Tackling the great social questions of the day – Talloires

Vice-chancellors of four South African universities reflected on the fundamentally social role of universities and their mandate for engaging with the communities they serve as they welcomed participants to the Talloires Network Leaders Conference in Stellenbosch, South Africa, on 2 December.

Max Price, vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town, one of the event’s four host universities, highlighted the challenges facing society such as climate change, the spread of infectious diseases such as Ebola and the lack of jobs for young people, and confirmed that universities can play their part in finding solutions.

He pointed out how universities are often pulled in opposite directions by the tensions between them; tensions between "economic growth for its own sake and the consequences such as inequality…between cheap and renewable energy”, for instance.

“Universities have a big role to play as they can systematically make themselves available for debate – we deliberately put ourselves there to steer the global debate on the great social issues of the day,” he told the assembled audience of 264 delegates from 41 countries.

But taking on this eminently social role is made more difficult by the way other imperatives push universities and their leaders in other directions. High up on the list is the need to build a university’s global reputation.

“League tables are something hanging over the heads of university leaders all of the time and the ranking systems will give no brownie points for civic engagement,” said Price.

Ensuring financial resources is another priority. Access, and providing ongoing support so that students from disadvantaged backgrounds do not just go to university but also succeed when they get there, is yet another.

The right location

Bringing an event such as Talloires to the global South – to an Africa on the rise – is highly significant, according to Leopoldt van Huyssteen, acting rector of Stellenbosch University, as the civic engagement debate will be enriched by different perspectives from the global South.

“South Africa is the ideal location with so many exemplary examples of community-university engagement and this amazing coalition of universities that are co-sponsors of this conference,” said Robert Hollister, executive director of the Talloires Network.

The audience was invited to pay tribute to the late Russel Botman, Stellenbosch’s transformational vice-chancellor until his sudden death last June.

Botman, according to Van Huyssteen, “took the bold steps of aligning the core activities of the university with the international development agenda” such as poverty eradication and creating peace and security.

In a short video tribute to the late vice-chancellor, Botman himself showcased Stellenbosch University’s work with the community such as the iShack project providing small incremental improvements including solar power in a local township. He stated his conviction that “a better world can only be done when there is great science behind it”.

For Prins Nevhutalu, vice-chancellor of Cape Peninsula University of Technology, a fundamental question for the conference was what kind of graduates universities are producing. Universities “produce CEOs of companies, ministers and presidents, so how do we ensure that wherever they go they become agents of change?” he asked.

Growth of Talloires

The growth of the Talloires Network – from just 29 people from 21 universities at the founding meeting in Talloires, France, in 2005 to the 322 members from 72 countries today – says a lot about the growing importance of civic engagement, according to Janice Reid, vice-president of the Talloires Network.

“Size is not the be all and end all but Talloires has managed to create a niche where it is clear that universities are here to serve, to make a difference and to reduce inequality in this world,” she said.

She believes that another defining characteristic of civic engagement is the way that it transcends the divides of disciplines and departments, which means “each member of the community can contribute”.

Max Price finished his intervention by hoping the days of debate would allow universities to share best practices on how universities can reprioritise civic engagement when it is competing with other imperatives such as research.

This does not mean that the one should exclude the other, he said. It is more a matter of “how we can ensure that the incentives can be aligned so that instead of all these tensions, we can have all of our imperatives pulling in the same direction”.