The dons of peace

March 6, 1998

As the threat of armed intervention in the Gulf grew and then receded last month, the continued need for disarmament and conflict-resolution education was highlighted at a conference in Cape Town.

Held by the International Association of University Presidents (IAUP) in conjunction with the United Nations, the patchily attended conference was intended to bring together 60 delegates from a couple of dozen countries with the ambitious theme "Institutions of Higher Education: Advancing the Cause of World Peace".

The conference was an exercise in academic exploration and networking rather than an attempt to develop a working programme. Delegates spoke repeatedly of the limited and individualistic nature of academia's interventions in the peace process.

Marc Cogen, of the University of Ghent, spoke about how academic institutions were encouraging talks and network groups between the privileged members of the European Union and countries knocking at the door, such as Turkey, Algeria and the other Afro-Mediterranean countries.

Such modest expectations of efficacy militate against enthusiasm. The problem, delegates admitted in private, is the lack of focus in the peace and disarmament movement with the receding threat of nuclear holocaust.

Strategies of conflict resolution and peace education as part of curriculum reform are not as motivating to university administrators as dealing with the realities of financial cuts everywhere.

It is not only a matter of swaying tertiary administrations. With students increasingly oriented towards vocational qualifications, the lack of immediate threat to the major western nations inhibits support and creates apathy. Speakers, especially from South America and Africa, repeatedly stressed developmental issues as part of the peace equation.

L. Eudora Pettigrew, president of the State University of New York at Old Wesbury, summed up the need for an overall vision that would mobilise not only academia, but every sector of society.

One of the South African delegates conceded the need for such a vision for an enabling developmental backdrop that ameliorates inequalities and economic disparities. But she doubted whether higher education institutions, given their reduced moral standing in many societies, could play much of a creative role.

The IAUP, with a membership of more than 700 chief executives from over 100 countries, is aware of the problem. The IAUP 12th Triennial, to be held in Brussels next year, has as its theme the touchstones of modern university culture worldwide, despite different situations: scientific competence, intellectual independence and cultural commitment.

With the bureaucrats of the European Union, the triennial will try to formulate proposals on issues such as the social responsibilities of universities, the link between education, research and business, and the building of social consensus and cohesion.

IAUP secretary-general elect Jef van der Perre, who is also general director of the Flemish Inter-University Council of Belgium, said that IAUP was "a proudly modest organisation", but it was imperative to the survival of universities that these "critical issues" of university education are again, in an era dominated by science and technology, placed on the agenda.

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