Powers and responsibilities of universities in a time of crises

Two days after Greta Thunberg stood on a stage at the Youth4Climate summit in Milan and rebuked world leaders for offering “Blah, blah, blah” in place of actions to deal with climate change, 43 undergraduate and graduate activists from 21 countries and 61 university professors, administrators and other education leaders from 28 countries gathered with some 400 attendees at the Talloires Network Leaders Conference 2021, hosted by Tufts and Harvard universities.

“Global Institutions, Local Impact: Power and responsibility of engaged universities” was held over the course of four days beginning on 30 September 2021. Students and university officials reported virtually on the impacts of the COVID-19 crisis and efforts to deal with it, attempts to tackle climate change and the state of civic engagement in their countries.

“At its core, the Talloires Network of Engaged Universities is a dynamic coalition of diverse institutions committed to embedding civic engagement into their research, teaching and partnerships,” says Professor Anthony Monaco, Tufts University president and chair of the Talloires Network steering committee.

“And while each member university brings its own vision to the Network, this conference is an essential part of building and sustaining the connections that allow us to exchange ideas and collaborate to address urgent global challenges like the COVID-19 pandemic, systemic inequality and climate change.”

This article on engaged research is published by University World News in partnership with the Talloires Network of Engaged Universities. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

Founded by 22 university leaders in 1990 in the picturesque Alpine village of Talloires in France, the network now numbers more than 417 colleges and universities in 79 countries – the largest network of its kind in the world.

While it was established by university leaders, Monaco emphasised in his opening remarks, the Talloires Network is “committed to elevating student voices”.

Among the students who exemplify the concept of thinking globally and acting locally is Catherine Kasungia Mumo. She is pursuing a bachelor degree in international studies at Strathmore University in Kenya and is the founder of Nawiri Sist3rs, an organisation that provides menstrual products to girls so they can go to school.

After COVID-19 reached Nairobi, Nawiri Sist3rs began educating poor families about symptoms of the virus, preventive measures and how to make hand sanitisers. A number of other students have also founded programmes that distribute menstrual products as well as hand sanitisers and information about COVID in their countries.

Impacts of the pandemic

As did Monaco, presidents Lawrence Bacow of Harvard University and Nieves Segovia of Universidad Camilo José Cela in Spain underscored the fact that the Talloires Network conference took place under three shadows: the ongoing COVID crisis, accelerating climate change and questions about how universities can foster civic engagement.

In her opening remarks, Segovia, who is vice-chair of the Talloires Network steering committee, said: “The pandemic has placed higher education institutions at a turning point that calls us to action if we want to lead to a new and better future.”

In the session that followed “Global Universities, Local Impact: Roles and responsibilities of universities”, Marc Nathanson, a third-year medical student at Stellenbosch University in South Africa, asked: “How can we ensure that the lives that were taken too soon and the psychological distress and adversity that that created are not in vain?”

Several participants echoed Bacow’s opening quip when speaking about the shift to online classes: “Before this pandemic, I never heard the word nimble used to describe higher education very often. I think this [shift to online classes] is a silver lining now for which we can be grateful.”

The digital divide – between developed countries and those in the Global South, as well as within countries – quickly became apparent. Even as he argued that an amalgamation of physical and virtual spaces would allow universities to cater to a more diverse group of students, Nathanson raised the issue of the digital divide within South Africa.

Promise Nyalungu, a bachelor degree student in international relations at the University of Venda in South Africa, expanded on Nathanson’s point. Venda, Nyalungu said, is a rural university in the northeast corner of South Africa that still suffers the effects of being formed under the Extension of University Education Act of 1959 as an under-resourced institution catering for black people.

“When the COVID pandemic hit, it was disastrous because we had students who didn’t have gadgets. And students who had gadgets and data allocation but the areas they were coming from were so rural that they didn’t have network coverage,” Nyalungu said. “So, this meant that most students [fell] behind in their studies. This meant that many students had to drop out.”

