An increasingly bitter debate has emerged over research, academic freedom and racism at the University of Cape Town.

Here are both sides: the concerns of Professor Nattrass and of her critics – the Black Academic Caucus.



Source: News 24

OPINION | Professor Nicoli Nattrass: Tumult at UCT Part 1 – the challenges of transformation

Students at the University of Cape Town.

Students at the University of Cape Town.
Getty Images

Since the Rhodes Must Fall protests, UCT has grappled anew with the emotionally charged challenges of transformation.

There is an ongoing, at times passionate, debate over how to address racial and economic inequality, how to make the campus more inclusive and our research and teaching more relevant and inter-disciplinary.

UCT has continued to grow the number of black students and faculty, improved access to financial aid, widened representation in policy-making structures, removed statues and renamed buildings, and “decolonised” courses.

Students and scholars steeped in post-colonial theory have injected energy into transformation by highlighting the ways that language and academic practices can reflect and consolidate “white privilege” even in our transformed institutional environment. Many of us (older, white) scholars have been pushed to re-examine our assumptions and behaviour.

The Manichean character of transformation

Most of this has been for the good. But the continuing push for transformation has a Manichean underside of intolerance: If you do not comply with the approved vision of the future, you must be pushed aside. At UCT, a section of the Black Academic Caucus (BAC), together with some student activists, appear to want to institutionalise a new and intolerant hegemonic project.

Their utopia is my dystopia: A university where self-righteous thought police curtail the kinds of research that can be conducted and by whom, and censor any results or writing that do not fit their preconceptions and biases.

I have now run into the thought police as a result of a 2-page “commentary” published in the South African Journal of Science (SAJS). Led by the BAC and others, the UCT executive rushed to pass judgement on my commentary, condemning it as conceptually, methodologically and ethically flawed, with a thinly-veiled verdict of racism.

The executive took the apparently unprecedented step of releasing a statement – and tweeting it to UCT’s more than 200 000 Twitter followers

What is especially ironic is that my commentary was engaging with transformation.

In this Part 1 of my reply, I address the background to my contentious commentary. In Part 2, I shall examine what the growing influence of the thought police means for UCT as a university.

The challenge of diversifying the student body

UCT, like other universities, invests considerable energy and resources in diversifying the student body, which has been interpreted primarily in terms of racial transformation and, specifically, the recruitment of larger proportions of black South African students. Diversified classes are not only good for society, they are also good for our students and – in my experience – make teaching much more rewarding.

ALSO READ| UCT prof at centre of race storm hits back, accuses varsity of ‘hatchet-job’ response

The transformation of the student body has not, however, been even across the university. Some departments have struggled to attract black South African students and have struggled to retain them through senior undergraduate courses and into postgraduate work

Conservation biology is one field which has been notably unsuccessful in this. This is a huge concern to those of us in UCT’s Institute for Communities and Wildlife in Africa (iCWild). I myself, am an economist, but most of my current research is through iCWild. While iCWild has been very successful in generating exciting new research about human-wildlife conflict and building a global reputation, it remains very white.

Long discussions prompted us to try to initiate some exploratory research on why conservation biology has struggled in this respect.

It has been well established that access to (and progress through) higher education is massively constrained by socio-economic factors.

What is less clear is how students choose what to study (i.e. how they exercise agency). If we take UCT students – who by definition have the qualifications to get into UCT and then access to funding if they are from disadvantaged backgrounds – what factors inform their choice of what to study? Specifically, why are more black South African students at UCT not attracted to conservation biology?

Our exploratory research

A small team of social science students – black and white – and I began to workshop a survey questionnaire through informal discussions with students. We drafted a questionnaire and, put it through UCT’s ethical review process, making clear that this was exploratory research, with an opportunistic (or convenience) sample. The goals included providing students with (paid) experience in survey research and suggesting the kinds of issues for further and more systematic research into students’ subject choices. When piloting the questionnaire, we found that it needed minor tweaks – in response to what student respondents told us, i.e. to the prevailing “narratives” among students.

