A university is ordinarily a reservoir of intellectualism and rationalism. It is a marketplace of knowledge derived from reason, not only in the process of imparting knowledge to their students but also in all its interactions with the public.
To effectively play its role in society, a university should jealously guard its autonomy and must never see itself as a mere adjunct or servant of any other entity.
It therefore comes to us with a deep sense of shock that the University of Zambia management seeks to disown and discard intellectualism in the manner envisaged by their latest press statement flagged off by Dr Brenda Bukowa, Acting Head – Communications and Marketing. In avowing to “expressly disassociate itself from the opinions and views expressed by Dr Sishuwa Sishuwa in an article entitled, “Zambia may burn after the August elections: Here’s how to prevent this”, published in the Mail & Guardian of South Africa on 22nd March 2021,” the UNZA management has shown that intellectualism is not a hallmark that they are keen to uphold. Two reasons are apparent; first, a reading of the article in question reveals that at no place does Dr Sishuwa state that he was expressing his views for and on behalf of UNZA, its management or his fellow academics. It is therefore troubling that the entire communications and marketing machinery of the country’s oldest university can swing into swift action in this manner. Secondly, this article was published on 22nd March, 2021 in the Mail & Guardian. Why was the UNZA Acting Head – Communications and Marketing, intellectually dormant on this issue between 22nd March, 2021 and 27th April, 2021? It is anyone’s guess that something drastic happened, eliciting the ill-conceived statement which in itself, now actually diminishes the intellectual and professional standing of the author of the UNZA press statement, UNZA management and all academics associated with UNZA!
To put these matters into perspective, acclaimed scholars are settled that the concept of academic freedom is the freedom to pursue truth in the course of teaching and research activities “wherever it seems to lead, without fear of punishment or termination of employment for having offended some political, religious or social orthodoxy.” A close reading of the views that Dr Sishuwa expressed reveals that he had a deep reflection of ideas on the democratic future of this country, as ought to be done by any seasoned academic; ready to face the temerity of his thoughts. The least any other person chosen to a contest of ideas could do is respond with ideas to discount those held by Dr Sishuwa, thereby enhancing liberties of conscience and expression. The move by the UNZA management to disown Dr Sishuwa’s views, to which they were not invited, anyway, spells doom for intellectualism at UNZA.
In the International Encyclopedia of Social Sciences, academic freedom has also been defined as the freedom claimed by a college or University Professor to “write or speak the truth as he sees it without fear of dismissal by his superior or by authorities outside his college or University.” The revolutionary, Kwame Nkrumah is on record too, as having noted that there was sometimes a tendency to use the phrase “academic freedom” to assert the claim that a University is “more or less an institution of learning having no respect or allegiance to the community or the country in which it exists and which it purports to serve.” According to a Ghanaian scholar, Collins Owusu-Ansah, this assertion is unsound in principle and objectionable in practice. Universities and distinguished constituent intellectuals like Dr Sishuwa have a clear duty to the community which maintains and trains them at great expense to the national treasury. The views that Dr Sishuwa expressed in his original article in the Mail & Guardian may have rattled the powers that be, excited their fanatical supporters to lose concentration, and commit legal wrongs such as defamation; but that does not make it criminal or an affront to the values of intellectualism and academic freedom that UNZA must embrace if it must remain relevant.
Against the sound practices of academic freedom and intellectualism, UNZA management deemed it correct to launch an attack on the person of Dr Sishuwa by crying out to the world that the intellectual is not in their “active employment” for the reason that since the year 2018, “he has been and continues to be on an unpaid leave of absence outside the country and therefore, his opinions and views in the mainstream and social media do not represent the official position of the University of Zambia.” As fallacious and untrue as these views may be, we would imagine that the individual views of academic staff at UNZA do not bind the University. Why does UNZA feel duty bound to stress the obvious?
Falling short of explaining how Dr Sishuwa’s well thought out views are an abuse of academic freedom, UNZA management asserts that they would “not be party to the abuse of academic freedom to advance personal agendas while using the name of the University to give credence to such abuses. UNZA remains committed to its motto of “Service and Excellence.” It is common knowledge that universities are unique institutions in democratic societies charged with the tasks of conducting critical and original research in the pursuit of knowledge and of training and educating students. Universities provide a forum in which both academic staff and students are encouraged to think for themselves and not through proxies. Academic freedom is the idea that universities “should be subject to no external authority in the matter of critical reflection.” Academic freedom is a sub-set of freedom of expression protected under the Republican Constitution. It includes “not only information or ideas that are favourably received or regarded as inoffensive or as a matter of indifference, but also includes those ideas that may offend, shock or disturb.” The fact that a section of the public finds some intellectual discourse offending on account of their political inclination should not sway a reputable institution of higher education to be cowed into disowning their bona fide academic member of staff, whatever “disowning” means in this context. Every citizen has recourse to impartial arbiters and UNZA must not see itself as that arbiter in the circumstances of this case.
Like other accepted freedoms, academic freedom requires individuals, authorities and government to not only allow scholarly work without restraint, but also prevent any interference with this freedom; new ideas must be generated, nurtured and freely exchanged. Historic examples show the need for academic freedom. Socrates opted to be put to death for “corrupting” the youth of Athens with his ideas. Galileo (1564-1642), was sentenced to imprisonment for advocating the Copernican view of the solar system. Descartes (1596-1650), suppressed his own writing to avoid similar trouble. Teachers were fired for teaching their students about Darwin’s views.
Does the UNZA management seek to take the country back to pre-medieval times by maintaining their unfounded views seeking to disown Dr Sishuwa, academic freedom and intellectualism?