Transformation in times of crisis

A lifetime ago, in January of 2019, we opened our first Beyond the Academy workshop by envisioning future scenarios for higher education. We discussed threats such as declining public funding, rising student debt and income inequality, the increasing polarization of society, and eroding trust in science and the media. We did not discuss the potential impacts of a global pandemic. We did not discuss how universities should respond when racially-motivated violence and police brutality threaten our communities. 

Even without the disruption, death, and heartbreak of 2020 it was clear that higher education was in need of transformation. Scholarship on resilience suggests that times of crisis are also opportunities to shift the course of society towards more just and sustainable futures. Indeed, transformation is occurring at an unprecedented pace with an epidemic forcing ten years worth of change in a period of months followed by the largest collective demonstration of civil unrest in a generation.

Thus far, the work of Beyond the Academy has focused on three themes; 1. Reforming incentive structures, 2. Promoting co-development as a best practice, and 3. Preparing future leaders. Each of these reforms remain critical. University science is driving our response to the pandemic, illuminating the importance of a robust research and development sector. The lines dividing inside and outside the academy are blurring as students, faculty, and staff cannot easily turn away from the health and safety of our shared communities. Students seek educational experiences that are responsive to the issues of the day and that provide them with the skills needed to address complex social and environmental challenges.

And now new challenges have arisen, and part of the motivation for writing this post is to seek input from our network members about whether BTA should expand our mandate beyond our original three goals. How can we provide a platform to explore alternative paths, address hard truths, and reimagine the public service mission of the University? 

As with any initiative that seeks to change institutions, there is a fundamental tension between the need for radical transformation and the pragmatism of investing in incremental reforms. Instead of retrenchment and a retreat to the safety of the status quo, I would like to see more academic leaders lean-in to difficult conversations about the future of the academy. I’ll be proposing a few ideas on a future BTA call. In the interim, please submit your ideas if you have thoughts about how our network can rise to the challenges of these times – envisioning a world in which universities not only make good on their social contracts, but actively push society towards more just and sustainable futures.

From: Elmqvist, Thomas, et al. 2019. Sustainability and resilience for transformation in the urban century. Nature Sustainability 2.4: 267-273.

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