The ongoing racial injustice, pandemic and associated disruption of 2020 -- along with the attack by violent insurrectionists on the U.S. Capitol building -- have taught us many things about our societies, not only in the United States but also around the globe. Among those lessons is that higher education is deeply implicated in the impoverished and fragile state of democracies. Some academic and student leaders are calling for postsecondary institutions to make the creation of antiracist, inclusive, socially just democracies throughout the world priority No. 1. Such an undertaking requires disruptive change in higher education values, use of resources and its privileged place in many of our societies. Is higher education ready for such change?
At the 2020 Association for the Study of Higher Education conference, we shared research and practice from universities in South Africa, the United States and the International Association of Universities. We concluded that postsecondary institutions -- notable contributions during the pandemic notwithstanding -- have too often been complicit in systems that create or reproduce savage health and economic inequities, public disregard of science, and individuals who feel alienated and forgotten. Examples include the scarcity of locally situated university clinics and the lack of educational opportunities that perpetuates the exclusion of marginalized groups and working-class students. Indeed, COVID-19 has revealed the extreme poverty, persistent deprivation and pernicious racism that fester in the shadows of some of the nation's foremost institutions of higher learning. This disconnectedness from local community needs has promoted a sense of disenfranchisement by communities of color and increased the distrust society has of academics.
The widespread assumption that universities are progressive, multicultural, antiracist places has insulated many of us who work and live in higher education from reckoning with the lived experiences of marginalized communities all over the world. Indeed colleges and universities are gendered and racialized, and many institutions perpetuate systemic racism, colonialism and sexism through gatekeeping, educational discrimination and not sharing vital resources with local communities.
It is crucial to embrace these multiple realities simultaneously: that higher education is deeply implicated in reproducing systemic discrimination and racism in the United States and around the world and, as we imagine what could be next, higher education is distinctly positioned to help build and develop the infrastructure, resources, values and education systems necessary for diverse, inclusive, antiracist democracies. And there are examples of students, faculty and staff engaged in that work.
In this moment of disruption, postsecondary leaders, students, faculty and staff might humbly consider four steps to advance antiracist, diverse and just democracies locally and globally.
No. 1: Redesign universities to focus on the development of students who help create antiracist democracies around the world. Although postsecondary institutions will always play a vital role in social mobility, the pandemic has made it clear that the most important thing K-12 and higher education can do is to educate ethical, engaged citizens for antiracist, diverse and socially just democracies. That means galvanizing students' growth as organic intellectuals, collaborative problem solvers and agents of social change.
For example, the University of Costa Rica requires 800 hours of community work for each student who matriculates. In 2017, “a total of 4,631 students did 1,038,150 hours of community work, in 164 projects in all areas of knowledge.” Of significance, the former rector describes the purpose of this effort as “to raise awareness and promote social and critical awareness among students and the university community; and to collaborate with communities in identifying their problems in order to develop their own solutions, within horizontal relationships conducive to mutual learning.”
To better translate its strategic plan into action, the university has repositioned some of its buildings in the most underserved parts of the country, opening the doors to all people not attending yet interested to engage. Education for democratic citizenship through active engagement and collaborative problem solving with the local community should become a core purpose and pedagogical principle of higher education.
No. 2: Reimagine the “knowledge project.” The future we are imagining requires researchers from various fields and disciplines to take on the problems of our democracies and focus on issues of human benefit and local/global significance. To make that happen, universities need to incentivize and reward student, faculty and staff efforts to take on those issues in interdisciplinary ways, listening to and in partnership with local communities. That will not only help democracies thrive but also make for better scholarship, as knowledge is powerfully advanced when research is conducted through partnerships between academics and nonacademics. Higher education institutions have been rightly critiqued by various members of society -- including families, students, policy makers and community leaders -- as gatekeepers, distancing the credentialed knowers from the uncredentialed receivers of knowledge.