We found that the students in our sample who self-identified as black South Africans were less likely than others to have considered studying biological sciences (i.e. the undergraduate major leading to conservation biology).

This was linked most strongly to career aspirations. This is consistent with existing (but now dated) research on South African students’ subject preferences (most notably by Michael Cosser at the Human Sciences Research Council), which suggests that black students tend to prioritise job opportunities over interest in the subject while the opposite is true among white students, most of whom come from relatively privileged backgrounds.

Across the world, “post-materialist” values are more common among higher-income individuals and in richer societies. We used the standard international set of questions to assess how materialist the students were in our sample. It is hardly surprising that students with post-materialist values are more attracted – and students with more materialist values less attracted – to a field like conservation biology. We also asked students questions about other cultural issues (including attitudes to evolution), and found that some of these also correlated with whether students had ever considered studying biological sciences.

Conservation biology is a multi-disciplinary field with one foot in zoology (the study of animals) and the other in social science (the study of humans). Researchers in iCWild typically study the interface between humans and wildlife, for example between baboons and residents of Cape Town’s South Peninsula, between sharks and water users in False Bay or rats and people in urban neighbourhoods. Researchers typically need to handle dead and live animals. Attitudes to animals are therefore likely to have a bearing on whether students are attracted to the field. We found that, among our small sample of UCT students, attitudes to animals correlated with having considered studying biological sciences.

I presented these results at an institutional review of iCWild, chaired by a deputy vice-chancellor and including two eminent external reviewers. The reviewers encouraged me to publish the findings because, although the research was exploratory, they were not aware of any other research on this topic. As the exploratory research was not designed to produce scientific research output and was based on a limited and non-generalisable sample, I submitted it to the SAJS as a “commentary”.

The SAJS clearly distinguishes “commentaries” from “research letters” and “research articles”. Commentaries are short. They are not peer reviewed. They may have various purposes, but one is to present preliminary research that can inform policy-making of one kind or another. They are not intended to present fully developed, scientific research output. Most of my critics have failed to appreciate this and have criticised the commentary as if it was a fully-fledged scientific paper. Revealingly, the BAC document criticising my commentary is twice as long as the commentary itself.

The critiques

The BAC never engaged with me about the motivations and practices that inspired and shaped the survey. Rather, in an emotionally laden register designed to perform and mobilise “outrage”, the research was depicted as driven by a white supremacist agenda, seeking to “disqualify” black aspirations.

The survey was condemned as racist for even asking all students whether they agreed or disagreed with statements such as: “Addressing social inequality is much more important than wildlife conservation. Such questions, opined the BAC, were necessarily “irrelevant, racially problematic and prejudicial to black students”.

Some of my colleagues – black and white – have engaged me in serious and respectful debate over the commentary. I am learning from these discussions and have no doubt that any future research will be much improved as a result of reasoned and critical discussion of the initial, exploratory research. Science – including social science – is always work in progress, improving through critical engagement.

The BAC and their fellow travellers are not engaged in this kind of constructive critique. They are engaged in a silencing project: I, as a white researcher, should not be permitted to conduct research on students if some of them are black, the questions we asked should not be permitted, our methodology – and perhaps all quantitative social science – should be banned, and our findings should be suppressed. If the SAJS was a book, they would be burning it in the main avenue of the university. It seems that the BAC already knows the truth – the one and only truth – and all other subversive thoughts should be prohibited.

Now the UCT executive has, in effect, chosen to legitimise the BAC-led critique, without providing any reasons for their summary judgement – and without ever consulting me.

In Part 2 of this piece I shall examine what it will mean to the university if this approach does becomes hegemonic.

Nicoli Nattrass is a Professor of Economics at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. She is the Co-Director of the Institute for Communities and Wildlife in Africa (iCWild) and former Director of the Aids and Society Research Unit at the University of Cape Town.

Source: News 24

OPINION | Tumult at UCT Part 2: The dangers of allowing the thought police to take over

A general view of the University of Cape Town.

A general view of the University of Cape Town.
Gallo Images/Jacques Stander

Nicoli Nattrass considers some of the implications of the reaction to her commentary for the University of Cape Town as an institution of knowledge, learning and debate. Read part 1 here.

