies have been developed. The University remains committed to enabling scholars and the public to engage with the most difficult and challenging works, including those presently under discussion, and many others that may arrive in the future. What is currently at issue is not whether this should be done, but how.

I’m don’t share that belief. As you can read in the statement, a broad consultative process is going to take place, and “cultural, religious or political” sensibilities taken into account.

Any of you who have been part of these sorts of processes – especially in volatile times like those we’re experiencing now – know that the maximally safe or risk-averse strategy is typically followed, which means that subjective offense becomes a trump card, rather than simply a data point in the deliberations.

I hope I’m wrong. But assuming I’m not, some of you might nevertheless think that’s as it should be, and that those subjective feelings should be a trump card. We’ll have to wait and see, though, how this is going to work: is one offended party sufficient reason to consider an artwork problematic, or five? Will the distaste that one of my correspondents has for abstract art count as a “cultural” objection?

If you find these questions silly, I’d like to hear on what principled grounds you think these decisions can be made. There are no objective criteria for offense, and we’re operating in an environment where dialogue is in short-supply, and threats plentiful.

I’m not as animated by these developments as, say, Breyten Breytenbach is (here and here). And I think that Nazi/ISIS comparisons are false and unhelpful, because they trivialise the concerns of protesters and can also be uncharitable towards the institutional response which, while made under pressure, is well-intentioned.

But anyone who thinks, or argues, that these decisions will be made by those qualified to do so, in an environment that allows for them to do so on grounds of the best evidence and careful reasoning, is sorely mistaken.