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Social Responsibility, the Public Good and Higher Education

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University campuses in South Africa erupted last year as a wave of demands for a decolonised curriculum swept across that country.  Echoes of those cries were picked up by students at universities such as Oxford, with #Rhodesmustfall tweets and the University of Sussex with their conference on Decolonising Education this past April.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report in Canada has supported the long held views of Indigenous scholars and political leaders and non Indigenous allies that the curricula in our universities has to change.  Not a single student at the University of Victoria, the University of British Columbia the University of Toronto or any other university should graduate without knowing the actual history of genocide and linguicide that has happened and to some degree continues to happen today.

The calls from South Africa, from Indigenous peoples here and elsewhere speak of decolonising our universities, of opening ourselves up to an understanding of what de Sousa Santos calls epistemologies of knowledge.  These calls are linked to scholarly work that is being done on issues of epistemicide, the killing of subaltern knowledge systems by dominant western European male knowledge systems.  Concepts such as cognitive justice have arisen with the idea that there can be no social justice without cognitive justice; that is the recognition of multiple knowledge systems.  Knowledge democracy seeks to replace concepts such as knowledge economy the latter being linked to preparing students for work in the global assembly lines.

But there are other issues that are amongst us in our universities that cry out for deeper action, more research and deeper soul searching.  The past few years have seen the rise of what is most popularly known as rape culture across many of our universities.  My own university has recently had an experience of a rape of a student who was told to keep things quiet as solutions were being found. And we have heard the same in campuses across the country. Very high numbers of women students have been victims of rape or other forms of sexual violence and harassment.  Perhaps this has been going for decades, or forever.  The difference is that women are coming forward to organise and speak out and demand that in the interest of social responsibilities our universities must change.

The siren call of the past 25 years has been the market economy.  Free market economy has replaced issues like the common good, the public good, general welfare, inclusion, social justice as the alter at which governments and even universities should worship.  But not the economy of cooperatives, of value based banking, of small businesses or local economic development, but the economics of the global assembly lines.  We are however living in a period that might be likened to the revolt of the chorus. The chorus is now speaking out and those of us who work or learn in the halls of academe have the opportunity for a generational response.

Change in a university is not an easy job.  Universities are filled with academics each one of whom feels that she or he has a fairly clear vision of the truth.  Organisationally we are decentralised and resist thoughts from above as a child does cod liver oil.  And we really are a space of incredible contestation.  Politicians have ideas about what we should do.  Global capitalism has some thoughts.  The people in our communities would like us to help more locally.  University leaders are terrified by the global rankings ‘ponzi’ schemes. 

Yet, change is imperative. Universities must embrace social responsibility frontally now!

Budd Hall                                                                       May 20, 2016
UNESCO Co-Chair on Community-based Research and Social Responsibility in Higher Education

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