OR THE COMMON GOOD: Academic and administrative staff dedicated to capacity-building and civic engagements are more often than not motivated by their intrinsic values
RECENTLY I read a review of a book published in 2011 titled The Engaged University: International Perspectives On Civic Engagement (see David Watson, Robert Hollister, Susan E. Stroud, & Elizabeth Babcock, The Engaged University: International Perspectives On Civic Engagement, Routledge, New York).
The idea that universities ought to engage the community and contribute to helping solve issues of social equity, community engagement and capacity-building is not new.
However, the pressure we see for universities to perform against an arguably narrow set of metrics (Key Performance Indices, KPIs) which place emphasis on high impact journal publication and bringing in grant monies, for example, can often mean that issues of civic engagement, engaging capacity-building and addressing disadvantage can be crowded out from tertiary institutions in the race to build status in global rankings and increase KPIs.
Of course, it does not necessarily follow that crowding out will always take place or that aiming for KPIs as currently constituted necessarily entails an absolute diminution of a university’s ability to engage the poor and advance a genuinely civic agenda. However, universities pursuing capacity-building and deep civic engagement require a committed approach and we cannot simply rest on the assumption that it will just happen by itself.
In a recent column in the New Straits Times, the vice chancellor of Albukhary International University (AIU) argued that “we live in a ‘money-centric’ world” and that our current approach to education in many cases “motivate(s) the selfish aspect of a person instead of nurturing the selfless part” (see Tan Sri Dzulkifli Abdul Razak, Perspective: Focus On Learning, Not Earning, Learning Curve, Dec 16).
Nurturing a commitment to good values and selfless contribution to the common good is a critical part of what education ought to be about.
On my recent trip to Malaysia and Indonesia, I saw the results of commitment to social justice and inclusion. In a visit to AIU in Alor Star, Kedah, I met academic and administrative staff who did not see their positions as just another job. In formal and informal discussions I had with them, I witnessed a workforce that was committed to a mission of civic service and duty to the common good. I saw a higher education institution dedicated to the idea of service to the poor and a pledge to humanity.
I witnessed responsible teachers teaching students from all over the world and I talked with a university leadership that was explicitly and deeply committed to the idea of a university’s role in serving the public.
In West Sumatra, I visited Pesanteran/Pondok schools where researchers from Universitas Andalas were engaged, not simply in the process of research but also in helping these schools in fundamental ways to improve and advance their mission of service to the poor, marginalised and excluded.
What I observed was civic duty from the university researchers. From Kedah to the mountains of West Sumatra, there are academics whose work is not simply driven by KPIs or money, but whose effort is driven by passion and a genuine desire to address social justice.
The truth is there are many academics throughout the higher education sector who share these commitments and whose work is based on intrinsically held values of service and duties to justice.
In Deakin University and other universities in Australia, there are also correspondingly motivated individuals and, throughout Malaysia and Indonesia, I know of many academics and university administrators similarly inclined.
Scholars committed to capacity-building and civic engagements are more often than not motivated by their intrinsic values, faith or democratic commitments.
My trip to Kedah and West Sumatra re-energised my sense of the importance of educators working to advance social justice and educational inclusion.
These educators provide us with proof that universities and university scholars can be and often are civically engaged.
While I find books on this subject useful and informative, such as the one mentioned in the introduction to this article, what is more inspiring and deeply moving is seeing first-hand the good work of academics in real-life situations.
Their selfless values are truly inspiring and remind us that the “better angels of our nature” can still be drawn upon for the mission of higher education.
James Campbell New Straits Times Learning Curve 23 December 2012