Rebuilding trust and building an inclusive culture, was the key message that Prof Tania Ajam, associate professor in Public Policy, Economics and Finance at the School of Public Leadership, left her audience with during a talk at a gender enrichment workshop held at SU recently.
The workshop, which drew students, staff and academics alike, was organised by Prof Pregala (Solosh) Pillay, Vice-Dean: Social Impact and Transformation in the Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences.
“The higher education landscape in South Africa, Africa and across the globe is undergoing a plethora of changes. Every day we hear about new trends, concepts, challenges and innovations. Here at Stellenbosch University, like many other universities, we are confronted with the challenges of redress, diversity, access, equity, equality, gender representation, gender violence and many other social and economic challenges.
“The aim of this talk then is to offer our staff, students, researchers, the wider university community and the external environment the platform to debate and discuss how to make the spaces we find ourselves in better, and to celebrate our differences and uniqueness," said Pillay in her introduction.
Ajam, who was last month selected by President Cyril Ramaphosa as one of the 18 members of his new Presidential Economic Advisory Council, based her talk on her research paper entitled “Epistemic redress and access: co-creating an inclusive academic culture".
This paper draws on a controversial 2019 retracted journal article by SU researchers on cognitive functioning in “Coloured" women (Nieuwoudt et al) as an illustration of how racial thinking persists in the South African academe, despite a growing global scientific consensus that race as a biological construct holds no legitimacy.
The paper builds a cogent argument that the article is not an egregious incidence of epistemic failure which is a product not only of a particular researcher team, research supervisors, ethics committee or university. The shortcomings of the international journal peer review suggest a more pervasive dysfunction in the global academic knowledge production system. It goes on to say that these challenges are not peculiar to SU; similar leitmotifs play themselves out across academic campuses across the country – and indeed the world. It argues that SU, however, has to confront its role in the epistemic corruption of the apartheid era, preceded by centuries of colonialism, and commit to epistemic redress by remedying institutional shortcomings that gave rise to the ethically dubious and methodologically compromised Nieuwoudt et al article.
Ajam pointed to a number of issues to motivate why having this conversation is so important.
These include the #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMust Fall student protests which, she said, were basically calls to decolonise curricula.
“The students' perception is that the current curriculum is out-of context and far removed from their lived experiences. At the heart of it is an acknowledgement that while student demographics might have changed, the profiles of faculty, curricula and academic culture have not changed as much."
Other issues are barriers to epistemic access such as the poor quality of the basic education system that does not prepare black students properly to enter the academic domain, language of instruction, institutional culture and epistemic injustice (distortions in the knowledge production machinery in certain disciplines which created and perpetuated stereotypes).
She said in order to foster epistemic redress we need to acknowledge what happened in the past and create a culture which will be more inclusive and which will rebuild epistemic trust.
“There are certain things we as individuals can do to cultivate epistemic diversity and trust, such as looking at new channels of knowledge, diversifying reading lists, qualitative research, digital storytelling and challenging stereotypes. Many individual academics and some departments and schools have already embarked on this journey.
“But the big question for us here, and indeed all at Stellenbosch University, is what practical steps can we take to foster epistemic redress and an inclusive academic culture at Stellenbosch University?" Ajam said in conclusion, emphasizing the need for institutional mechanisms to address systemic epistemic dysfunctions.
- Photo: Organiser of the gender workshop, Prof Pregala (Solosh) Pillay, Vice-Dean: Social Impact and Transformation, with presenter Prof Tania Ajam, associate professor in Public Policy, Economics and Finance at the School of Public Leadership.