The tumult over my two-page commentary in the South African Journal of Science (SAJS), reporting exploratory research into student subject choice at the University of Cape Town (UCT), has filled me with dismay.

People are entitled to strong opinions. I respect the passion that can drive engagement. But, particularly in an impassioned context, university leaders have a responsibility to protect the space for reasoned debate. UCT’s “Executive” instead appears to have been pushed into the kind of condemnation that shuts down this space. This poses grave dangers to the university.

In Part 1 of this piece, I explained the background to why I wrote the commentary. In this Part 2, I consider some of the implications of the reaction to my commentary for the university as an institution of knowledge, learning and debate.

The BAC and the changing establishment

The current tumult was propelled by a document written by UCT’s Black Academic Caucus (BAC) in response to my commentary.

What is the BAC? To the best of my knowledge, it does not disclose its membership or office-holders. It is important to emphasise that some presumed BAC members are leading scholars and colleagues, who are widely valued outside of the BAC.

But as an organisation, the BAC is secretive. Its constitution seems to reserve membership to applicants who are approved by its leadership. Its statements are unsigned. It is not clear whether statements made in its name represent the views of all of its members or a faction or individuals within it, or what processes the BAC follows before issuing their calls for action.

The BAC certainly has influence. In 2017, it signed a Memorandum of Understanding with UCT in which the university leadership committed to consulting with them and undertook to discuss privileged representation for the BAC on UCT’s Council, Senate and other structures.

The University of Cambridge said on Tuesday it would conduct a two-year academic study of how it benefited from or validated the Atlantic slave trade and other forms of coerced labor during the colonial era.

As the university’s senior ranks have transformed, so former or current BAC members have become heads of department and moved up into more senior leadership positions. One of UCT’s three current DVCs was vice-chair of the BAC until her appointment as DVC. The founder and first chairperson of the BAC is now Dean of Humanities.

The BAC is not all-powerful. Its nominee for a second DVC position was shortlisted but not appointed (whereupon the BAC joined its nominee in taking UCT to court, unsuccessfully). This professor does, however, chair the university’s Academic Freedom Committee and co-chaired the working group established to review curricula.

Over time, the BAC appears to have been transformed from being a disruptive (and often productive) movement from below into a secret network (including individuals with executive power) institutionalising a new hegemony – not unlike the secretive, influential and highly divisive Afrikaner Broederbond in the past (which is not to say that they share the same ideology).

When the BAC passed summary judgement on my commentary, demanding that it be withdrawn from the journal, UCT’s “Executive” was quick to endorse their depiction of my research as conceptually and ethically flawed.

The BAC’s view appears to be that the questions that we asked of students in our mini-survey should not have been permitted. Publication of the findings (as a commentary) should not have been permitted. My commentary concluded with a call for further research on how students make choices about what to study.

The BAC’s statement gives the impression that only research acceptable to them should be permitted – and even this is not entirely clear, because what needs to be done first is to “address the socio-economic inequalities that prevent black people entering this field, the historical deprivation of access to land, the violence of colonial biological sciences and the denial of the deep spiritualities of the land and its ecologies in the biological sciences”.

I have no doubt that some members of the BAC will raise eminently reasonable criticisms of my commentary. The BAC statement itself raises issues that – I acknowledge – need to be taken seriously. These should be raised and debated between scholars, both within the university (through seminars) and more broadly (through the pages of journals)

But when the book-burners are throwing the work into the fire, it is impossible to have reasoned debate over what is contained within the pages.

This is why it is essential that the university leadership acts to protect the space for reasoned debate rather than to shut it down. What bothers me most about the furore about my commentary is that the UCT “Executive” effectively fanned the flames with its public statement. As presumably intended, the statement was widely picked up in the media, some of which published the “Executive’s” accusations (including errors) without contacting me for my opinion or response. This of course reflects the inequality of power between those in charge of a major institution and an individual scholar.

What does this mean for UCT as a university?

