Be honest and take sides on big issues, universities told

Policy expert suggests institutions could back Brexit, a republic or rebrand themselves as a ‘Black Lives Matter university’

March 18, 2021
Activist movement protesting against racism and fighting for equality, Black Lives Matter - Demonstrators from different cultures and race protest on street - universities urged to take a stand on issues
Source: Alamy

Instead of pretending to be neutral, universities need to be “honest in taking a position”, a leading professor has argued.

In The New Power University: The Social Purpose of Higher Education in the 21st Century, published on 18 March, Jonathan Grant calls on institutions to abandon managerialism and to embrace the ideals of “participation, networks governance and radical transparency”. The professor of public policy at King’s College London also says that sector leaders need to place as much weight on social responsibility as on research and teaching.

Yet far too often, claims Professor Grant, a former vice-principal at King’s and ex-director of its Policy Institute, universities’ attitudes to the big issues of the day are incoherent and perhaps alienating.

The much-cited 1967 Kalven report to the University of Chicago argued that it should not take overt positions since that would divert it from “its mission [of ‘freedom of inquiry’] into playing the role of a second-rate political force or influence”. Yet Professor Grant saw that as an “untenable position”, which can lead to accusations of hypocrisy, since universities inevitably do take stands – and Chicago itself had long committed itself “aggressively” to freedom of speech and expression.

People outside the sector would have found it “very hard to understand” why, in the 2017 debates about gay marriage in Australia, “Monash and others came out in support of equal marriage, whereas Sydney says: ‘That’s not our job; our job is to be an arena for debate and ideas. If we take a position, we’re going to chill free speech.’”

But what might it mean in practice for universities to be much more upfront about where they stand?

“I’d love to see a university really champion environmental sustainability and make that its core societal mission,” Professor Grant told Times Higher Education. “It would shape how they operate, the curriculum they teach, the research they do. Then people who are passionate about reducing their carbon footprint will come to this university.”

Another possibility was a “Black Lives Matter university”, where the focus would be on “increasing participation from black and ethnic minorities. It could take on the decolonising curriculum agenda in a really radical way. The research agendas could be around equity and diversity. They could ensure that procurement lines favour businesses run by BAME proprietors. You could come up with quite a creative space for thinking through what that would look like.”

Similarly, Professor Grant “would have no objection” to a British university declaring that it has “a long-held view that a republic is the right constitutional outcome for the UK”. He would even have been “very comfortable” with a university adopting the position during the Brexit debate – after intensive discussion with stakeholders, including those representing local communities – that “the country would be better off outside the European Union”.

If universities nailed their colours to the mast in this way, Professor Grant suggested, “that would be much healthier because you’d have more diversity in educational institutions and probably a more honest public discourse on both sides”.


Print headline: Take a stand, says professor

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