Climate change

In a keynote address on the second day of the conference, John Kerry, the United States government’s Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, addressed climate change in what amounted to a forensic audit of what he termed an “existential crisis”.

He began by telling of Pacific Islanders who are “literally being overrun by water, swamped, flooded and driven out” of islands they have inhabited for thousands of years. Ten million people, he told the conference, die each year from pollution caused by the burning of fossil fuels, especially coal. The oceans, which provide 50% of the world’s oxygen, are “being degraded rapidly by what we’ve been putting in them”.

Universities should move as quickly as possible to be net zero, Kerry said. “No university should have a fleet that isn’t electric at this point in time.”

At one stage, he pivoted and spoke in the academic language of students like Susan Azizi, a Kyrgyzstani who received her bachelor degree in accounting and management from the American University of Central Asia in Kyrgyzstan last year, and Paseka Elcort Gaola, who is in the final year of a bachelor of commerce and law degree at the University of Pretoria in South Africa, and a number of professors attending the conference.

“Protecting the environment,” Kerry said, “is job-creating. There is a need to connect states on one side of the country with transmission lines. We need artificial intelligence and computing. There are countless jobs, blue-collar workers, engineers, electricians, plumbers, heavy equipment operators. There is all kinds of work to be done as we rebuild the infrastructure of our nation.”

At the session that followed, Saleemul Huq, director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development at Independent University, Bangladesh, told how more than 50 universities in Bangladesh have joined forces to do research, provide evidence to decision-makers and, most importantly, educate the public in “one of the most vulnerable countries to the impact of climate change”.

In addition to creating a masters in climate change and development, in which students learn how traditional development practices contribute to climate change, the university has embedded a climate change curriculum into all courses, including in business, economics and engineering.

After noting with classic British understatement that the University of Cambridge has “been around for 800 years, and it doesn’t change rapidly or easily”, Emily Shuckburgh, director of Cambridge Zero and a reader in environmental data science, described the university’s efforts to adapt the climate change curriculum developed at Cambridge’s primary school for schools across and beyond Britain.

Further, in addition to engaging with policy-makers in Britain and internationally, the university – known historically for elitism – is working towards translating its experience in retrofitting buildings with heat pumps, and its research into decarbonisation, into forms useful for vocational training and even apprenticeships.

‘Just Sustainabilities’

A climate justice track session entitled “Just Sustainabilities: Critical learnings for climate justice and resilience from community responses to the pandemic” attracted more than 40 participants, mainly from outside North America, including a class from Nicaragua.

They heard Julian Agyeman and Penn Loh, both from Tufts University, discuss structural inequalities – including in income, race and housing patterns – that many of the students at the conference no doubt found familiar.

The subject of Penn Loh’s presentation was Chelsea, a city of 40,000 mostly Latinx residents across a small creek from Boston’s Logan Airport and “one of the communities that has been most overburdened by pollution in Massachusetts” in the US.

Loh, a senior lecturer and director of a masters on public policy and community practice at Tufts University, discussed how once COVID hit and jobs began evaporating, grass roots organisations reinvented themselves as food distribution centres.

Agyeman, professor of urban and environmental policy and planning, argued that neither the disastrous impact of COVID nor the disproportionate impact of climate change on poor parts of American cities is an accident.

“No, this happened by policy and planning and nothing happened by accident,” he said, continuing later: “So we are living with the legacy of political decisions. Policy and planning decisions that were the results of segregationist and white supremacist thinking.”

“What do you do, though. Do you take away the freeways [which cut through minority communities]? Yes, you can do that. Do you look at housing policy? Yes, we’re starting to do that, but it’s going to take a long time. As I mentioned, the Minneapolis 2014 plan has the primary goal of eliminating disparities based on race, gender, age, national origin, sexuality etc. That’s the way that we have to go now.”

The Talloires Network’s mission of fostering civil engagement by universities and their students was the central theme of Philip Cotton’s address. One rhetorical device used by Cotton, head of the Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program – one of the sponsors of the conference – showed that he believes students “get it”, as they themselves would put it.