Imagine for a moment a “university” where a nameless and unaccountable cabal polices scholars’ research, pushing a similarly nameless university “Executive” into public condemnation and disciplinary action against offenders. Whilst stopping short of book-burning itself, this dystopian university leadership effectively endorses the book-burning project – and instructs research ethics committees to prohibit research that deviates from the approved line. This imaginary university establishes an Office for Thought Purity, staffed by censors who check draft articles and lectures, deleting whatever offends their rulebook.

When students in class ask challenging but deviant questions, lecturers are instructed to rule them out of order and report the students for corrective re-education. Students are encouraged to report on other students as well as lecturers, and to vilify dissidents. University leaders put pressure on external journal editors to reject or retract any research by scholars that slips through this imaginary university’s own controls, publicly shame the scholars concerned (misrepresenting their scholarship) and threaten or initiate secretive processes of disciplinary action against them. In this university, rule by thought police chills and eventually freezes independent research, teaching and debate.

READ | ‘It is epistemic violence and we stand by this’ – UCT Black Academic Caucus on Nattrass commentary

In its actions over the past week, the UCT Executive has in my opinion, and in that of others, taken dangerous steps down the road to this potential future. Is this fanciful? Unfortunately, far too much of the previous paragraphs describes what UCT’s “Executive” has already done in my case.

One of the most important responsibilities of a university’s leaders is to facilitate scholarship that probes questions through a range of methods. Scholars should be encouraged to employ diverse approaches and paradigms that generate and make sense of different kinds of evidence, free from ideological or racial intolerance or political interference. A healthy university requires that scholars engage with each other, revising their arguments in light of this engagement.

The furore over my commentary provides an important opportunity for scholars and students at UCT and elsewhere to have constructive – and critical and self-critical – discussion about a range of important issues.

The UCT “Executive” has undermined, not facilitated, such engagement.

UCT is still a great university. It has many brilliant scholars, black and white, South African and international. I am proud to be a professor at the university.

I am also proud of the transformation that has happened since I first arrived at UCT as an Honours student almost 40 years ago. And I look forward to further transformation.

In particular, I look forward to working in both economics and conservation biology alongside a more diverse set of colleagues, black and white, from across South Africa and Africa as a whole. UCT will be a much stronger university when its professoriat and its student body are more diverse in all disciplines, employing multiple and innovative methodologies and paradigms.

My research was exploratory. It is certainly not above criticism.

I – and other scholars – will take on board constructive feedback and proceed to do better research. I appreciate that colleagues and many others have been offended by my commentary, not only because of misunderstandings and misrepresentations. I regret wholeheartedly any hurt that I have unintentionally caused through my commentary.

Some of my colleagues are, through respectful and robust discussion, engaging with me, discussing how research can be improved, helping me to understand better why they were offended and how I might have communicated more clearly.

I cannot and will not apologise for being a (white) researcher studying pressing social, economic and environmental challenges and injustices that affect all of us in society, including – across much of the world – black people. I cannot and will not apologise for believing that there is value in mixed methods research that includes the analysis of quantitative data. I cannot and will not apologise for taking seriously students’ agency through researching their attitudes and choices. I cannot and will not apologise for work that is provocative, because the roles of the engaged scholar in a democratic society should include provoking people into understanding the world and themselves in new ways.

Above all, I cannot and will not apologise for suggesting that the actions of the UCT “Executive” are a threat to the university itself and to its standing in the world.

– Nicoli Nattrass is a Professor of Economics at the University of Cape Town. She is the co-director of the Institute for Communities and Wildlife in Africa (iCWild) and former director of the Aids and Society Research Unit at the University of Cape Town.

Source: News 24

OPINION | UCT doesn’t take charges of racism against black academics seriously

(Picture: Gallo images/ Getty images)

(Picture: Gallo images/ Getty images)

The UCT Black Academic Caucus has responded to various statements issued following research published by Nicoli Nattrass, which has been condemned as “offensive to black students” by the University of Cape Town.

It has been 4 days since we raised alarm about research published by Nicoli Nattrass. Research that we have flagged as being prejudicial and harmful to black students. In this time there have been statements issued by the UCT executive, the faculty of science, the faculty of economics, Nicoli Nattrass and many others.

