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Stellenbosch academics object to study on coloured women

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Outrage continues to grow in response to findings by researchers at Stellenbosch University that coloured women have low cognitive functioning due to low education levels and unhealthy lifestyle behaviours. The study is called the ‘Age and education effects on cognitive functioning in coloured South African women” and it was conducted by researchers from the university’s Department of Sport Science. For the sample, the researchers used a group of 60 women (18-64 years), separated into four age groups and two education groups. The specific article reports on the effect of environmental factors on the cognitive development within coloured women as a result of apartheid and the post-apartheid era.

On Thursday, a group of academics at Stellenbosch university raised its objections, saying the use of stigmatising race-based categories in science and research was clear in the article. The signatories, led by the vice-dean of the education faculty, Prof Aslam Fataar, said they were concerned that the research proposal had in the first place received ethical clearance from the university’s own institutional review processes.

“We decry the continuation of colonial and apartheid research thinking that makes essentialist connections between race/ethnicity and particular attributes or aptitudes of a group of people. Such use implicates the institutional culture, policies and strategies of our university,” said Fataar.

The academics have requested that the matter be placed on the agendas of the Senate Research Committee and Senate Ethics Committee for careful deliberation “in line with the university’s commitment to the country’s Constitutional values of human rights, dignity and non – discrimination.”

“We support the view that these committees should be tasked to develop institutional policies that would govern our academic behaviour in consonance with the Constitution,” he said.

“This kind of racial essentialism not only tramples on the dignity of research subjects, it insults black people in general and Coloured communities and women in particular, and it sets back the transformation agenda of SU at a very turbulent time in the history of higher education in South Africa.”

In a statement, Stellenbosch University said it acknowledges the importance of the rigorous academic discussion and critical debate that followed the publication of the article. However, the institution is “concerned about the pain and anger” that the article has solicited within the academic community and broader society”.

“As an institution, we are opposed to racism, including intellectual racism or attributing cognitive capacities such as intelligence in terms of race,” says Prof Eugene Cloete, Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Research, Innovation and Postgraduate Studies at Stellenbosch University.

He added that the university has a process of ethical clearance of all research projects on human subjects, and the relevant committee that reviewed the project from which this article emanated, approved a broader study proposal on the risk factors for heart disease, physical activity, fitness, eating habits and cognitive functions of Coloured women in Stellenbosch.

“Stellenbosch University is committed to both academic freedom and open and critical scientific debate, of which peer-reviewed scholarly research is the cornerstone. All scholars are aware that scientific output will have to withstand the scrutiny of fellow researchers, not only to determine its suitability for publication in accredited journals, but also in the public domain.” VOC

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