Plea For Academic Freedom
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By Shital Ram USP Journalism Programme
SUVA: Academic staff and a former leading professor have appealed to University of the South Pacific authorities to continue to safeguard academic freedom, the USP journalism newspaper Wansolwara reports.
Ousted Fiji Deputy Prime Minister Dr Tupeni Baba, a former professor and registrar, said a university "ceases to be a university if staff and students are not given academic freedom".
"There is always a role for scholars like those at USP to make a statement on whatever is happening. I hope the USP will continue to play this role," said Dr Baba.
His comments were supported by the president of the USP Staff Association, Dr Biman Prasad, and other academic staff.
"In times of crisis, it is important for academics to ensure that they continue to practise their freedom to comment and discuss events happening around them," said Dr Prasad.
This followed a memo circulated to USP staff and students which was widely interpreted as a "gag" on public comment during the Fiji political crisis and a month-long closure of the Pacific Journalism Online training website.
Senior literature lecturer Dr Som Prakash, who was arrested by Fiji soldiers after the 1987 coup, said academic freedom had its limits and needed to take the entire law and order situation into account.
"When there is no law and order, who do you look to protect academic freedom?" he asked.
"I'm all for academic freedom provided it is used sensibly,” Dr Prakash added.
He was arrested a year after the 1987 coup for writing a critical review of Rabuka: No Other Way.
Dr Prakash was held for a fortnight at the Nabua Barracks but holds no grudges against Sitiveni Rabuka, saying he should now be respected for showing "remarkable growth and a willingness to learn".
He added that the university was in an awkard position in trying to maintain normality and being "fair to its regional status".
"It has to walk a fine line between allowing academics freedom and stopping any moves that will disrupt the workings of the university," said Dr Prakash, who also edits the literary journal Dreadlocks.
In a memo at the height of this year’s political crisis, dated June 2, USP staff were advised to "refrain from making comments or statements of any kind whatsoever on the current situation in Fiji which might put the interests and work of the university at risk".
Staff were also warned that failure to follow the instruction could "constitute misconduct".
Acting Vice-Chancellor Professor Rajesh Chandra told Wansolwara that USP believed it had "remained free to articulate its views in a non-partisan way".
He said the university should be a place where there was an exchange of many critical views but not be used to attack policies in a "demonstrably political way".
Dr Prasad said the closure of the PJO website had been an “over-reaction” on the part of the USP.
He said the USP administration should not encourage "self-censorship".
PJO was closed on May 29 for security reasons in response to the crisis. It was reopened on June 28.
Dr Prakash agreed with Dr Prasad, saying the university administration should have consulted journalism staff before deciding to close the website.
On July 25, the School of Humanities board of studies passed a resolution expressing concern at the way the university administration had "handled, and continues to handle" issues over the political upheavals in Fiji and the Solomon Islands.
In another resolution, the board said closure of the website was "unsound pedagogically" and endorsed the "outstanding and excellent training" of journalism students and their website.