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Public Engagement and the Politics of Evidence in an Age of Neoliberalism and Audit Culture

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Marc Spooner and James McNinch of the Faculty of Education at the University of Regina were the co-chairs of a recent symposium held in the heartland of Western Canada.  The symposium brought together some of the best known critical participatory research, Indigenous, decolonising, knowledge democracy and higher education scholars in North America with the notable international addition of Dr. Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Maori scholar and Pro-Vice Chancellor of the University of Waikato, Aotearoa.  Other speakers included: Marie Battiste, Yvanna Lincloln, Leigh Patel, Chad Gaffield, Michelle Fine, Eve Tuck, Joel Westheimer, Rosalind Gill, Peter McLaren, Christopher Myers, Sandy Grande, Charlene Bearhead, Marcia McKenzie, and Nick Carleton. Notably Vianne Timmons, the President of the University of Regina and five other heads of Canadian universities were also in attendance.

Of importance to those of us alarmed by the misfit of the Western settler colonial knowledge dominated model of the modern university to the needs of the majority in the global South and the excluded North, is that some of the most respected critical scholars of the ‘West’ are also alarmed at the impact of neo liberalism on higher education. What is encouraging is that the nature of the critique is being strongly articulated and the call for a new narrative for higher education announced loudly.

The complicity of higher education in the epistemicide, the killing of the knowledge systems, of the Indigenous Peoples around the world took prominent place in discussions led by Indigenous scholars Battiste, Tuhiwai Smith, Tuck, Pete, Grande and Bearhead.  Lincoln, Fine, Westheimer, Myers, McKenzie and Carleton chillingly illuminated the punitive role of accountability and audit culture in crushing critical and transformative thought. Linda Tuhiwai Smith importantly reminded us that for Indigenous peoples the pre neoliberal university was in fact much worse!

Chad Gaffield, former President of Canada’s Social Sciences and Higher Education Research Council, the funding body that has supported so much community based research in recent years called for a new narrative for higher education that would transform a ‘mediaeval institution’ into a 21st century university. 
My own contribution framed as ‘Beyond Epistemicide: Knowledge Democracy and Higher Education’ documents how white male European knowledge through conquest and epistemological silencing has risen to global dominance and a misleading association with concepts of modernity and progress.

One could easily think that this was yet another academic conference that was long on critique but short on ideas for change.  The call for us to do both critique and create was strong in all of the papers and discussions.  The symposium itself was a creation of a space to re-imagine higher education in terms of social justice and hope.  The symposium was up lifting.  Why? First because of the quality of the critical analysis presented. Secondly because of the strong contributions of Indigenous women scholars, many of them young. Third because of the dozens of stories of higher education, knowledge democracy and action being taken in what some of us used to call ‘the belly of the beast’, And finally because of the spirit of mutual support, quality listening and hope that persists.  This was a meeting that is a contribution to the idea that we are living in a time of a great turning…a transformation towards something else.

All of the talks have been video recorded and in time will be posted to the www.politicsofevidence.ca web site.  Plans are also underway for an open access free of charge book.

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