“Academic Freedom and the University of Malawi”
I’m working on a paper for the MPSA, entitled “The Politics of Local Research Production: A Case Study of Ethnic Competition.” The paper stemmed from an idea I had when in Malawi in May 2010. Just prior to the start of data collection, we were confronted with accusations of nepotism/ethnoregional favoritism by young men who were not selected for employment with the survey team.
In writing the paper, I am reading background literature on ethnic competition in Malawi and today, on the quota system in particular. For the unfamiliar, the quota system is a university admissions system in Malawi that uses regional background of applicants to determine entrance. Essentially, a certain number of spaces are allotted for the top students from each district. (You can compare the quota system to what has been termed the “merit system” wherein the top students from across the country were admitted, without consideration for representation from different districts.) I just finished reading an African Studies Review article from 2002, “Academic Freedom and the University of Malawi” by David Kerr and Jack Mapanje.
It is difficult not to compare the case of Jack Mapanje’s detention without trial during Banda’s dictatorship with the current controversy on the limits of academic freedom in Malawi. From the article, here is an excerpt from Banda’s letter to the staff at the University of Edinburgh who had protested Mapanje’s detention:
Teachers, here, who stick to their professional work of teaching students, are not interfered with by anyone. Jack mapanje has taught at Chancellor College for a number of years without doing anything wrong, just like all his colleagues, whether Africans or Europeans. But after all these years, he changed his mind, for his own personal reasons, and started using the classroom as forum for subversive politics. This cannot and will never be permitted in this country, particularly, in the University of Malawi. Therefore, he had to be picked up and detained. This is Malawi in Africa, and not any other country. Things have to be done according to conditions and circumstances in Malawi, Africa.
And here is a quote from current Malawian President Bingu wa Mutharika on the current academic freedom saga:
Let us be honest, if a teacher leaves set subjects and teaches revolt against an established government, is this what you call academic freedom?…If some teacher one day just wakes up, ignores the subject for that hour and comes and says, ‘you students do you know that you can overthrow this government? And the way to overthrow this government is to follow what is happening in Egypt’. Is this what we call academic freedom?
One other important similarity that I’m surprised has not changed in the multiparty era: the president of Malawi is also the chancellor of the University of Malawi. Banda seemed more involved, however, than Mutharika has been. From Kerr and Mapanje:
Further strictures on academic freedom came from Banda himself, who was the chancellor of the university. Banda took every opportunity to promulgate his own eccentric views on academic matters. He frequently visited the university and upbraided it for not paying enough attention to classical studies (e.g., classical Greek and Latin), until eventually, at a time of acute financial crisis in the early 1980s, the university was forced to establish such a department.
Let’s hope the questioning of my friend and colleague Associate Professor Blessings Chinsinga is not merely the start of renewed challenges to academic freedom in Malawi.