Ismail Lagardien: Students not political tools

I have not written very much about university-specific issues in this column. It was never the purpose. I have never had a mandate to speak on behalf of the university.

The university’s strength can be found in its commitment to freedom of speech, freedom of expression and association, and the protection of the rights of its students and staff. More on this later.

Through this column, I have tried to weave in and out of the ideas and some of the more practical issues of the discipline of economics, and what I considered to be its difficult relationship with reality and with the “human element”.

Neva Goodwin, of Tufts University in the US and director of the Social Science Library: Frontier Thinking in Sustainable Development and Human Well-Being, captured this tortured relationship well.

“For more than half a century,” she explained, “the discipline of economics has been based on an inadequate and misleading description of human nature.

“Translated into what students remember, and what has increasingly risen to the top in Anglo-American culture, this description promotes the idea that selfishness is rational.”

She also pointed out that for most of the past 70 years, one book, Economics, by Paul Samuelson, “defined the field”.

It will take more than a weekly column to change minds, but as we say down at the pub: “The struggle continues”.

And so, as students return to classes over the coming weeks, the university faces challenges that will test everyone in very many ways.

Most pertinent among these are the arrival of impressionable young people, the dynamics of transformation and, in particular, of curriculum reform.

Let us get “transformation” and curriculum reform out of the way.

The very mention of “transformation” sends some of our compatriots back into their laagers.

To understand transformation better, we may want to consider it in the context of a global crisis of the university.

This crisis is multi-dimensional, and stems from decreased public financing and increased student debt during worsening economic times, the weakening of tenure and rise of adjunct labour (or part-time contracts), battles over the value of the humanities, calls for skills-focused instruction, and continued struggles between knowledge for its own sake and commodified learning.

Transformation is, then, about curriculum, quality and standards, diversification, access, about student profiles and experiences, academic responses to change and, especially, about the dogged control that scholars assert, as gatekeepers to bodies of knowledge.

Part of this certainly is, of course, a belief that what we have known for, say, the past 20 years, will serve us just fine over the next 20 years.

All things considered, the arrival of new students places a heavy burden on administrative staff of the university.

It should, also, bring out the best in our academic staff.

Impressionable new students tend to hang on to every word that lecturers say – often without question.

The burden of responsibility, in terms of what we teach, how we teach and why we teach, is heavy.

We also have constitutional obligations to ensure that the rights and safety of students are protected.

If, while on campus, a student or staff member is mugged or assaulted we are legally bound to call the police.

If a student or staff member’s possessions – computers, cars or personal items – are stolen or willfully damaged, we are legally obliged to call the police.

If a student wishes to stage a public protest, nobody should prevent them from doing so.

If anyone does prevent students from protesting, we are obliged to protect their right to freedom of expression.

The same legal principles apply to when any of our around 26 000 students want to attend classes: if anyone tries to stop them we have to protect their right to attend classes.

Nobody should prevent them from doing so.

Preventing any student from attending classes would be in violation of their constitutional rights.

Preventing any student from expressing their ideas freely is a violation of their constitutional rights.

Part of the university’s strength lies in its commitment to freedom of speech, freedom of association, and the protection of the rights of all students and staff.

Within the legal framework of the constitution, and with due acknowledgement of the Freedom Charter, the doors of learning are open.

As students and staff, we will make sure that they remain open.

We will, also, make sure that none of our new students are treated as means to ends, or manipulated for quixotic political ends.

It is the least we owe each one of our 26 000 students.

Dr Ismail Lagardien is executive dean of business and economics at NMMU.