To academic freedom, or to bondage?

A common criticism levelled against the Cave Hill Campus of the University of the West Indies (UWI), in recent years, is that its academics do not sufficiently engage the Barbadian public on crucial issues related to national development, and support the country’s search for solutions by addressing these problems from the perspectives of their various disciplines.

People who were around, especially in the 1980s and 1990s, nostalgically reminisce on the thought-provoking contributions of well-known Cave Hill personalities like Professor Neville Duncan, the late Wendell McClean, Dr Ralph Gonsalves, Professor Hilary Beckles, and the late Professor Simeon McIntosh, towards helping to improve the average citizen’s understanding of important issues related to history, politics, economics and law.

Some regularly participated in panel discussions or gave public talks. Others had weekly newspaper columns, wrote occasional op-ed pieces or were always accessible whenever journalists called to get a comment or clarification on any issue. However, from 2000 onwards and, for some unexplained reason, there was a noticeable retreat of Cave Hill academics from the public space. Public debate has become poorer for it.

Some academics like Dr Don Marshall, Dr George Belle and Dr Tennyson Joseph still contribute, but if more were planning to take up playing this vital role of contributing to public education beyond the classroom, they may well be having second thoughts today following Prime Minister Freundel Stuart’s angry attack on Cave Hill principal Sir Hilary Beckles for offering a critique on the Government’s controversial new policy on tertiary education, specifically the introduction of tuition fees for Barbadians attending UWI.

By stating that he considered it “most disrespectful and ungracious for any principal of the Cave Hill Campus of the University of the West Indies or any other principal of any other educational institution in Barbados to pose as an alternative government of Barbados” for presenting a different perspective on Government policy, as Sir Hilary did, Mr Stuart came across as issuing a veiled threat to academic and intellectual freedom. He is essentially implying that he expects heads of educational institutions to toe the official line.

The role of a bona fide university is not to legitimize the status quo. As an intellectual centre for deep enquiry and the generating of new thoughts and ideas, a university must have the freedom to subject any issue to rigorous scrutiny and present the findings, whether or not they conform to the status quo. It is by challenging students, as a country’s future leaders, and the wider society to think outside the box, instead of being satisfied with the status quo, that opportunities emerge for better to be achieved.

Human history shows that every major leap of progress has always been the result of the advent of new ideas.

But out of every bad experience often comes a positive spin-off. In this case, Mr Stuart’s attack seems to have reignited a debate on the role of the UWI of which Mr Stuart, by the way, is a triple graduate with two Bachelor’s degrees and one Master’s.

One of the most significant contributions thus far has come from Dr Tennyson Joseph, head of the Department of Government, Sociology and Social Work. In an interview with Barbados TODAY, he said Mr Stuart’s attack was somewhat reminiscent of the 1970s when the UWI was similarly criticized by some Caribbean governments which, at the time, viewed it as a threat to national security.

“A university is a place of independent scholars. It is a community of scholars, so those people who assume it is a high school where you have a school principal, and a prime minister picks up the phone and speaks to the principal about what the teachers are doing, is not what a university is. If that is what it was, then it would cease to exist as a university,” Dr Joseph explained.

Dr Joseph makes a valid point. Just as a university needs a free environment so that scholars can critically look at society and come up with new ideas for its improvement, the Press also needs a free environment to keep society under the microscope by reporting on the good, the bad and the ugly, and serving as a forum for the articulation of diverse perspectives, especially in relation to public affairs.

Interestingly, the Stuart Government has displayed similar hostility towards the Press. It is easily the most unfriendly Government the media have had to deal with in recent memory.

May the debate on the role of the university and academic freedom continue! It is a welcome and wholesome development. Our society and democracy will be better off for it.

One Response to To academic freedom, or to bondage?

  1. John King Beckles April 27, 2015 at 8:09 pm

    Words matter, especially when those utterances are from the Prime Minister. In this case, the Prime Minister has sent some very bad messages to the public of Barbados. First, is he saying that educationally speaking, Barbadians should not aspire to the so call Mt. Olympus? Is there a mount that maybe just high enough, maybe Mt. Hilaby? Second, what’s this thing about ‘ bad, bad, manners’ for criticizing government policy? Should citizens just shut up and follow along blindly regardless of the consequences of those policies? Third, on the eve of UWI ‘s elevation and recognition of one of our leading professors to the highest leadership role, his prime minister find it possible to besmirch his reputation.This is indeed very sad. This Prime Minister, Mr. Stuart, has demonstrated a complete lack of leadership and common decency in his reaction to legitimate criticism of his government educational policy.

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