Monday, December 18, 2017

The courage for freedom

FOR a few dangerous minutes yesterday, The University of the West Indies (UWI) stood on the wrong side of the very values it should be committed to defend at all cost.

Freedom of expression and the academic freedom to pursue knowledge without unreasonable interference and restriction came under threat when the Institute of Gender and Development Studies (IGDS) decided to remove activist Kirk Waithe from a public panel discussion on sexual harassment at the St Augustine campus.

Fortunately, better judgment eventually prevailed.
The UWI decided to overturn its own decision and allow Mr Waithe on the panel with the condition that he publicly assume personal responsibility for whatever he said.

He ultimately went on without conditions.
The UWI officials claimed that the decision to remove Mr Waithe was taken on the advice of the campus’ legal department.

According to them, the lawyers did not wish The UWI to be legally compromised given legal action taken against Mr Waithe by Angostura Ltd over comments related to the sexual harassment issue in which the company and its chairman, Rolph Balgobin, himself a former UWI executive, are now engulfed.

Following Mr Waithe’s demand that The UWI put its position in writing, The UWI officials went into emergency deliberations and eventually relented, allowing the discussion to proceed after a delay.

It was an unfortunate and worrying incident in what was an otherwise welcome initiative by The UWI on a subject of great public importance and interest.

The topic, “Boardroom bullies: What to do to end sexual harassment” was very timely given the general lack of understanding of what constitutes sexual harassment, especially in the workplace, and the absence of clear policy direction and legal protection for victims.

As the country’s leading body for gender studies, the IGDS has been quite lethargic in entering the sexual harassment debate with which the society has been consumed for months.

Nonetheless, the fact that it has belatedly assumed the responsibility for creating a public forum for discussion is to be welcomed.

Following yesterday’s incident, however, it is clear that The UWI lacks clarity about its role and responsibility as a force for supporting discussion, debate and exchange of even the most contentious and challenging ideas.

Universities serve their societies best when they have the courage to defend freedoms.  It cannot be that merely on the basis of a pre-action protocol letter, which is essentially a threat of legal action, that a university should feel obliged to shut down an individual’s right to freedom of expression.

This incident calls for The UWI administration to conduct an urgent review of its policies as they affect freedom of expression and academic freedom.

It is difficult to see on what basis The UWI’s legal department could have advised IGDS faculty against allowing Mr Waithe to speak on the panel, as is claimed to be the case.
Being sued, as is not the case here, is no basis for being disbarred as a panellist.  The UWI is too important an institution to be so easily cowed.