How to avoid being on the wrong side of history

The political upheavals of the past 12 months have certainly provided fodder for debates and opinion pieces. Not since 9/11 have we been so motivated to get to the bottom of current events. There has been a sense of urgency to understand what drives populism and anticipate what its impact will be.

Universities have engaged with the changes on every front: institutions taking legal action against United States President Donald Trump’s travel ban; faculty boycotting conferences in the US and students protesting against... well, pretty much everything.

But all of this university action, even when it gains legal triumphs, does not change the concerning reality that higher education is seen as part of the problem. There have been strong messages from those who voted for Brexit and Trump that universities are out of touch. In the things we do and the things we stand for, universities are not welcome right now.

This dilemma was the theme of Sir Peter Scott’s Third Annual Worldviews Lecture on Media and Higher Education, held on 5 April 2017 at the University of Toronto in Canada, titled “On the Wrong Side of History”.

The lecture and its ensuing commentary examined how the university has exacerbated populism and what we in the academy might do to remedy the situation. A range of innovative ideas for governance, curriculum and research were tabled and debated in the hope that universities might once again return to the correct side of history.

The wrong side of history

Scott’s main arguments were reported by University World News, which was a media partner of the event. To contextualise his presentation, Scott’s lecture was followed by a panel of Toronto-based experts who reflected on what his ideas mean in practice.

The panellists included: Dr Idil Atak (Ryerson University), Dr Steven Tufts (York University, Toronto), Emma Sabzalieva (Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto) and Greg Lyle (Innovative Research Group).

The central debate in the panel’s commentary was how influential and long-term the Trump effect or Brexit are going to be for institutions.

On the student front, Sabzalieva, in contrast to other forecasts, argued that international students will continue to head to the US and the United Kingdom despite their right-wing governments. She referenced 9/11 (in 2001) after which student visa regulations tightened dramatically and yet there was still a continual growth of international students entering the US.

From the professoriate, Atak argued for more critical thinking, empowering students to ask the big questions: What makes something a crime? Who can be labelled a criminal? Meanwhile, Tufts argued that there needs to be a leftist populist response from academics, building a movement that advocates for the lower tiers of society from within the university.

The same grievances?

In the current political climate you do not have to look far for contentious messages from both sides of the political chasm, although anti-university sentiments are fortunately harder to find. And when the university is attacked, critics are easily dismissed by academics for their weak arguments and angry tone. Yet, a few of these angry anti-education rants present grievances that are not so far away from what Scott and the expert panellists of 5 April were saying.

Three main concerns are worth mentioning:

  • First, outdated curricula – For example, Scott critiqued the canon of economic knowledge for not adequately explaining the 2008 financial collapse. The irrelevance of the university has long been mocked by critics. Realigning research to tackle big societal challenges is essential if universities are going to contribute meaningfully in the 21st century.

  • Second, critical or independent thinking – Critics may see feminism or neo-Marxism as brainwashing, but there is certainly a case on both sides for developing students with the ability to assess phenomena and adopt a distinct opinion.

  • Lastly, elitism – The left and right are calling for a more open university. As Scott argued: “This is not the time to retreat back into an ivory tower, even if it is disguised in the new clothes of the ‘world-class university’.”

Grace Karram Stephenson is a post-doctoral fellow in the department of leadership, higher and adult education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto, Canada.