Universities as truth-seeking institutions - Blueboard by Anne Lan K. Candelaria, PhD

October 30, 2019

In this age of post-truth, institutional autonomy is the most valuable attribute that universities vigorously defend.  We see more and more cases around the world of how governments have directly and indirectly challenged academic freedom. From the dwindling support of politically sensitive research projects to the closing down of universities altogether, these threats make higher education’s responsibility to engage with and for society more difficult than ever.

Academic freedom was a response to the encroachment of the totalitarian state on the academia in the early 20th century.  It was during this time that scientific research was brought under strict control and that science was the furtherance of the state’s interests rather than society’s. In most democracies today, academic freedom is embedded in a state’s legal system. In the Philippines, Article XIV of the 1987 Constitution guarantees academic freedom. However, it falls short in providing a definition of what this means, deferring to the institutional autonomy of universities to determine what it encompasses.
When a university can determine for itself on academic grounds who may teach, what may be taught, how it should be taught, and who may be admitted to study, it is inevitable for intellectual diversity to thrive.  The university, after all, is an arena where both students and faculty are encouraged to test each other’s intellectual and cultural traditions through reasoned criticism. Theoretical boundaries are blurred, assumptions are tested, principles shift – all in light of the pursuit of truth and the discovery of new knowledge through scholarship and research.

Freedom of inquiry is essential to the mission of the university as well as a vital organ that keeps its intellectual community alive. As a value therefore, it must also be nurtured from within – in the classrooms, the laboratories, during committee meetings, in co-curricular activities, and in writing papers to name a few.  After all, the independence it demands from the dominant institutions of its society must be balanced with the same of its faculty, students, and other members of its community.
University leadership in unforgiving times

Today more than ever, the university exists in multiple sites and contexts – owing largely to globalization. Its effect in higher education is profound, particularly in a region such as Asia where universities are hugely diverse and unequal in terms of reputation and resources. Commercialization, privatization and massification amplified more inequalities - poor countries and populations pay more for inferior quality higher education. The response of universities to internationalize its students, faculty, and curricula have placed tremendous strain on leaders and leadership.
Perhaps globalization’s most overwhelming yet inconspicuous effect was to limit the ability of higher education leaders to freely determine the direction of the university, outside of neo-liberalist influence.  One the one hand, universities are asked to innovate and transform themselves so that they can be ‘different’. On the other hand, there is an awareness that the yardstick used to measure them employ standards that are foreign in context and origin – an example of which is the world university rankings.
These are also unforgiving times as evidenced in the increase of public discontent and the rejection of state institutions as main site of politics.  This resulted in building political communities elsewhere, particularly online. Ironically, the disillusionment and disengagement with institutional politics, called ‘anti-politics’ – a concept introduced by political scientist Gerry Stoker in 2006 – has now spilled over inside university walls.  As the university became bigger, more international, and diverse, its bureaucracy became more complex and multi-layered.  This resulted in a ‘democracy gap’ where the relationship between its leaders and the larger university community became increasingly cautious and guided by operations manuals rather than reasonableness.
Therefore, the tall order of universities to remain steadfast to its mission as a truth-seeking institution amidst these discord must be complemented by a kind of leadership that can navigate these unforgiving times. An excellent leader is one who can understand, respond, influence and strategically engage the university’s several contexts and sites. A leader in higher education is also a meaning-maker who is able to gather the courage to overcome the very complex context by weaving a collective story of empowerment.  In other words, universities need leaders who have the courage to overcome context, set directions, take strategic risks, and empower people in the process.
John Dewey said that the shoe maker knows how to make a shoe, but it is the public who knows where the shoe pinches. In this age of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity, the need for university leaders to review their leadership is a necessity. Otherwise, they will continue to create policies that ‘pinches’ – irrelevant and unnecessary.
That the struggle of re-discovering a leader’s purpose is real. It is as real as the struggle to re-ascertain a university’s soul in this unforgiving times. Sadly, these are rarely part of the conversations in higher education. And in those occasional times that these get to the discussion table, most apologize for doing so – as if the examination of identity and purpose has no place in the ‘modern’ university.
Academic freedom unfortunately brings more friction than clarity in this era of populism, the retreat of democracy, and globalization. It must have patience to look inward and reflect on its own history, place, and narrative as a university and as a learning community. At the end of the day, the main business of all universities is learning. Everything that it does – teaching, mentoring, research, community service, quality assurance, and others – must result in an education process that will enable its students to engage critically and live a full life.
Anne Lan K. Candelaria, PhD is currently the Associate Dean for Graduate Programs of the Ateneo de Manila University - Loyola Schools. She is also a faculty member of the Department of Political Science.