The ‘ink of scholars’ – A profound role for universities

The profound importance of good leadership for universities – and for African societies – was described by Ebrima Sall, executive secretary of the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa, or CODESRIA, at a recent workshop in Tanzania. “The terrorism and violence we see around us these days makes one ask questions about the responsibilities and roles of scholars and what higher education leadership can do,” he said.

University leadership, Sall argued, “plays out in several ways and it can lead to strong, well-governed and well-performing universities, but also to heightening of tensions and contradictions and the lowering of standards within higher education institutions.

“But the story does not stop there: higher education leadership is, in many ways, a factor in what determines how institutions contribute to the solution or worsening of social contradictions, or governance and development problems.

“Therefore, beyond rankings and the debates on them, we should think about the multiple ways in which, for our universities, being up-to-date or not, being innovative or not, matters; and whether or not the research they do is addressing the issues that our societies and policy- and change-makers are confronted with.”

CODESRIA is nearing the end of a multi-year Higher Education Leadership Programme, or HELP, that has been funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and has focused on a range of governance and leadership issues.

A HELP Dissemination and Policy Dialogue Workshop was held from 18-20 November in the northern city of Arusha in Tanzania, to present and debate the research produced. University World News was there.

HELP activities and outputs

The countries involved in the HELP research were Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda.

The areas researched include governance models and reforms, strengthening leadership and democratic governance, internationalisation, the changing leadership roles of deans, senates and councils, faculty and student involvement, women and leadership, and quality assurance.

HELP produced research through four activities – national working groups and comparative research networks, research fellowships and postdoctoral fellowships, commissioned books from former university leaders, and dialogues with deans of humanities and social sciences.

According to CODESRIA, 13 research groups were commissioned along with five books from leaders, and two deans’ conferences were held.

The HELP research, said Sall, was aimed at understanding the nature and factors impacting on styles of higher education leadership in Africa. A lot had been learned, and could be used to start addressing more indirect ways in which university leadership influences societies.

The location of Arusha – a lovely, multicultural city of half a million people in northern Tanzania, set amid great natural phenomena such as Mount Kilimanjaro, the Serengeti National Park and Ngorongoro Conservation Area – was significant.

It hosts the influential East African Community of five nations – Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda – the African Court of Human and People’s Rights and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.

“This is also the city where many peace talks are held and peace accords are signed,” said Sall at the start of the workshop. He recalled first joining CODESRIA as programme officer in charge of academic freedom in 1994, “the fateful year of both the Rwandan genocide and the official ending of apartheid”.

Peace begins in the mind

The following year, he co-organised the first major conference of African intellectuals on the Rwandan genocide. It was held in Arusha, with some 100 participants including many scholars from Rwanda and Burundi and refugee intellectuals of the Hutu ethnic group.

“The Rwandan genocide came out of the social dynamics and power struggles that were going on in the country, but they had very clear intellectual roots. Intellectuals were also among the first victims of the genocide,” said Sall. This had been documented in several publications.

“The University of Rwanda was a site for all the inter-ethnic, class, intellectual and ideological struggles that were going on in Rwanda before the genocide, and it was a site where many killings were perpetrated.” The reasoning behind that conference was the same as that of the UNESCO Culture of Peace programme.

“It all begins in the minds of human beings, both the thinking and meaning-making that leads to the acceptance of difference and the building of inclusive and democratic societies, but also the conceptualisation of human relations and production of discourses of the self and of others that can go as far as the framing of narratives that dehumanise and call for the physical elimination or displacement of the other,” said Sall, citing Nazism as one example.

It was believed important for universities and intellectuals in Rwanda, Burundi and other countries in the Great Lakes region to try to craft a shared understanding of what led to genocide in Rwanda and ways to build trans-ethnic or multi-ethnic societies.

“As it turned out, the discussion was very difficult. There were no common historical references; the histories of Rwanda and Burundi were told differently and fed into the dominant narratives of each group (the Hutu and the Tutsi).

“The saddest thing to observe was that scholarship and academic life were also fragmented along the same lines as were the political communities and debates. We could not even have serene discussions about issues such as the principle of ‘one person, one vote’ and how to bring issues such as the protection of minorities into that debate.”

The link with university leadership

The point, Sall argued, was that higher education leadership and governance were closely linked to contemporary issues.

Universities and their leaders played “important roles in what may lead to the escalation of differences, tensions and contradictions or, on the contrary, to the resolution of differences and transcending of contradictions”.

In 2003 CODESRIA organised a conference of intellectuals to discuss Cote d’Ivoire, where civil war had broken out, and subsequently also brought university leaders in Sudan – when it was one country, and then the two Sudans – to debate ways to approach the self-determination of South Sudan that would contribute to peace and development.

“Universities are very well placed to build bridges and contribute to not only structural transformations and developments that are beneficial to the societies that are their diverse constituents, but also in framing narratives and in meaning-making that can make big differences in the way societies are governed and their peoples relate to each other.”

A CODESRIA project being piloted in Senegal on “Universities, innovations in curricula and social transformation” is focusing on these kinds of issues.

Universities and development

African universities were seen as key players in the production of African modernity and development, Sall argued.

Today’s fascination for the BRICS – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – and with science, technology, engineering and maths hardly deviated from an earlier understanding of development as a linear process that unfolds identically in societies “if we are capable of acting on the right things, and one of those things is higher education.

“We need to critically interrogate the development models, and the narratives about them, and design higher education models and curricula that work for us, and are likely to help us move towards the realisation of the goals we set for our countries and continent,” Sall continued.

“At the same time, the higher education we promote must be recognisable as higher education. Our universities must be recognisable as universities. The ‘academic core’ must be secured and raised to the highest possible levels.

“That, in fact, is what higher education leadership should first and foremost be about. The challenge is to have all that happen in our context in ways that make universities part of the search for the answers that our societies are asking."

In 2013 CODESRIA and Presence Africaine co-published a book titled L’encre des savants or The Ink of the Scholars by Souleymane Bachir Diagne, a renowned Senegalese philosopher who is based at Columbia University in the United States and led the National Dialogue on the Future of Higher Education in Senegal.

The book, said Sall, “makes a strong argument for our societies to be open and inclusive. It is also an answer to the jihadists of ISIS, Boko Haram and others, and to all those who might be tempted to sympathise with them.

“It is also an answer to all those who might argue that the root causes of fundamentalism and the terrorism we are witnessing today are in a particular kind of doctrinaire Islam: Diagne, in this book, reminds all these people of a saying of Muhammad that ‘the ink of scholars is more valuable than the blood of martyrs’. This is a powerful peace message.”

* This is the first of a series of articles to be published by University World News in the coming months, flowing from CODESRIA’s Arusha workshop debates and the HELP research produced.