The predictable, but necessary, drama at UCT

I have been a little slow in picking-up on recent events at UCT this week regarding the economics curriculum. One of the non-permanent lecturers on the history of economic thought (HET) course, Kenneth Hughes, has had to stop teaching in person after some students took exception to a piece he wrote about aspects of the Rhodes Must Fall movement and UCT management’s response to RMF. [Subsequently an appropriately punchy response has been published from Russell Ally, Executive Director for Alumni and Development at UCT]

This is really all too predictable, and I have little sympathy for the department or university management: they are reaping the consequences of myopic and unprofessional decisions made in the past (albeit maybe not always by the same protagonists). As I noted in a footnote to a previous piece, when the core staff for the HET course were unavailable, the then-HoD (not the current one) just pulled-in whoever they could with little regard for academic status, qualifications, what they actually taught and so forth.

Kenneth Hughes has never actually been an academic economist: before he retired he had worked in the mathematics department. Hughes taught me history of mathematics when I was in second year at UCT and I enjoyed the course. He is somewhat eccentric and something of a polymath. As an undergraduate I generally appreciated his presence at UCT, as someone who appeared to be a genuine intellectual rather than just another mechanical climber of the academic ‘greasy pole’.

Nevertheless, I have always disagreed with the politics of the academic clique at UCT to which Hughes belonged. This insular grouping was particularly concentrated around the Academic Freedom Committee. That initiative may have been relatively progressive during apartheid (it was a low bar after all), but does not appear to have adjusted its approach much to the changed reality of democracy. It has still retained an extreme hostility to most forms of accountability driven by government, even though the university receives significant public funds. It has also failed to recognise that the status of many of its members owed a good deal to the exclusive privileges they obtained under (or as a result of) apartheid, and a democratic era would inevitably disrupt this. This explains, I think, the problematic nostalgia for that era in Hughes’s comments. In some sense, Hughes cares little enough about his personal advancement and is socially detached enough that he is honest about his opinions – others from this grouping in UCT have, in the last few years, increasingly styled themselves as ‘progressive’ even though those of us who are aware of their historical, behind-closed-doors views know otherwise.

I previously noted the problematic composition of the Academic Freedom Committee in an article published in the Mail and Guardian some time ago. And have also critiqued in some detail the very narrow, reactionary notion of academic freedom it peddled. I would argue that the kind of reactionary institutional politics pushed by the likes of the Academic Freedom Committee has contributed to UCT’s broader troubles in the last year. In relation to transformation (broadly defined) the institutional management and senior staff have been complacent at best, and reactionary at worst. Another individual example is David Benatar, head of the philosophy department. Benatar is a reputable philosopher but appears to lack the capacity for much critical self-reflection. On societal issues he has been primarily outspoken about why various forms of affirmative action discriminate against men and white people…

Twenty years into democracy and the patience of various groups has understandably run thin with the slow progress and this kind of uncritical exercising of institutional power and privilege. As a result, university management is now regularly engaged in ‘fire-fighting’ flare-ups around statues and subject curricula.

Back to the issue at hand: an important point not to miss in this whole saga, is the question as to why Hughes was teaching the course in the first place. Regardless of his having wide interests, why is a retired mathematician teaching a third-year course in the economics department? In recent post on the UCT economics curriculum, I noted that distorted academic incentives are a major cause of problems in, and weaknesses with, the undergraduate programme. True to form, it has been reported that Hughes has been teaching the course for no remuneration. This, I would suggest, is precisely what happens when a department cares primarily about minimising the cost of undergraduates and maximising revenue (see this earlier post). Students should ask: “If he’s teaching for free, are we getting a discounted course fee?”

As a general rule, I am uncomfortable with academics being prevented from teaching because students don’t like their views: it is a genuine slippery slope and in a university one should be extremely cautious about doing this. Our Constitution also enshrines the right to free speech (and indeed academic freedom) and so there must be a high bar for removing a lecturer on this basis. Having said that: I also found parts of Hughes’s article offensive; it appears that such views may inappropriately inform his teaching; it is questionable whether he should be teaching the course anyway; and, it feeds into a bigger problem with the undergraduate curriculum and institutional transformation. Given all these factors, I cannot see any persuasive reason why Hughes should continue teaching on the course.

The article by Ihsaan Bassier has also drawn attention to another School of Economics associate professor who, in an undergraduate class, reportedly made a point of defending the way Cecil John Rhodes obtained his wealth. I knew the academic in question and had some strong disagreements with him, in person and specifically about Rhodes. Again, there is a line we need to tread here around both free speech and academic freedom. But an academic peddling nostalgic views about colonialism in a course which does not deal with that subject substantively, or in a way that acknowledges the weight of evidence in the modern economic history and historical studies literatures, is unacceptable.

The individuals mentioned above represent, I believe, a minority in the department – but a minority that has been able to get away with such views and behaviours for too long. One reason, in my observation, is that two past deans of the commerce faculty, as well as at least two past HoDs, were sympathetic to such opinions and indulged them at every opportunity. Some of their colleagues have been uninterested. Others have been burnt too many times by trying to push for change. Furthermore, in recent years certain cronyistic appointments and post-retirement ‘arrangements’ have disproportionately swelled the numbers of such individuals.

Well, times are changing and I would encourage the students involved to keep applying pressure. The South African economics fraternity, in all sectors, has for a long time been characterised by a self-replicating, mediocre and insular conservatism. There is a strong case for disrupting this cosy mediocrity. We will all be better off as a result. And UCT is as good a place to start as any.

Author: peripheralecon

Public sector economist, extra-mural academic

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