Ban against South African scientists threatens academic freedom

Scientists who cherish academic freedom should beware excessive political zeal. It can destroy what they profess to value. Indeed, when politically motivated scientists turn against colleagues who see things differently, deeply held values of free discussion, research, and association go by the board. This appears to be happening with the 11th World Archaeological Congress, scheduled to convene next September in Southampton, England.

Local organizers of what has been billed as ``a truly international'' meeting of wide-ranging scope have yielded to pressures from outside, anti-apartheid groups. They have banned anyone working at a South African university, whether or not he or she is South African, from attending the conference. Ironically, many of those banned, such as Prof. Philip V. Tobias of the University of Witwatersrand, have fought against apartheid.

The ban is unprecedented, in that it is imposed by scientists on their colleagues and friends of long standing. When scientists have been banned from meetings by governments, they have quite properly resisted the restrictions as a violation of academic freedom. Such resistance has helped preserve that freedom. But when scientists themselves become the oppressors, the fabric of academic freedom is torn apart.

As a recent report in the journal Science makes clear, there is probably no way now that the conference can attain its original goal of bringing together the entire world archaeological community to share knowledge on a global scale. Many conference participants, including session chairmen, are withdrawing because of the discrimination against Dr. Tobias and others. On the other hand, Science reports that, were the local committee to reconsider its unilateral action and again invite the South Africans, the issue has become so politicized that some British participants would then withdraw.

This is a sad case, in which basic principles of academic freedom have been thrust aside ostensibly because of overriding political considerations. Actually, the action by the British national organizing committee for the congress was little more than cowardice.

The local chapter of the Anti-Apartheid Movement, the Association of the student body of Southampton University -- the congress's host -- threatened to disrupt the proceedings if Tobias and other South Africans attended. The Labour Party-dominated City Council of Southampton threatened to withdraw its promised financial support, about a quarter of the congress's expense.

The national committee caved in and imposed the ban without consulting its parent body -- the International Union of Prehistoric and Protohistoric Societies (IUPPS) -- or congress co-organizers in other countries. In doing this, it clearly violated IUPPS instructions to accept ``all bona fide scientists to its venue, irrespective of nationality, philosophical conviction, or religious faith.''

Defending its decision, the British organizing committee says lamely that it is following UNESCO's questionable guidelines ``to refrain from cultural or academic interaction with South Africa.'' As regards violation of international academic freedom, the committee claims to support that principle but notes that ``South Africa and its apartheid regime placed it outside all normal principles and regulations.''

This is a highly dangerous position to take. Such logic can be applied in an ever-widening way, resulting in a corruption of academic freedom. UNESCO, which should not be setting standards for an IUPPS committee anyway, is a highly politicized body which also disapproves of Israel. Once it is begun, where does a blacklist based on nationality stop?

It is doubtful that banning South African scientists will do much to end apartheid. In this case, it merely punishes South Africans already identified as opponents of their government's apartheid policy. It also appears to have spoiled an opportunity for a scientifically enriching conference. The only honorable thing IUPPS and the British committee can do now is to cancel the congress.

Meanwhile, politically active members of university campuses should draw a cautionary lesson. They should beware of redirecting their anger at apartheid or ``star wars'' research against their own institutions or against colleagues who do not share their point of view.

It is immoral to abuse one's colleagues or institution for political purposes. It is also ineffective. Professed political goals are rarely achieved by such tactics. But basic values of friendship, academic comradeship, and academic freedom can be destroyed.

A Tuesday column. Robert C. Cowen is the Monitor's natural science editor.

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