Faces of 2021: who shaped the higher education headlines this year
Critical race theory – the academic investigation of the ways that long-standing policies and practices often have racially biased outcomes – became in 2021 a term that many Americans heard but too often failed, or simply refused, to understand.
That tragic absurdity was most clearly personalised by Nikole Hannah-Jones, the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter whose 1619 Project for The New York Times formed the curriculum embraced by many US schools to teach their students the fundamental role of slavery in their nation’s history.
Yet when the journalism school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill moved to hire her, conservative opponents of racial equality mobilised, leading UNC’s trustees to hold up the appointment. By the time that public pressure forced the trustees to relent, Ms Hannah-Jones had had enough.
She instead took a similar appointment at Howard University, one of the nation’s leading historically black institutions.
Source: HHU and University of Hamburg
Amrei Bahr, Kristin Eichhorn and Sebastian Kubon
When Germany’s education ministry made a cartoon to explain the country’s fixed-term contract act to academics, officials could not have dared to dream it would go viral on social media. But thanks to the savvy, Spartacus-like thinking of three mid-career academics, the cartoon’s protagonist, Hanna, has indeed become notorious.
The #IchBinHanna campaign of Amrei Bahr, Kristin Eichhorn and Sebastian Kubon has drawn out thousands of personal stories, demonstrating the impact of precarious careers on individual academics.
As a lightning rod for a long-running issue in German academia, it has become a reference point in political debates and legislative changes across the country. Since its inception in June, the hashtag has brought forth daily examples of an often abstract and systemic issue.
From the beginning, it also inspired complementary campaigns, such as #IchBinReyhan, which highlights how racism can exacerbate precarity.
Sexual misconduct remains a plague on campus life: to take the UK as an example, this year university rape culture was exposed on the Everyone’s Invited website, a spate of spikings in nightclubs sparked alarm, and Al Jazeera alleged that leading universities had failed to properly respond to reports of harassment from academic staff and students.
Anna Bull, lecturer in education and social justice at the University of York, has been leading the fightback. As co-founder and director of research at The 1752 Group, Dr Bull has been one of the strongest and most consistent voices against sexual misconduct in academia, while her research has made a substantial contribution to our understanding of the problem.
The 1752 Group’s latest contribution, in the wake of the Al Jazeera investigation, was an open letter signed by more than 100 academics and student survivors of sexual misconduct, calling for universities to overhaul the way they handle multiple sexual harassment complaints against the same perpetrator.
Source: University of Oxford
Many of the battles around Covid, misinformation and public health have been fought on social media and academics the world over have often played a vital role in calmly explaining the facts, sometimes against a torrent of falsehoods and, sadly, abuse.
This has arguably been most effective when experts have focused on particular issues, and this is how Trish Greenhalgh, professor of primary care health services at the University of Oxford, has risen to the fore.
Her continued campaigning on how masks are a vital weapon in our defence against the virus has been indispensable, and she has also been instrumental in using her platform to expose hypocrisy.
This culminated in her own personal tragedy of losing her mother, who died alone in hospital with Covid without family being able to visit, being mentioned at Prime Minister’s Questions during the row over whether government staff flouted rules by holding a Christmas party in Downing Street.
Source: Shawn Poynter/The New York Times/Redux/eyevine
In one of the more damaging intersections of its crusades against higher education and foreigners, the Trump administration brought criminal charges against 150 people in academia, mostly of Chinese heritage, on vague suspicions of espionage. But the career-destroying prosecutions consisted largely of selectively criminalising paperwork violations possibly hiding overlapping government-funded projects across international borders.
As the first such researcher to face trial, Anming Hu of the University of Tennessee-Knoxville cut a figure of dignified and stoic resistance. The nanotechnology expert patiently and politely asserted his innocence, up to and beyond the point where a federal judge threw out his case as baseless.
Unlike many who simply left their careers and the country – weakening US science and security rather than strengthening it – Dr Hu neared the end of the year respectfully waiting for Tennessee to give him back his job. Along the way, he helped higher education and wider US society see a human face behind a counterproductive exercise of authoritarian abuse.
