THE issue of UWI’s termination of the short-term contract of Prof Brendan Bain is not at all about academic freedom. Those who say that it is are misinformed, with perhaps a few who are simply being opportunistic.
It is not even about whether or not the statement in Bain’s court testimony was true or untrue. At the core, it is about a programme leader publicly undermining the very programme and principles he was mandated to support. By his words and action, he voluntarily aligned himself with, and gave endorsement to, a diametrically opposed, unacceptable message on an issue of grave import for the UWI.
The essence of the harm, therefore, more so than the content of the words that Prof Bain spoke, is the fact that an authoritative leader of the UWI spoke with one voice with a litigant party whose purpose and objectives are in direct conflict with the policies of Caribbean HIV/AIDS Regional Training (CHART) Network and the UWI.
This litigant clearly advocates the retention of a discriminatory regime that excludes persons from enjoying rights of equality on the basis of their sexual orientation. Consequently, the testimony instantly became associated with the UWI in deeply negative and enduring ways, placing deep question marks on the UWI’s integrity and on its public commitment, not only to progressive notions of public health and HIV programming, but more fundamentally, to non-discrimination, equal opportunity, justice and human rights.
It is a fact that the elimination of discrimination on the ground of sexual orientation is a key ingredient of the UWI’s HIV programming, which Prof Bain had the honour to lead for many years and about which he testified.
Significantly, too, the mandate of PEPFAR and the Global Fund for AIDS, which funds CHART, is “to develop programmes aimed at reducing HIV-related stigma”. The mission of UWI’s HIV programming, HARP, as well as CHART, from the very beginning, has co-existed with a human rights agenda, a central plank of which is the need to abolish discriminatory laws on sexual orientation.
This is incontestable and no one associated with it can ever claim to have been unaware of this. I can speak authoritatively to this as one who has been intimately involved with the work of the programme from its inception. Further, as an HIV and law consultant who has been actively engaged for over 20 years in policy development across the region for governments, international organisations and NGOs, including on important issues of human rights and justice, I understand why this must be so.
Having participated in several seminars, workshops and sessions on HIV with Prof Bain, I have witnessed first-hand that in each and every one, an important aspect of the discussions and recommendations has been the need to eliminate discrimination and stigma as a result of sexual identity, which co-exist with HIV concerns, making treatment more difficult.
This enlightened position has certainly become part of the UWI’s core values. It is demonstrable, therefore, that UWI’s HIV programming itself is closely aligned to and even dependent on, an egalitarian world view which rejects discrimination on the grounds of sexual difference.
Prof Bain’s long-standing and excellent work on HIV and public health is without question. Ironically, it is precisely because of his high profile that his remarks and chosen association are so damaging to UWI’s reputation and credibility.
The retention of Prof Bain in such circumstances threatened to destroy much of the hard-fought gains and trust that UWI has won in the fight against the scourge of HIV and discrimination in general and seriously undermined its own institutional interests. In this context, such testimony cannot be viewed as a mere personal viewpoint, isolated and insulated from CHART and the UWI’s policy position.
Indeed, typically, the very reason authorities like Prof Bain are called upon to speak is because of their professional capacity, which is inextricably linked with the institution, the UWI. Thus, Prof Bain cannot separate his personal views from these comments that have come to represent the institution that is the UWI, which is why they are viewed as harmful and irresponsible.
There is indeed room within an academic institution for individual intellectuals to pontificate about what they view as acceptable inequalities in our societies based on sexual identity, or even race, or religion, or any such thing and supposed scientific bases that support those views. However, the academic institution must draw the line when that individual opinion, intentionally or not, becomes associated with the view of the institution itself. —Courtesy Jamaica Observer