More than once, he stated the need to face “urgent global challenges – worsening poverty, enduring inequality, declining trust in institutions, seemingly intractable violence and perennial marginalisation”.

Towards the end of the talk, Cotton discussed how the Mastercard Foundation-supported EARTH University – or, to be more precise, the African, Latin American and Caribbean students in it – were “engaged in transformative work”.

The US$19.5 million programme supports 120 academically gifted but financially disadvantaged students to complete university studies and “accelerates the capacity of [these] scholars to lead social, environmental and economic transformation”. It also supports postgraduate community-based fellowships for young people in agriculture and connects them with local organisations “engaged in transformative work”.

Discord and hope

Though both Kerry and Bacow spoke of the need for universities and their students to be engaged beyond the proverbial ivy-covered walls, both Americans sounded a discordant note, especially when compared to Nieves Segovia.

She spoke hopefully, pointing to conference participant Khan Alkozee, an Afghan refugee pursuing a double degree in law and criminology at Universidad Camilo José Cela. He, Segovia said, “represents a generation that has not lost hope. And will not allow us to lose it. In his own words, ‘the only fight on war and terrorism is via ethics and education’.”

However critical my family was of the United States during the Vietnam War and Civil Rights eras, as an American who was raised to believe that the nation’s (albeit flawed) democratic system would ultimately find its way toward justice, it was easy to recognise Bacow’s plaintive tone.

“I worry that active citizenship is being supplanted by passive partisanship, at least in my country. That people are looking elsewhere, pointing elsewhere, when seeking change that they themselves could help to advance.”

“How,” asked the president of the nation’s most prestigious university, “do we help ensure that listening generously and speaking freely and sharing responsibilities and working together are at the heart of our efforts to speed change?”

For his part, Kerry lamented that the US Congress, where he served as one of Massachusetts’ two senators for almost 30 years, does not “reflect the urgency that needs to be applied” to climate change.

A short time later, directly to the climate crisis and obliquely to the COVID-19 crisis – the pandemic death toll in the United States having surpassed 700,000 on the day he spoke – Kerry said: “Democracy doesn’t work on automatic pilot, and it cannot be as strong as it needs to be [when] we cannot even decide what the basic facts are.”

Include and integrate

The fashionable complaint by conservative critics of universities, that relativism reigns in place of factual analysis, was nowhere in attendance at the Talloires Network Leaders Conference. Again and again, groups presented facts and figures to back up their analyses.

For example, in a session on gender, slides showed that women make up 80% of people displaced by climate change in the developing world, 70% of the world’s low-income workers are women – and the COVID crisis has set their incomes back a decade.

In the Global South, worsening heat waves expose women who have to travel for water to dehydration, heat stroke and sexual violence. And globally, during pandemic-caused shutdowns, 763 million women have been subjected to domestic violence.

Such figures support the group’s call for universities to undertake “inclusive research” that focuses on the experiences of and impacts on women and girls, for example.

Even a call by students for universities to decolonise themselves and “make space for various forms of knowledge, and [indigenous, non-Western] spirituality” was couched in terms of the university’s highest ideals. For, it is more than a banal recognition that different peoples have different epistemological perspectives on the world.

Rather, what the students articulated was the recognition – formulated, for example, in the Canadian philosopher John Ralston Saul’s 1992 book, Voltaire’s Bastards: The dictatorship of reason in the West – that by excluding indigenous ways of knowing and thinking, the Western philosophical tradition, and by extension the university, has limited itself.

These graduate and undergraduate students, each of whom is engaged in transformative work off campus, ask, in short, that the universities they attend and the academy itself push beyond traditional silos.

Structures that keep teaching and learning as discreet acts, which themselves are divided from research (producing knowledge) as well as from ‘social impact’ beyond the academic walls, mean little to the next generation of scholars at the Talloires Network conference.

Their motto, both politically and in terms of the philosophical basis of universities, is ‘integrate, integrate, integrate’.