In this statement we would like to address some of the issues raised over the last few days.

Various documents have been circulating on social media, and for the sake of conciseness we will not be addressing any group or individual. Our statement should therefore be read as a general response to some of the claims that have been raised.

Claim: The publication is a commentary

It has been claimed that the paper is a commentary. The paper is a commentary in name, but is it a commentary in substance? For an academic paper to be a commentary, usually, its subject has to be an existing body of research. A commentary may take on one of two forms:

  • Highlighting one or more existing research articles
  • An editorial nature and covers an aspect of an issue that is relevant to the journal’s scope.

What a commentary should not be, is a presentation of research results, as we pointed out in our first statement. This paper clearly presents the author’s own study, which constructs ‘black students’ based on historically fictionalised stereotypes about black people conjured in ‘the white imagination’, as defined by poet Claudia Rankine. The supposed commentary is peppered with unsubstantiated assertions about black students and their agency.

For example, black students are presented as being driven by materialist desires in their choice of fields of study. This is clearly an assumption speculated as being one reason for the low enrolment of black students in the biological sciences! At no point does Nicoli Nattrass offer evidence that the ‘dearth of black students in the biological sciences’ is a fact. And yet the supposed commentary is built on this premise – an assumption!!! As we noted in our first statement, such stereotypes and assumptions are located in histories of colonialism.

Next, there is the matter of the theory of the ‘materialistic black student’. This too is pulled from the ether and stated as if it were a fact. We pose this question, ‘Are white students not also motivated in their choice of study by economic factors?’ Obviously, our question is rhetorical because it is known that the vast majority of students choose fields of study based on whether the hundreds of thousands of Rands that they invest in their study will bear economic fruit. Even a student in the biological sciences will have considered the economic reward of pursuing a study in this field. The theory of the ‘materialistic black student’ is utter nonsense.

The use of variants of such theories as an explanation to conceal the failure to transform the student or academic cohort is commonplace in our institutions. Never offering any evidence that it is fact. And when an academic makes it the centre piece of a study/commentary without a shred of evidence, we will object. We will object strongly!!!

On this matter we will conclude by saying that just because an author or a journal claims that an article is a commentary does not mean that academic rigour and respect for facts then become optional.

Claim: The article is not peer-reviewed

In our first statement we said that the article was supposedly peer-reviewed. From the various statements that have been issued we have come to learn that the article published by Nicoli Nattrass is not peer-reviewed. We would like to acknowledge this error on our part. The source of the error was our assumption that given the gravity of the subject of the study and the potential to cause serious harm, an experienced researcher and credible journal would have the good judgement to subject any scholarly work to peer-review.

Clearly, we gave the author and journal, too much credit. We will not be making the same mistake again.

What this situation reveals is that ethics in research, especially in respect to marginalised groups and the way in which people and cultures are studied need to be taken much more seriously at UCT and beyond. That such a study could pass through ethical clearance at UCT and then find its way into a journal without peer review is shocking to say the least. We call on the university to strengthen its ethics processes and to apply its ethics policies.

For the benefit of the public, the university should have strict ethics policies in regard to studies involving human participants and policies regarding research misconduct for those who disregard the ethics policies. As part of the policies, the moment a study involves human participants the requirement for obtaining an ethics clearance is mandatory.

Furthermore, those conducting research studies where UCT students are involved have to obtain the permission of the Executive Director of Student Affairs before engaging students. As the BAC we are curious to know how this study received an ethics clearance and also how it was cleared by the Executive Director of Student Affairs.

Claim: The BAC is curtailing the academic freedom and freedom of speech of Nicoli Nattrass

We must confess that this claim took us by surprise, especially as it came from the same quarters that always make a big deal about maintaining the academic standards of the university.

Let us be clear that academic freedom is offered so that academics can pursue knowledge without political or religious interference. That said, academic freedom is not a license to conduct bad research or research that has questionable ethics. Neither does academic freedom shield an academic from peer critique or an examination of the ethics of their work. And most importantly, academic freedom is certainly NOT at the expense of the oppression of others along the lines of race, gender, sexuality, religion or disability, which is what this study does, specifically in relation to race.

