Stimulating discussions took place at a symposium on “restructuring science and research at Stellenbosch University (SU) on the basis of justice, inclusion and ethical integrity" on Tuesday morning (21 May 2019).
The symposium was organised by three Senate members serving on Council, Professors Aslam Fataar, Amanda Gouws and Usuf Chikte, following the controversy around the publication of the article “Age- and education-related effects on cognitive functioning in Colored South African women" by SU academics in the international scientific journal Aging, Neuropsychology, and Cognition. The journal later retracted the article with SU's full support.
Some 160 people attended the symposium in the SU Library Auditorium on Stellenbosch campus from 09:00 to 13:00. The event was also livestreamed (click here for a video recording).
Prof Fataar opened the symposium with a statement by the organisers: “Our intention is to offer a space for in-depth and critical deliberation about the core dimensions that the so-called 'race and cognition' article elicited. We are interested in developing alternative approaches to the gratuitous use and misuse of race in science and research. We specifically wish to debunk it as an instrument used to discriminate against people and undermine their dignity." (Click here for the full text of the organisers' statement.)
At the start of the first panel discussion, a voice note by SU Rector and Vice-Chancellor Prof Wim de Villiers, who is currently overseas on University business, was played. He said: “This single piece of research in no way reflects the ethics, quality and values of SU's stellar research programme. But it does serve as a reality check for our institution. We have come a long way in our transformation journey, but we are still not where we want to be." (Click here for a transcript.)
Prof De Villiers repeated the unconditional apology issued by SU for the publication of the article. The Rector also said: “We must make sure this never happens again at our University. Our investigations will reveal possible shortcomings in our processes. I would ideally want an eventual outcome to be a protocol detailing how we should deal with the issue of 'race' in research in an ethically sound way. This would ideally be an important contribution that Stellenbosch University can make to the South African higher education sector."
First panel discussion
There were two panel discussions. The first was on “Race and the politics of knowledge at Stellenbosch University" featuring Profs Jonathan Jansen, Amanda Gouws, Barbara Boswell and Dr Handri Walters as panellists, and Prof Fataar as moderator.
Dr Walters, a postdoctoral researcher in SU's Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology, pointed out that UNESCO in 1950 already “declared race to be a myth", as “supposed racial categories were not homogenous, these categories could not be essentialised, and these categories were not determinant and inescapable. It [UNESCO] declared once and for all that we are a single human race, not plural races". (Click here for her input.)
Prof Jansen, distinguished professor of Education Policy Studies at SU, said he was “surprised at the surprise" about the study, because it was actually a mere continuation of a long tradition of so-called scientific research linking “race" to certain characteristics.
Prof Gouws, who holds the SARChI chair in Gender Politics at SU, argued that although the article had stigmatised people and caused deep hurt through its simplistic use of race, “we cannot do away with race as an explanatory variable". However, the aim should be to empower people, not to dehumanise them. And all researchers should grapple with what is good research, because the “skills of critical thinking and analytical astuteness that good social science cultivates are invaluable in processes of social transformation". (Click here for her input.)
Prof Boswell from the Department of English Literature at the University of Cape Town said she was among the scholars who had first raised the alarm over the article and wrote to the publishers to ask for it to be retracted. “The article contains no recognition that 'race' is socially constructed, and that the term 'coloured' was produced under colonialism and apartheid, but travels with us to this day."
In the lively discussion that ensued, a suggestion was made that all students and staff should be exposed to a core curriculum on how to think critically about “race" and how to deal with it in research.
Members of the Cloetesville community, where the subjects of the study came from, spoke passionately about their pain for being categorised negatively.
Second panel discussion
The second panel discussion was on “Research, science and ethics at Stellenbosch University" with Profs Gubela Mji, Nadine Bowers-du Toit, Anita van der Merwe and Ms Melany Hendricks as panellists and Prof Chikte as moderator.
In her contribution, Prof Mji from the Centre for Rehabilitation Studies at SU's Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences encouraged SU to consider itself an African indigenous university that is responsive to the needs and priorities of indigenous communities. Highlighting the importance of decolonising research methodologies, she said: “We need to go back to indigenous values and indigenous knowledge to move forward." (Click here for her input.)
According to Prof Bowers-du Toit from SU's Unit for Religion and Development Research, it is important for academics to be aware of their implicit biases, and how these reflect their own group and affect their behaviour. “These biases are signifiers of a broader systemic issue," she said. She called for qualitative transformation and a profound change in SU's institutional culture. “This, therefore, implies transformation and change within the broader University, and within research itself – the practices, policies and people engaged in research." (Click here for her input.)
In her input, Van der Merwe, an emeritus professor in SU's Department of Nursing, touched on the issue of research integrity and said that research ethics committees should be the gentle gatekeepers of sound and ethical research to protect participants. (Click here for her input.)
It is important for researchers and universities to be reflexive about their work, argued Ms Hendricks from SU's Department of Psychiatry. “For an institution to be transformative, it has to be reflexive." Hendricks added that this involved asking questions about how one's own worldview, values, ideologies and biases created oppressive social and professional structures. (Click here for her input.)
At the end of the symposium, suggestions for the way forward were discussed. Prof Fataar said these could be grouped into five areas:
- The institutional culture of SU
- SU's vision and mission
- Research practices, processes and policies
- Institutional mechanisms to bring together different conversations at the University
- University-wide educational processes, including courses, available to everyone
In their statement, the organisers said: “It is important that we cultivate and protect a fully inclusive, mutually engaging, intersubjective institutional approach to dealing with this matter. Much transformation work is already under way in various processes and committees across the University.
“The current debacle also shows how far we still have to travel across all levels of the University to engage our institutional past. It points the way to how to deepen our transformation efforts."