A calling to care should be higher education’s fifth mission

COVID-19 exposed and exacerbated higher education’s pre-existing structural deficiencies. It forced universities to re-evaluate their telos – their value and purpose – undergirding their teaching and research functions, business models, governance and institutional cultures, and external engagements.

Universities are, therefore, grappling with the challenges and opportunities of reconstructing the post-COVID-19 academy along the competing and co-mingled axes of restoration, reformation and transformation.

The first represents a powerful desire to return to the pre-pandemic past, the second to graft innovations undertaken during the pandemic into the architecture of higher education, and the third a drive to deploy the lessons of the pandemic for a profound overhaul of the sector.

Universities, at every level, need to pause and take stock of the disruptions, responses, and lessons learned from the pandemic and collectively refashion the post-COVID-19 future.

Serving as vice-chancellor of the United States International University Africa (USIU-Africa) during the pandemic was a historic privilege.

I believe there are key areas that internal and external stakeholders ought to focus on in the long and arduous task of reconceptualising higher education, ranging from teaching and leadership to the health of staff and students. In this article, however, I focus on the telos of higher education, and related aspects, in particular inclusion and engagement with the world.

It is a brave new era that demands and rewards institutional resilience, innovation and flexibility. Flexible learning and flexible work are already becoming mantras of the age, complementing the drives for institutional equity, diversity, and inclusion, as well as new configurations of the age-old mission of community service and engagement.

Re-examining the telos

In their mission statements and strategic plans that are produced with predictable regularity, universities proclaim many values and goals.

Pride of place goes to their role as society’s premier marketplace of ideas, of knowledge production, purportedly driven by an unrelenting commitment to the truth.

Some trumpet their responsibility to cultivate enlightened citizenship and promote or safeguard democratic governance. Increasingly, universities valorise social justice and the promotion of equity, diversity, inclusion and belonging.

They have also come to embrace more utilitarian purposes, seeing themselves as engines to produce quality human capital and innovation for national economic competitiveness. In Africa, universities are cloaked with the developmentalist imperatives of the postcolonial state.

There’s spirited debate on the equivalences and hierarchies of these divergent values and goals in which academics defend their preferences. In a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Jonathan Haidt declares unequivocally: “When truth and social justice collide, choose truth.”

He seems to ignore fierce contestations over the epistemological and ontological conceptions of ‘truth’ and the simple fact that universities are deeply immersed in their times and contexts and reproduce conceptions of truth that are questionable in other times and contexts.

This is not an argument for relativism, but for comprehensiveness, for subjecting notions of truth to the epistemological and ontological furnace of expansive global historical geographies.

Historically, the proclamation of the above ideals has not matched the glaring realities of universities as purveyors of epistemic chauvinisms and exclusions, the construction and dissemination of racist, sexist, authoritarian, and homophobic ideologies and aggressions, and the reproduction of elites and economic inequalities.

COVID-19 brought the coherence and compatibility of the various self-proclaimed values and goals into sharp relief as universities grappled with the exigencies of the pandemic, superimposed on ongoing pressures and questioning of the value proposition of higher education. If anything, the pandemic was a reminder that universities have multiple values and goals.

Conceptualising universities’ telos

There are many other conceptions of the telos of universities.

According to Ronald Daniels the president of Johns Hopkins University, the university “has four essential functions: providing access in ways that encourage social mobility; educating democratic citizens; creating expert knowledge; and encouraging students — and citizens — to engage in dialogue across difference.

These four purposes are not particularly novel; indeed, other writers have made similar claims.

But the purposes are crucial at a time when elite institutions, in particular, often re-create existing inequalities and when universities are being pressured to replace liberal education with vocational majors.

Also Read: Society Urged to support disabled children.

During the pandemic, universities sought to undertake the four missions noted above as effectively as possible: provide teaching and learning for their students, undertake transformative research and scholarship, promote impactful engagements with society, and serve as hubs of innovation and entrepreneurship for sustainable and progressive change.

Some institutions, of course, managed the pandemic better than others. In Kenya, I believe USIU-Africa did better than many of our competitors, although we faced several challenges as noted in previous reflections.