We know this to be a fact, because a pillar of academia is the peer-review system. So those who claim that Nicoli Nattrass is being robbed of her academic freedom would do well to remember this.

That some at the university want to use academic freedom as a defence mechanism in this case speaks to a rot in the academic project.

Nicoli Nattrass chose not to subject her prejudicial work to peer-review. The South African Journal of Science chose not to subject her work to scrutiny in spite of its subject. It is now on the rest of the academic body to do what the author and the South African Journal of Science failed to do, i.e., hold an academic accountable for bad research methodology, bad science, questionable ethics and reinforcing of problematic stereotypes.

Claim: It’s not research. It’s exploratory research

This claim also took us by surprise. What exactly are we supposed to take away from this distinction? Do those who make this claim as a defence believe that if research is qualified as being exploratory it is freed from the strictures of academic rigour and ethics? Or scrutiny on its racist underpinnings/epistemological grounding? It certainly seems so. It is rather sad that such claims are coming from within the university. This should be a wakeup call for the university.

Claim: A control group was not necessary in the study

In our first statement we said that a major shortcoming of the study was that it did not have a control group. Our position was that students in the biological sciences should have been studied to determine their reasons for enrolling in the biological sciences. This control group would have served three purposes, (i) it would have tested the validity of the assumptions and hypothesis of the study, (ii) it would have tested the validity/integrity of the instruments (in this case the questions) used to test the hypothesis, (iii) it would have helped in forming more relevant hypotheses and instruments to test them.

But the author did not begin the study at the source of the problem. At this point the question to ask is whether this was an oversight or a deliberate choice – hence her assumptions based on stereotypes. Any scientific study worth its salt will test the validity of its hypothesis, the assumptions that the hypothesis is built on and the instruments used in testing the hypothesis. As we have pointed out the study abjectly fails in this regard.

For example, the theory of the ‘materialistic black student’ would have been quickly discarded had students in the biological sciences been asked if their choice of study was motivated by economic factors.

Again, to our shock, some have claimed (even from within the university) that a control group was not necessary. This too should be a wakeup call for the university. If some in the university believe that any hypothesis or any instrument will do in a research, then something is very wrong. Moreover, if this view is pervasive, then the potential for harmful research is high.

Claim: Students were asked more than seven questions

In the article the author states that seven questions were asked of students and that these seven questions were used to test the hypothesis of the study. In one of the documents that is circulating it is claimed that in the study students were asked ‘many’ more questions. If indeed more than seven questions were asked, then we request that UCT include this in its investigations.

We make this request for two reasons. As we observed in our first statement, six of the seven questions were irrelevant to the study. If more questions were indeed included in the study, we ask (i) are the other questions also irrelevant and if so are they as bad or worse than the mentioned seven questions? (ii) are the other questions relevant and if so, why were they disregarded?

Claim: The questions posed to students were relevant and unbiased

We could go into a lengthy discourse on bias in research, but we will hold off on that for now. The subject of bias in research is well documented and papers on the subject can be readily found. Instead we will make minor changes to the questions posed to students in the study and the bias in the questions will become self-evident.

Below are the original questions

1. Considered studying the biological sciences

2. Agrees ‘Addressing social inequality is more important than wildlife conservation’

3. Agrees ‘I support wildlife conservation but have no interest in having a career in it’

4. Agrees that ‘Humans evolved from apes’

5. Likes having starlings around at UCT

6. Agrees that disciplines like conservation biology are colonial and should be scrapped at UCT

7. Agrees that many of South Africa’s national parks should be scrapped and the land given to the poor

Here are the tweaked questions

1. Would you consider studying the biological sciences

This version of the question leaves room to discover what circumstance would need to change for the student to choose the biological sciences.

2. Agrees ‘Addressing social inequality and wildlife conservation are equally important’

Given the economic and social inequalities that exist in South Africa, the original binary

question is practically a ‘Gotcha’ type question for most black students.