The ongoing dialectic in South Africa between government, universities, social movements (like the Treatment Action Campaign) and industry produced a swift repurposing of university-based research and innovation platforms created to address the ongoing HIV/AIDS pandemic. This resulted in the participation of scientists in the global effort to identify new variants of the virus as well as to develop COVID-19 vaccines and treatments. In addition, engineering schools in the country have turned their attention to using 3-D printing to manufacture PPE and noninvasive ventilators.
More universities should play a key role in linking expertise from those within the academy and those on the ground, creating a community of experts and diverse voices to solve our world’s most serious problems, such as poverty, unequal schooling and health care, and environmental degradation. We need to foster inclusive, expansive notions of expertise.
For instance, social scientists and educators can conduct participatory action research and develop methodological approaches that center community members’ voice and place-based knowledge to more effectively solve locally manifested universal problems. Only then will the knowledge imperative be seen as relevant to the well-being of the many as opposed to the private gain of the few.
No. 3: Change ownership of the university. For too long, citizens have viewed their universities like privately held companies that have little relationship to their own lives. Yes, people have local pride when sports teams win, but that is not the same thing as postsecondary education being relevant and tied to the destiny of local citizens. That must change. A case in point: in Thailand, Siam University has decided to revitalize the unsafe university surroundings to provide for better living conditions and well-being for Thai people who have never before set foot in a university.
On the other side of that world, University College Dublin has developed a wide range of initiatives to facilitate and enhance community engagement opportunities and build strong bridges between its campus and the neighboring communities. Universities must commit to serving as vital bridges between societies -- and as multilateral organizations using their vast resources (especially their human and academic resources) and positions of privilege to advance social justice.
No. 4: Get the values right. The values that universities should hold dear are open inquiry, diversity and inclusion, democracy, equity, and justice. Equity and justice require inclusive representation among students and academics -- including more people who are first-generation, from marginalized and working-class communities, and women. That would entail intentional recruitment within high schools situated in historically minoritized and working-class neighborhoods, as well as actively recruiting recently minted Ph.D.s from BIPOC groups to fill the ranks of the professoriate.
It would also involve universities working in serious, sustained, comprehensive partnerships with public schools in their locality to diversify and enrich the educational pipeline. Universities should also reallocate funding to support the hiring and retention of women and people of color within the faculty and administrative ranks of the institution, as well as provide more scholarships to first-generation students.
To realize the values cited above requires a reorganization of resources to infuse democracy across all aspects of higher education. If such values were in place, we would use technologies in ways that do not exacerbate inequalities but strengthen their impact on human well-being and development. For example, the pandemic made clear that institutions have the capacity to provide more online education. For students who may not have the financial resources to attend universities face-to-face, online education can remove financial barriers that may otherwise hinder access.
Strengthening internationalization of higher education and global engagement and collaboration is crucial for these efforts. We need a global movement -- one that leads to a global commons of engaged scholars and their community partners, scholarship and knowledge. To accomplish this, we need to incentivize scholars so they are rewarded for engaging in community-based projects. Many faculty members, particularly early-career ones, are dissuaded to devote any time that takes them away from the dominant discipline-based publication process. Thus, tenure and promotion should place more value on publications and other scholarly products that focus on work with and contributions to communities.
Scholars also need to earn trust from communities. Community members have long complained that faculty come and mine places for data and leave without ever helping support the communities from which they collected those data. Universities and faculty need to help amplify the voice of the community and illuminate their needs to policy makers. These kinds of institutional changes will require lots of sharing and learning from colleagues across the globe, as occurs through both the International Association of Universities and the International Consortium for Higher Education, Civic Responsibility and Democracy.
In the United States, people have criticized elected officials like Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz for inciting violence at the U.S. Capitol because, having attended selective universities like Stanford, Princeton and Yale, “they should have known better.” Putting aside the elitist and rankist assumption that such institutions would have the monopoly on knowing better, we must recognize that, in fact, higher education has too often failed to effectively educate active citizens dedicated to creating and maintaining antiracist, inclusive and socially just democratic societies.
Just as many colleges and universities are reckoning with their own institutional histories of exclusion, higher education as a field must recognize where it has failed and come up short. Only then can it come honestly to tables with communities, governments and citizens to build inclusive, antiracist democracies together.