I AM struck by evidence of a sudden realisation by universities that they should be doing something about the great issues of our time.
Universities' contribution to development occupied the International Association of Universities in Bangkok in November. Both keynote speakers focused on the fact that the crises of our time cannot be dealt with in isolation. We cannot strive for harmony between human beings and the environment if we do not simultaneously strive for harmony between people and between societies.
The International Association of University Presidents meets in South Africa this month with the theme of disarmament education, conflict resolution and peace. The next conference of the Association of Commonwealth Universities is focussing on leadership. Unesco has chosen 1998 as the year of higher education and the organisation has held a series of regional conferences building up to the summit in Paris in October.
It is as clear today as it was in Abraham Lincoln's time that higher education is important to development. Lincoln summed it up by declaring that "higher education cannot escape history".
After all, poverty has always been with the majority of the earth's people, wars have devastated and continue to devastate the lives of many, and we have always asserted that universities are the nurseries of the future leadership. Is it the absence of the free flow of funds from governments that has concentrated our minds? Is it that we have woken up to the fact that many of our students do not find employment all that easily and we feel uncomfortably blameworthy? Is it that "competition" and "market" now have to be part of our thinking and strategies for survival? Is it that we are no longer accepted as a necessary good?
In South Africa a group of people is planning to establish a Catholic University. The members see the levels of crime and corruption in our society and believe there is a need for an institution that works from a certain ethical viewpoint. What an indictment of existing universities that this perception is accepted widely enough to persuade the funders that the considerable investment needed to establish a new university is worthwhile.
The International Federation of Catholic Universities was well represented at the IAU conference in Bangkok and I read the proceedings of their last conference on the Catholic University in shaping a new society with great interest. Michel Falise's keynote address reminds us that "from generation to generation, education has always had as its aim the forming of men's minds in the fullest sense of the term, including the ethical dimensions of behaviour and values". He considers the words "ethics" and "morals" (for which can be read "values") to be equivalent and describes not only the necessity of their place in the curriculum of all fields of study but indeed of a growing demand for this. This demand, he believes, is given impetus by a climate of rapid change where ethics assists people with a loss of certainty.
There is very little in any of the proceedings which ordinary universities would be able to reject outright as being nothing to do with them, - even, surprisingly, on the role of women - and I was particularly looking for that.
I am fascinated at what vice chancellors and university presidents are going to do when they get back from these conferences. Looking through the prospectuses of most universities I do not think you will find "ethics" as a specific field of study - or peace studies, or conflict resolution, or disarmament, or leadership, or even development studies. It has been difficult enough to get women's studies on the list. Community extension work is still the poor second cousin in most academic's books to blue-skies research, however necessary this may be.
We claim that universities are the nurseries of the future leadership of our countries but how much do we do to nurture and hone such leadership? We know that there are leadership skills and abilities which can be taught so where are these to be found in the curricula? As for ethics, where else can we find the combination of internal freedom and rich information so necessary if ethics is going to thrive. And how better could the universities earn for themselves a worthwhile future than by embracing the opportunity to focus the power of education on the one problem that arguably matters most to the community we serve and which keeps us afloat financially - anxiety and confusion about ethics?
What one learns at conferences does not always translate only into curricula. Consider the point made by Michel Falise in his paper: "We may hold I that the university, as an environment, promotes and spreads values, both in a positive and negative sense, and very often in an implicit and unconscious way. What attention is devoted there to respecting and listening to people, to rigour and to openness in financial matters, what is embodied in procedures for assessment, recruitment and promotion, which are the other places and the external social forces effectively shut off from it, how are foreigners welcomed there, are the weak and the dispossessed accepted, are staff, teachers and students involved?" Perhaps because I live in South Africa I am more acutely conscious of the importance of trying to play a role a creating a better society. Here we have lived for so long in a cruel and unjust society that we seem to have lost our moral compass. As we watch the Truth and Reconciliation Commission at work we think almost daily what part we played in the tragedy that was South Africa. The vast majority of us in higher education institutions know that we did not do enough - and that is morally reprehensible. But the question does not belong in the past tense. Are we doing enough now? And, given that we accept intellectually that we live in a global village where our actions or non-actions affect our fellow beings, we cannot limit our musings to narrow localities.
It is actually, in the end, a question of integrity - personal and institutional. Stephen Carter in his excellent book Integrity says that integrity "requires three steps: discerning what is right and what is wrong; acting on what you have discerned, even at personal cost; and saying openly that you are acting on your understanding of right from wrong". Integrity is fundamental to good leadership and discerning, acting and saying is what is required.
If higher education is silent on and inactive about the great issues of what ails our universe then it is no wonder that there is a question mark as to whether it (in its present form) constitutes a common good and is worth funding.
Brenda Gourley is vice chancellor of the University of Natal.