3. Agrees ‘I support wildlife conservation but have no interest in having a career in it at this time’

By narrowing the question, the student is allowed to consider whether changes in their future circumstances might cause them to change career. The scope of the original question is so broad that it is practically a ‘Gotcha’ type question for many black students.

4. Agrees that ‘Is not convinced by the theory of evolution’

Because of racism most black people are sensitive about being associated with apes or monkeys. The question in its original form asks black students to indirectly associate themselves with apes. The question becomes psychologically even more problematic when/if the interviewer is white.

5. Likes having snakes around at UCT

The intention of the original question was to test student’s like/dislike of animals. But the notion of what is or isn’t a pest differs from culture to culture.

Asking students about feeling about snakes would have revealed far greater similarity in the answers between black and other students. Snakes are animals too.

6. Agrees that disciplines like conservation biology at UCT should consider indigenous knowledge on conservation

The problem with the original question is that it is leading. By mentioning the word ‘colonial’ it primes black and white students. It’s practically a ‘Gotcha’ question for all students.

7. Agrees that many of South Africa’s national parks should be redesigned to ALSO accommodate the poor

The original puts students in a difficult position. It is especially on unfair for black students, many of whom come from poor backgrounds. This question is practically a ‘Gotcha’ question for black students.

Claim: The study does not make gross generalisations about black students

This claim flies in the face of the title of the study which reads, ‘Why are black South African students less likely to consider studying biological sciences?’

Enough said!!!

Claim: The study included students from the biological sciences

In our first statement we pointed out that the study was faulty in its logic in that conclusions can’t be drawn from the choices of participants if the choices and actions are decoupled.

For example, let us suppose that black and ‘other’ (using the author’s terminology) students were asked if they prefer sweet or sour tastes. Let us also suppose that black students had answered that they prefer sweet tastes and the ‘others’ had said that they prefer sour tastes. It is illogical to then conclude from this that black students ‘do not contribute to consumers of lemons because of their culture’. More so if all the students are found to eat other fruits, but not lemons, then there is clearly a disconnect between choice and action.

At that point to proceed with a regression analysis makes no sense.

We also observed in our first statement that biological science students should have been interviewed as a separate group. We have already discussed this in the text above.

In one of the documents that is circulating it is claimed that students from the biological sciences were also included in the survey. If this is true, then we seem to be diving deeper into the rabbit hole. To ask a biological sciences student ‘Have you considered studying the biological sciences’ and including the obvious answer in the data is to effectively contaminate the data. It then also becomes clear that the only relevant question, ‘Have you considered studying the biological sciences’, in the study is itself a terrible instrument for testing the hypothesis.

Claim: The BAC has accused Nicoli Nattrass of racism and white supremacy

In one of the documents that is circulating it is claimed that we, the BAC, have accused Nicoli Nattrass of being a racist and white supremacist. The claim is out there, therefore we have to address it. Nowhere in our statement did we make such a claim. What we did say is that the work published by Nicoli Nattrass is grounded in epistemological assumptions that are steeped in a colonial archive that is prejudicial to black students (and black people in general). It is epistemic violence and we stand by this.

As black academics at UCT we have long since learned of the futility of expecting the university to take claims of racism by our white colleagues seriously. When we do raise the alarm about racism, accused white colleagues weaponize the rules and regulations of the university to bring counter charges of racism against us.

This is the crazy world we live in.

In many instances the arbiters of these cases end up being white bodies who unsurprisingly judge that the racism claimed by black students and academics are imagined. To further add insult to injury the black student or academic is then judged of being guilty of racism for accusing a white academic of practicing racism. As black academics at UCT we are all too familiar with this game and the manner in which it is played by some of our white colleagues. We will not be dragged into this charade.

Claim: The UCT Executive did a hatchet job on the Nicoli Nattrass paper in response to the BAC statement.

Let us suppose for a moment that this is true (which it is not), are those making this claim suggesting that that the paper by Nattrass is consistent with good science and good ethics?

