THERE are quite a few valid criticisms of academic institutions worldwide and their so-called ivory towers, but sometimes the critics get it completely wrong.
In an opinion piece in a Sunday newspaper, a South African poet wrote: “Almost all universities are now seminaries for the woke ministry." His poetic resentment is aimed at Claudine Gay, former president of Harvard (the poet disparagingly refers to her as the “queen of American academia") who recently resigned from her post after a flurry of allegations on the conservative website The Washington Free Beacon that she had committed academic plagiarism.
Calls for Gay's resignation intensified after she and the presidents of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the University of Pennsylvania testified before the US Congress on December 5. The hearing took place in the context of the Israel-Gaza conflict and allegations of antisemitism on college campuses. Gay and her colleagues did indeed display tone-deafness and political naivety, which led to manic criticism, especially from the right, that often resembled the irrationality of a bloodthirsty mob.
The resentment towards Gay, as in the case of the local opinion piece I refer to above, had little to do with the merits or context of her statements. The complexity of the conversation is reduced to: The “queen of American academia", who was only appointed “because she is a black woman". I sometimes wonder how much emotional gender violence against black women is motivated by racial prejudice. Neither of Gay's two white peers drew as much vitriol.
The criticism of Gay obviously has a context. So-called “critical race theory" (CRT) and the woke discourse are mainly American concepts, but here in South Africa they have been elevated to an explanatory framework for people like the poet and those who refer to themselves as classical liberals to explain almost every nuance of the ANC government's incompetence and corruption.
Perhaps I should first clarify my own point of departure. I have little doubt that CRT oversimplifies complex issues, suppresses competing perspectives and promotes a divisive “us versus them" mentality. Indeed, there is a cynical fixation on race that undermines individual agency and promotes identity politics. In association with the subversive, reprehensible and deplorable “cancel culture" and the idea of “safe spaces", it reduces the likelihood of shared solutions and intellectual diversity. However, these are concepts and a frame of reference that apply to only a small part of American campus politics and can in no way be explanatory of racial tension and political transformation in South Africa or of the ANC's corruption.
What is the scope of this phenomenon? CRT has influenced certain academic and social narratives at American universities. The extent of its influence may vary across disciplines and institutions but there is reasonable consensus that it is limited to an almost trivial number of spaces. CRT is certainly not a dominant academic view of Americans' lived experiences. Nor is it the first of this kind of theoretical bacterium with a limited shelf life to take hold at academic institutions.
Until sometime in the late 1990s, a philosophical school of thought, postmodernism, was prevalent at South African and European universities, and it caused enormous damage to philosophy as an intellectual discipline. There is a reasonable consensus today that philosophy as a discipline, especially in the last century, has not contributed substantially to empirical knowledge and that scientific inquiry is a more effective way to investigate fundamental questions. I sometimes wonder if the almost natural mortality of poetry in the last two decades is not also due to the sepsis of postmodernism's relativism. As far as I'm concerned, “wokeism" and CRT will go the same way.
Back to the poet's criticism of Claudine Gay. I went to read the Harvard code of conduct. There is nothing in it that prohibits calls for genocide or any comparable notion. The Americans are obsessed with freedom of speech; the concept of genocide does not fit easily into their national conversation. The Harvard code creates a broad, general framework for interpretation and is subject to the principles of the country's master narrative, the constitution. Gay's answers before Congress were in reference to the following stipulation in Harvard's code of conduct: “It is important to note here that speech that is not specifically directed against individuals in a harassing manner may be protected by traditional protections of free speech."
By contrast, the context of the questions that Gay and her colleagues had to answer implied that words and phrases such as “intifada" and “from the river to the sea" are a call to genocide. It is true that the three university presidents came across as stilted and without insight and that their answers descended into moral contradictions, but it is also true that whatever their personal opinions, the codes of conduct at US universities and the US constitution place a high premium on freedom of speech.
The reality is that the Middle Eastern narrative has spilt over into US and European politics and many Jewish students no longer feel safe on their campuses. The masses who made a case on behalf of the Palestinians also often cannot distinguish between Israel and Jews, and the campus leaders' ambivalent arguments added fuel to the fire.
This kind of undefined anger also creates the space for the cancel culture phenomenon, and anyone who dares to speak out against the antisemitic consequences of what is happening on campuses becomes an “advocate of genocide". The presidents of Harvard, MIT and the University of Pennsylvania have been condemned as friends of the Hamas cause. Likewise in South Africa, where an atmosphere has been created which condemns even considered voices on the conflict in Gaza as somehow advocating for the genocide of Palestinians.
Walter Kimbrough, former president of Dillard University, noted that the manicured outrage in the media and among US politicians about what Gay and her colleagues had said requires a contextual evaluation of a complicated situation.
The thoughtless (and even poetic) hypocrisy in public discourse, however, comes from more than one side.
What is the reality of transformation and empowerment at US universities? Do CRT and wokeism indeed define intellectual conversation in the US? A study by the American Council on Education published last April indicates that only 12.5% of American colleges and universities are led by women of colour. These leaders make up just over a third of the 33% of colleges and universities with a woman as president.
It is important to note here that 44.6% of female students at US higher education institutions are women of colour. Just 15% of colleges and universities have a president of African-American, Hispanic, Middle Eastern or Asian descent. Combined, the percentage of male and female presidents of colour is 27.6%. In 2023, only 22% of America's 130 elite universities and colleges had women presidents and only 5% were led by women of colour. Just over 18% of higher education institutions were led by men of colour. In 45% of cases, the heads of these universities and colleges were white men.
In a thoughtless attempt to present the Middle Eastern discourse in US universities as explanatory of South Africa's transformation policies, the poet makes his core argument: “Let's be honest, Gay got her job because she is a black woman." Read this wisdom together with: “Incompetents who cling to the ultimate validity of transformation and empowerment" and that the people who appointed her “… saw only skin colour and victimhood". And “If Harvard falls, you should know that victimhood as an ideology will be with us for a long time."
When tabloids and yellow-press poetry collections confirm your fears and prejudices rather than challenge them, wokeism and cancel culture become the filters of your understanding.
The odd conclusions from the poet's pen continue unabated: “A plagiarist at the head of an Ivy League university actually makes sense when you think about the values that are important to academia these days: a uniformity, even collectivisation, of ideas.” What is the uniformity referred to here? The social discomfort at universities is a trivial phenomenon that less than 1% of student populations participate in.
At South African universities, there have been only sporadic references to CRT on a few campuses, and in only a few cases were speakers first invited then disinvited, ie. cancelled. The term “collectivisation of ideas" sounds poetic but I'm not sure what it means. I also couldn't figure out what the postmodernist-sounding phrase “a ‘Moral duty' amounting to a kind of utilitarian self-apology" in the article means.
In an attempt to force the cork back into the bottle, the poet also writes: “It's bad that the whole Gay drama is now fuelling racism on social media. People say she is representative of her race, even of her gender.”
This is also exactly what is achieved when poetic yet thoughtless generalisations in opinion pieces ignore the facts.
♦ VWB ♦
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