Every institution was forced to address a series of questions: what is the purpose and value of higher education? Why should society and individuals continue to invest their precious resources in higher education? How can universities deliver on their promises? How can they do better after the pandemic?

Surely, the answers to these questions cannot be reduced to the beloved singularities or binaries of academic ideologues.

Any university worth its name is a house of many mansions. It spins on a telos that is multi-pronged. However, choices must be made, and priorities set, guided by institutional histories, capabilities, and contexts.

I believe those who seek to restore the past as if COVID-19 never happened and changed the way students learn, faculty and staff work, institutions operate, and what the public expects from universities are doomed to lag and miss the train to the future.

But the pandemic didn’t destroy universities, underscoring their resilience and capacities for flexibility that ought to be continually enhanced in the post-COVID academy by strategic, smart, systematic, and sustainable reforms.

Promoting inclusivity

At the height of the pandemic, a momentous event for racial reckoning took place following the murder of George Floyd on 25 May 2020. Galvanised by the Black Lives Matter movement that had emerged in 2013 in the aftermath of several high-profile killings of blacks by the police, it sparked the largest racial justice protests in the United States and around the world.

Rallying cries for equity, diversity, inclusion and belonging thundered from the streets, classrooms, workplaces, corporate boardrooms, entertainment arenas and corridors of power. For some, it was a performative act, for others it was a clarion call to action for social and political transformation.

Universities embraced diversity, equity and inclusion, or DEI, which they incorporated in their mission and value statements, strategic plans and academic and training programmes.

The most comprehensive ones define diversity broadly to include the group differences of gender identities, race, ethnicity, nationality, class, sexual orientation and disability, and the social differences of affiliation around culture, religion, politics, and other associations.

Most crucially, in the European settler societies, diversity must explicitly include the indigenous people as Canadian and Australian universities are doing.

Equity entails promoting parity, justice, impartiality, and fairness in institutional policies, processes, procedures and outcomes for historically and currently underrepresented populations in terms of representation, resources, and remediation.

It requires understanding the systemic contexts rooted in the histories of colonisation and colonialism, and the ideologies of white racial supremacy that gave rise to and reproduce barriers for indigenous, black, and people of colour in the Global North and for communities marginalised based on ethnicity, caste, colour, culture and other social inscriptions in many parts of the Global South.

Inclusion refers to intentional and continuous processes and outcomes in which all members of the community as individuals and groups are welcomed and feel a sense of belonging and are provided with equal opportunities to participate in institutional life and flourish.

The integration of diversity, equity, and inclusion leads to inclusive excellence that is so fundamental for organisational excellence.

Operationalising inclusivity

Therefore, in the post-COVID 19 academy, inclusive excellence needs to be intentionally operationalised across all organisational structures, functions, policies and decision-making processes. Five dimensions are particularly critical.

First, in the realm of access and success, which refers to the recruitment and retention of diverse students, faculty, and staff and appointment of governing board members.

Second, in terms of education and scholarship involving curricula and research where there is need for epistemic integration, humility and respect for different knowledges, ways of knowing, and the research interests of faculty from marginalised backgrounds.

Third, the structure, allocation, and accountability for institutional investment, expenditures, and infrastructure that are often skewed in favour of dominant schools, disciplines, fields and faculty.

On many American campuses, for example, gender, ethnic, and area studies centres tend to be housed in isolated or rundown buildings.

Fourth, the nature of institutional climate and intergroup relations is crucial. Many university campuses have become increasingly toxic and hotbeds of polarisation, acrimony, bullying, mobbing, trolling, and microaggressions directed at underrepresented groups.

As vice-chancellor, I openly deplored such behaviour by the institutional bullies by urging civility and collegiality.

An article in The Chronicle of Higher Education titled, ‘Why Faculty of Color Are Leaving Academe’ captures the racial tensions on American campuses.

The stories of the black faculty reflect the general trends of faculty dissatisfaction: “concerns about work-life balance, inadequate compensation and a flagging sense of purpose.

But these scholars also struggle with pressures that remain mostly invisible to their white colleagues: Thus, despite the renewed fervour by colleges to increase minority representation in academe, the problems of exclusion persist.