UNSW Sydney science dean and former Science & Technology Australia president Emma Johnston has won plaudits for her marine research, her administration and especially her clear-spoken and warm-hearted advocacy for STEM – women in STEM in particular.
During Sydney’s 100-plus day lockdown this year, she delivered a different sort of service: reminding academics to take time to smell the roses or, in Professor Johnston’s case, the sea salt.
Professor Johnston’s beautifully framed and captioned pictures of Sydney’s coast, captured and tweeted during early morning strolls, reminded those in the depths of Covid cabin fever that there was a world out there. The rationale was partly to encourage students to engage with the public, but more to unite people with the environment.
“Much of our current climate and biodiversity crises have arisen because our increasingly urbanised populations have become disconnected with nature,” she said. “They do not see the changes or the destruction. Our health suffers, and the environment suffers from the absence of stewardship.”
Academic honours began to arrive for Katalin Karikó in 2021 for the science behind mRNA vaccines, which is widely expected to prove Nobel-worthy. But Dr Kariko’s pioneering work – used in both the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccines administered to hundreds of millions of people this year – was ignored for decades.
“I was working on this for 40 years and for those 40 years I did not get an award – I couldn’t even get a grant and several times I was terminated in my position and also demoted from my faculty position,” explained Dr Karikó last month.
Her belated recognition has also shone a light on whether America’s world-leading system may force out mavericks and game-changing scientists who lack the influential networks or slick self-promotion needed to ascend the scientific ladder.
After years of rejection, one of science’s most unfairly maligned outsiders is now getting the credit she deserves.
The UK’s increasingly bitter debate over academic freedom and diversity of opinion in universities has often crystallised, for better or worse, around one figure this year: Kathleen Stock, former professor of philosophy at the University of Sussex.
The gender-critical feminist’s argument that an individual cannot change their biological sex brought accusations of transphobia from some Sussex colleagues, while her defence of her position saw her lauded by others as a defender of academic freedom.
Professor Stock was awarded an OBE for services to higher education in January; published her book Material Girls: Why Reality Matters for Feminism in March; quit her Sussex post in October, prompting the universities minister to condemn the institution’s “toxic environment”; was announced among a clutch of big-name academics to join the new “free speech” University of Austin in November; then threw her weight behind the Westminster government’s legislation on campus free speech, saying it would have made her “detractors at Sussex” feel less “emboldened”.
Zaw Wai Soe
As the head of a prestigious medical university and chair of Myanmar’s rectors’ committee, Zaw Wai Soe played a central role in forging regional policy in response to the Covid crisis. Yet February’s military coup led to his taking to the streets in protest and turning down an offer from the new government to become deputy health minister.
The next month, Professor Zaw went into hiding and was appointed health and education minister in the oppositional National Unity Government, although this led him to be charged with treason.
He has since been closely involved in setting up underground “charity hospitals”, in houses, churches and even tents, despite the risk of violent raids from the military government. He has helped forge a united opposition by bringing together medical and educational institutions with leaders of different ethnic groups. And he has also been prominent in calling on international doctors and academics to join a global protest movement to bring peace and democracy back to Myanmar.
In the tense and often vicious debates about freedom of speech on campus, few people have taken such a consistent and principled line as Robert Zimmer, president of the University of Chicago from 2006 until this year.
It was Professor Zimmer who in 2014 set up the Committee on Freedom of Expression which issued a report laying out the so-called Chicago principles. These have been widely adopted by other institutions and helped shape much subsequent discussion. According to Professor Zimmer, universities should never be “a sanctuary for comfort”, and “experiencing the discomfort” of “having one’s assumptions challenged” was an “intrinsic part of an excellent education”.
Professor Zimmer, who took up a role as chancellor after surgery to remove a malignant brain tumour in May, is also credited with cementing Chicago’s position in the top 10 of global university rankings, deepening the institution’s engagement with the city’s deprived South Side, and leading a $5.4 billion (£4.1 billion) fundraising campaign.