Bloom Blog

Insights from Michael Bloomfield, Founder and Executive Director of the Harmony Foundation

Whose Universities Are They?

In practical terms, the value and success of our universities should be measured by relevance to the lives of the people and communities meant to be served. This is not an argument for more courses on golf management or The Beatles, but the full benefit from a university can be obtained only if the university and society are closely linked together. In other words, the needs of society have to be at the center of a university’s goals and activities.

How are we doing? It is a commonly held view that rather than serving society, our universities are self-validating circles of elitism and privilege drawing heavily on public resources to perpetuate themselves and to support their corporate and political benefactors. Every student you meet today, rich or poor or in-between, seems to graduate with a mountain of debt and worries.  Government support has declined appreciably; universities favour researchers who attract grants over teachers who turn out well-informed young adults ready and able to contribute, not only professionally, but as members of society.

Surely society needs well-trained experts, but perhaps more importantly society needs knowledgeable and competent citizens to fulfill a variety of roles including participation in maintaining a vibrant democracy, economy and society.  Success depends on teachers who push the boundaries of thinking so that their students can respond to the challenges and opportunities of our time. Why then are universities increasingly turning out highly specialized workers to fulfill very specific roles in society, with the primary objective of enhancing economic growth? Despite all of the rhetoric about multi-disciplinary education and breaking down the silos, our universities continue to promote specialization and under-value the comprehensive learning and thinking needed to address the complex challenges of our world. Worse still, a society increasingly pre-occupied, indeed obsessed with, economic growth is ill-prepared to address the myriad social, environmental and ethical problems facing us as a global civilization.

Universities and their researchers have always needed support from government or benevolent sponsors to realize their various projects. In more recent times it has become quite common for large corporations to fund research projects that relate directly to their corporate interests. This is very problematic and has been criticized widely by the academic community as well as public interest groups. The risks of interference and manipulation have been well documented. These concerns, however, have not stalled the process. Rather, corporate funding for research seems to be more prevalent in the universities today than ever before. Add in corporate brand promotion directly to students and the line clearly has been crossed from philanthropy to influence peddling.

Arguably there are pros and cons to corporate involvement with public universities. Some collaborations may be more fruitful than others. If the money is well spent and the work is meaningful and objectively reviewed, then okay. But when corporations tie their money to certain research goals and projects and even dominate the outcome and findings, intellectual freedom and critical analysis is compromised, and questions are raised about whether or not our universities remain objective sources of new knowledge and ideas.

Society needs academics to critically reflect on and provide solutions for social, economic, political and environmental problems in the world. Just as the problems of the world are interconnected, the analysis and solutions that universities provide should bridge a wide array of disciplines and discourage narrow disciplinary approaches. The traditional division of various research streams into departments and faculties may reflect the organizational needs of university directors and administrators. These artificial divisions are, however, counterproductive in producing citizens and solutions that can most effectively address the complexities of global issues.

To this end the university also needs to strengthen connections with communities and their residents based on mutual respect and common purpose. The practice of the university as an “ivory tower,” which still taints our universities, needs to be reformed. We must not allow elitism to govern their purpose or practices. Universities need to better reflect the democratic principles upon which our society is founded and ensure accessibility for people from all walks of life and the communities they serve. The universities would be enriched if they recognized that many “others” possess valuable knowledge and expertise that could contribute to the work and teaching done at universities.

Our generation and those to follow face some monumental challenges. Climate change, poverty and homelessness, the decline of marine and terrestrial environments, lack of clean water, deforestation and decreasing bio-diversity, discrimination, hatred and weapons of mass destruction are but a few. If we can find billions for the Olympic Games and to subsidize the hugely profitable oil and gas industry and the weapons race, surely we can find the money to provide accessible, quality education for all citizens, without regard to social or economic status. The benefits to society will be enormous. That is, if we want well-informed, well-rounded students able to think critically, participate actively in our democracy and contribute to finding solutions for the many problems our world faces.

Recommended further readings

Arthur, James and Bohlin, Karen (eds.): Citizenship and Higher Education The Role of Universities in Communities and Society. UK: Routledge

Brightman, H. J. and Gutmore. D. (2002): The Educational-Industrial Complex. In: Educational Forum 66(4):302-308

Kaplan, G. R. (1996): Profits R Us: Notes on the Commercialization of America’s Schools. In: Phi Delta Kappan 78(3):K1-K12

Molnar, A. (2003-2004): Cashing In On the Classroom. In: Educational Leadership 61(4):79-84


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This entry was posted on September 14, 2010 by in Ethics, Ecology, Sustainable Development Series.
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