The article laments, “Institutions have created toolkits to identify and counteract implicit bias throughout the job search, budgeted for cluster hires, and expanded outreach to historically black colleges and universities and other minority-serving institutions.

“They’ve tried to diversify, and better train, hiring committees and have begun requiring candidates to submit diversity statements … Demographic data on higher-ed faculty suggest that these initiatives have borne some fruit …

“But numbers on a line graph do not necessarily reflect progress on a personal level, where equity and inclusion are felt … These experiences exemplify what can happen when colleges hire black faculty without confronting systemic inequities: new faculty members find themselves isolated, undermined, and gaslit.”

Fifth, inclusive excellence is often anchored on the dynamics of an institution’s community relations and partnerships. Many universities proclaim their commitment to community engagement, service, and impact. However, town-gown divides persist.

They are especially pronounced at campuses located adjacent to low-income communities or the neighbourhoods of people of colour.

The pandemic, wrote Vicki Baker in Inside Higher Education in November 2021, “drove the creation of programmes geared toward re-emphasising higher education’s civic engagement efforts …”

“While the notion of community engagement is not novel, evolving approaches to community engagement are now more necessary than ever as we look toward a post-pandemic higher education.”

She offers four intriguing proposals. First, engaging “students in the real world instead of requiring it to conform to the academy. Community engagement efforts should operate outside of the traditional confines of the academic calendar” by mirroring what happens in industry.

Second, reframing the partnership between “students, faculty, and community partners [which] are vital contributors to learning and development”.

“Such a reframing puts the focus on the quality and content of relationships as important drivers of the collaboration’s outcomes. To achieve this goal, students and community clients must direct post-pandemic community engagement efforts, with support from faculty leaders – not the other way around.”

Third, building “in student leadership pathways modelled after management consulting firms. Such pathways allow students to engage with a community partner on a long-term basis – developing skills in a scaffolded manner and assuming progressively more leadership and management responsibilities”.

“Such pathways also create peer mentoring opportunities.”

Fourth, engaging “community partners and students to collectively address unscripted community-focused problems.

“Such an approach requires students and community partners to identify relevant challenges and to agree upon a collaborative course of action.”

Engaging the world

As a global crisis, the COVID pandemic was a brutal and humbling reminder of the interconnectedness of the human condition, and the infinite powers of microscopic pathogens to make a mockery of humanity’s delusions of mastery over nature.

However, solidarity proved elusive as deepening economic and social inequalities, distrust of elites and state authority, political polarisation and national chauvinism and xenophobia cast their shadows through the discriminatory closures of borders, distribution of vaccines and scapegoating of foreigners and racial ‘others’.

Still, the pandemic provided a powerful catalyst for renewed global and ecological consciousness.

It forced universities to rethink internationalisation, a subject I discussed at length in a keynote address in June 2022 at a conference at the University of Toronto that was published in University World News in which I proposed a 12-point agenda for action.

Suffice to say, as universities seek to rebuild post-pandemic transnational relations, they must eschew extractive and exploitative models of internationalisation.

Clearly, in this arena, while some universities may seek to restore the past, success will belong to those who build more integrated, innovative, strategic, and resilient partnerships.

The perils posed by COVID-19 and future pandemics pale in comparison to the catastrophic threat of climate change, which is already destroying lives, livelihoods, and ecosystems around the world especially in poorer regions that contributed the least to global warming and the destruction of the planetary commons.

As knowledge institutions, universities have a responsibility to lead the global charge in climate research, mitigation and adaptation efforts by engaging governments, business, civil society and other stakeholders, as well as modelling sustainable environmental stewardship in their own institutions.

Adopting a fifth mission in HE

As noted above, it is now generally accepted that universities have four missions: teaching and learning, research and scholarship, impactful societal engagements and innovation and entrepreneurship for sustainable and progressive change.

I believe the existential, economic, and epistemic crises of the COVID-19 pandemic compel universities to adopt a fifth mission: the duty of care.

Internally, to their own constituencies comprised of students, faculty, and staff, and externally to their various stakeholders in the public and private sectors and civil society.

Above all, a duty of care in promoting humanistic and ecological values for the sustainability of our species, societies, and nature.

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