Universities are the single most influential institutions in societies all over the world. They are centres of ideas, discoveries, technological development and culture and engines of local, national and global economics.As such they also have the potential to perpetuate inequalities and social injustice, according to Dr Ira Harkavy, associate vice-president and founding director of the Barbara and Edward Netter Center for Community Partnerships at the University of Pennsylvania in the United States.
Harkavy was a keynote speaker at Universities South Africa’s (USAf’s) second national Higher Education Conference focused on ‘the engaged university’.
This was the biggest higher education conference held in South Africa, with more than 1,700 people registered to attend the hybrid event held at the University of Pretoria’s Future Africa campus over three days, from 6 to 8 October.
The conference grappled with existential questions in the higher education sector – Who owns the university? What is its role? Where to after the COVID- 19 pandemic?
Hosted by USAf, the Council on Higher Education in South Africa and the South African Department of Higher Education and Training, the conference was framed by the stark inequalities in the sector that were magnified by the COVID-19 pandemic.
In his opening address, USAf CEO Professor Ahmed Bawa described the university sector as having reached a breaking point last year, owing to the pandemic, which highlighted gross inequalities among staff, students, universities and sub-sectors.
In order to get through the 2020 academic year, public universities had to work with technical and vocational education and training colleges, business, the private higher education sector and student unions. Such collaboration had been “fruitful” and would hopefully be the seed for further partnerships, he said.
Harkavy, who spoke on ‘The democratic civic university’, said the COVID-19 pandemic had highlighted racism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism. There had also been attacks on science, knowledge and democracy, as exemplified in the storming of the Capitol in the United States on 6 January 2021. He described a “declining trust in major institutions”.
He moved on to discuss the recent history of universities in the United States. Traditional neo-liberal universities were elitist in their way of codifying leadership – they were not open to diverse populations and the ideas for engagement were chosen by faculty rather than students.
The neo-liberal entrepreneurship university, he said, emphasised knowledge “not for the public good but for commercialism” and profit-making. Students were not allowed to be co-producers but were customers. The focus was not to improve the world. The measurement of success, instead, was financial, resting on private benefit and securing a job.
The democratic civic university, on the other hand, perceives its role as “reducing historical and market-based inequalities”, he said.
Universal problems of poverty, poor schooling, inadequate housing and unequal access to health care manifest themselves in local communities.
A democratic civic university engages with the community in a democratic partnership. It “implements a curriculum which has a focus on community problems and the curriculum becomes a text and test as the university seeks to improve the lives of its own community”. The emphasis is on change and improving lives and there is mutual transformation of the university as well.
The purpose of a democratic civic university is to create community partnerships, educate ethically and engage empathetically and co-produce knowledge to improve the world and democracy. The democratic process means working with communities, learning from them, co-creating and listening to voices.
Communities also have experts. “Our neighbours are not the means to an end, to a grant, but the ends in themselves,” said Harkavy.
Out of this approach, positive change occurs in communities and the university benefits by being aligned with communities in its production of knowledge. According to Harkavy, the University of Pennsylvania’s Netter Center is engaged in three models to address societal problems and the focus is on pre-kindergarten to higher education curriculum:
• Academically based community service which offers credit-based courses in which students and faculty work with communities to improve, for example, nutrition. They work with nurses and social workers and community members.
• University-assisted community schools. More than 3,800 students are working with eight or nine schools in West Philadelphia to assist about 4,000 people. The impact is integrated and aggregated.
• Democratic anchor model in terms of which the university is engaged with the community in terms of employment, procurement and real estate. The economic, academic and curriculum aspects are brought together.
Harkavy said his university is engaged in a “searching critique” which requires people to rethink, reimagine and redo. Staff are challenged to find ways to link their academic work to improving lives.
Referring to the ‘Noah approach’, Harkavy said university departments should not receive prizes or grants for “predicting and describing when it will rain”; there should be prizes for building arks and the implementation of change.
He said, although his university has made progress towards becoming a democratic civic university, it still had “miles and miles and miles” to go.
Referring to the recent launch of Global Cooperation for the Democratic Mission of Higher Education, and movements such as the University Social Responsibility Network and the Open Society University Network, he urged all universities to get involved with global movements in order to stamp out inequalities and bring about change.
“We need a global movement. This is not rocket science. It is harder than rocket science. We need to work together and work with communities,” he said.
Asked by University of Cape Town Vice-Chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng whether universities are complicit or innocent in perpetuating inequalities, he said: “In a variety of ways, universities contribute to the dramatic inequalities we face. They do not make the contributions they could make, which are essentially to educate students for citizenship.
Shirking a responsibility
“If they focus on issues of commercialism, what are the lessons they are teaching undergraduate students? They are complicit, as they are not taking issues of racism and social justice and placing them at the front. They have not made these issues primary. They are not only complicit but are shirking a core societal and intellectual responsibility.”
He said the universities are powerful in terms of human resources, intellectual capital and economic resources, and that maintaining the status quo will make things worse. Moving towards being a democratic civic university, on the other hand, could have a profound impact and produce better academic work.
On the reach of universities within our societies, he said: “Universities teach the teachers and the teachers’ teachers. Everyone is touched by the university in every field we can think of … They shape values, aspirations and intellectual development of entire societies. No institution is more important that a university.”
But there was, of course, room for improvement.
“If you don’t change the current [universities], the poor and under-represented minorities … will get a second-rate education. It is crucial that universities get engaged so that we provide our entire population a first-rate education for democratic citizenship and provide knowledge for a democratic society and world.”
The same argument applies to South African universities – if students are left outside, it will perpetuate racism and inequalities.
Referring to John Dewey, who alluded to democracy beginning at home, Harkavy said democracy is not just about voting – it’s a way of life. In keeping with this analogy, ‘home’ is the democratic civic university which fosters partnerships with local communities as a means of dealing with the problems of society.
University World News – Africa was Universities South Africa’s media partner at the conference.