While the BAC initially raised the alarm about the harmfulness of the paper, many other academics have also come forward to condemn the paper for its bad science, ethics and its epistemological assumptions that are prejudiced. While Nicoli Nattrass may not want to accept it, it is no longer just the BAC condemning her paper.

Claim: Nicoli Nattrass is being singled out because she is a white woman

In our previous statement we mentioned the academic at the UCT GSB who resigned because he authored a paper with racist undertones. He is black and we had no problems condemning his article. Why? Because his work contributed to the systemic/institutional racism that black bodies are exposed to at UCT. That the author is a white woman, with preconceived notions of what it means to live in a black body, is merely an aggravating factor. We would have condemned the publication as equally had it been written by a black person.

We would like to use this moment to ask our white colleagues to critically reflect on how they position themselves when they do research on the lives, culture, thoughts and attitudes of black people.

We have observed that some have fallen into the belief that because one does research in townships, on farms, on mines and elsewhere that one is transformative and is a champion for black people. To approach research in this fashion is to treat black people’s lives as a laboratory in which the values, culture and beliefs of black people are put under a microscope and examined through European and western lens.

Unsurprisingly research approached with this mentality leads to patronising and condescending conclusions, such as black students not being primed for the biological sciences because they are deemed not to possess enough pets. Partly to blame for such misguided attitudes is probably the premium the university places on social responsiveness in academic promotions. This possibly invites academics to develop a ‘saviour complex’.

Besides, as we stated in our first statement, science and research has not always been productive or neutral, it has a history of dispossession and endorsing racialised, gendered as well as oppressive narratives along the grammars of sexuality, class, religion, nationality and disability – to mention but a few. Any self-respecting academic who is truly transformative in a decolonial sense understands this and would distance themselves from colonial-style racist research.

Claim: The name of Nicoli Nattrass/Natrass has been misspelled

We, the BAC, have been accused of misspelling the author’s name and it is claimed that thisfailure proves that we lack credibility. This is clutching at the proverbial straw.

For the record, in the paper the author is referred to as Nattrass, on not one but four occasions. For consistency we are using the name as written in the article.

Those who wish to take issue with us on this subject, should address their complaints to either the South African Journal of Science or the author.

Claim: The criticism of the article is based on the ideology of the BAC

In one of the documents that is circulating it is claimed that the BAC’s objections in this matter are informed by ideology. Apparently, our ideology is then framed as being:

  • An opposition to black students being asked about social inequality and wildlife conservation because we supposedly deem it racially problematic and prejudicial to black students
  • A belief that the questions posed to students are informed by epistemological assumptions grounded in a colonial archive.
  • A rejection of research into correlations between socio-economic conditions and culture
  • A rejection of quantitative studies that involve loose linkages between quantities
  • A belief that pets are like slaves, which is in contrast to the premise of the study that pet ownership is an indicator for compassion for wildlife
  • A call for the paper to be retracted from the South African Journal of Sciences (this does not qualify as an ideology, but the claim has been made and we include it).

How absurd!!! This is classic straw manning and smacks of desperation. The claims de-contextualise the position of the BAC in relation to the article and attempt to cast the BAC as an irrational actor.

For example, it is laughable to say that we, the BAC, believe that it is racially problematic to ask black students about social inequality and wild-life conservation in any context.

What the public is being asked to believe is that as black academics we are against any discussion regarding social inequality or wild-life conservation. Please take a moment to consider the absurdity of this assertion.

We are however not surprised by these tactics. The de-contextualisation of black thought and actions by whiteness has a steeped history within the colonial archive. The construction of the black people as irrational actors also has a long history. In other words, in defending herself, Nicoli Nattrass is using the very same tactics and assumptions like she did in the problematic paper, to position us and discipline us. The rhetoric is endless!!

But as we said earlier, we will not engage in these charades that some of our white colleagues enjoy dragging us into. Our focus is on the bad science, bad ethics, and the harming of black students through the production and propagation of racialised stereotypes of black students.

And we end by saying, your so-called academic freedom, will NOT be at the expense of our oppression! Check the bill of rights.

And here is an example of a transformative article/commentary:

Asai, J. D. (2020) Race Matters, CelPress (