OPEN LETTER TO A UNIVERSITY I LOVE, OF WHICH I HAVE VERY HIGH EXPECTATIONS
When Margaret Ballinger was a lecturer at Wits, she caused scandal and upset by openly living with a gentleman to whom she was not married. The university authorities pressured her to tie the knot. When she did finally get married, she was immediately dismissed by the university, which had a firm policy of not employing married women.
This policy was changed just before the Second World War. I hope its unquiet ghost does not shape the university’s current response to accusations of impropriety and abuse made in the Sunday Times of 2 March. We do not need more hypocrisy and social convention, disguised as the letter of the law.
Rather, I hope the university draws on a more honourable piece of its own history. Wits Medical School was one of the first in the world to draw up and implement a code of ethics pertaining to research.
Central to any such code of ethics is protection of a vulnerable population. Can we acknowledge the existence of such a population, allowed onto campus but somehow deprived of voice, of self-esteem, of bodily integrity? Can we please hear them?
I am not advocating absence of due process. Witch-hunts and kangaroo courts have no place in a university. I am pleading for a new process. Hostile cross-examination is not the only path to the truth.
The best brains in our schools and faculties of law and anthropology, of history, psychology and politics, can surely devise a process that is welcoming and safe for whistle-blowers and maliciously accused alike. A process that could be adopted wherever power may be used both to assault and to silence.
We could lead the way for other universities, in SA and around the world. Our tradition of speaking out against abuse of power, against banning and silencing, entitles and compels us to do this.
I would not like to discover that Wits leadership, my leadership, had been left cold by serious accusations of de-humanising behaviour and assault.