ACU: University isn't a hiding place

September 5, 2003

David Jobbins and John O'Leary report on the Association of Commonwealth Universities conference in Belfast.

Universities in the world's trouble spots cannot act as islands of tranquility separated from the surrounding conflicts, a sociologist who lived through Northern Ireland's Troubles when he was at Queen's University, Belfast, told the ACU conference.

Robert Cormack, now principal of Scotland's University for the Highlands and Islands Millennium Institute, said academics at Queen's had tried to remain apart from the Troubles when violence began in the early 1970s. The professor of economic and social history of the time was working on a history of the piano, while the professor of anthropology studied the music of the Venda.

"I don't pick these academics out for criticism - they would not have looked out of place in any fairly traditional university of the period," Professor Cormack said. "But in the midst of a shooting war it did seem odd."

He added: "To raise the issue of sectarian differences in employment at dinner parties seemed to be of the same order as loudly breaking wind. In Queen's, the message was that the university was an island of sanity and calm in the midst of a sea of troubles. Academics should steer clear of engaging with local issues and importing sectarianism into the university."

Queen's changed rapidly as students became politically involved and many academics built reputations for studying the impact of the Troubles on the society in which they lived. In the 1990s, the university was at the centre of controversies over employment practices and delicate issues, such as the playing of the national anthem at graduation ceremonies.

Queen's had become a "plural institution", Professor Cormack said, drawing staff and students more equally from both communities. The lesson for universities in a similar situation was to monitor recruitment and provide avenues for individuals to pursue claims of discrimination.

But in most divided societies it was rare to find the elites of the communities in conflict being educated together. Pristina University, in Kosovo, where Professor Cormack served on a Council of Europe restructuring group, was a former Serb institution taken over by Kosovan Albanians. "Any Serb entering the campus today would be risking his or her life, " Professor Cormack said.

He said Queen's was remarkable for being able to serve both communities in a 35-year period during which 3,500 people died. "The issues have not gone away. But the university continues to be important to both communities, hence they are constantly looking for signs of advantage or disadvantage."

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