Focus core functions on democratisation, Rector says at Talloires Conference
By focusing their core academic functions – research; learning and teaching; as well as community interaction – on the challenges associated with the democratisation process, institutions of higher learning can provide hope of a better future for all.
This was the message of Prof Russel Botman, Rector and Vice-Chancellor of Stellenbosch University at the 2011 Talloires Network Leaders Conference that took place in Madrid, Spain at the Autonomous University of Madrid this week. Prof Botman delivered one of the main sub-theme addresses and talked about the role of universities in times of political transition, particularly in the context of democratisation, with a focus on the case of Stellenbosch University (Prof Botman’s speech.)
The Conference – themed Building the Engaged University, moving beyond the Ivory Tower – was attended by representatives of 230 countries from six continents. Vice-Chancellors and heads of divisions for community engagement at various South African universities attended the conference.
In his speech Prof Botman stated that democratisation poses “significant challenges to society”, both on the macro scale and at the level of particular tasks that need to be fulfilled. “Universities are well placed to assist with both. On the one hand, the oppressive system of the past and its legacy need to be dismantled and replaced with new values, and this includes an effort to repair the social fabric. And on the other, a critical commitment to democracy and human rights should be nurtured, and developmental needs should be attended to,” he said.
Prof Botman also said that universities are well placed to assist with the challenges of transition. “They can nurture a new critical commitment to democracy and human rights among their staff, students, partners and members of the broader community that they engage with on an ongoing basis. By doing so, they can develop people that will stand up for justice and truth in society. This function would play itself out on the macro level. Universities can also concern themselves with the particular developmental needs of society. They can get involved in activities that will ensure service delivery to the poorest of the poor in society.”
In referring to Stellenbosch University, Prof Botman said that the institution’s Strategic Framework for the Turn of the Century and Beyond, an important policy statement, signalled a new direction in which “[t]he University acknowledges its contribution to the injustices of the past… and commits itself to appropriate redress and development initiatives”.
“When I was appointed Rector and Vice-Chancellor in December 2006, I dedicated my term of office to the tangible realisation of this commitment. In my installation address, I pointed out that the University faced the challenge of ‘relevance’. We would have to find a way to move from ‘success’ to ‘significance’. I proposed that we follow a ‘pedagogy of hope’ at Stellenbosch. I felt that by infusing our work as a university with this kind of hope, we would be able to become not only ‘significantly different’ from our past, but also ‘significantly better’ for the future – in terms of our excellence and commitment to the people of our country and continent.”
Prof Botman related how he and colleagues distilled five themes from the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) – fighting endemic poverty and related conditions; promoting human dignity and health; consolidating democracy and human rights; deepening peace and security; and balancing a sustainable environment with a competitive industry.
“The next step was to galvanise academic and support staff around these themes. The University community responded with enthusiasm, and proposals based on existing expertise and programmes streamed in. A committee sifted through them, and by 2008 we had a solid batch of 21 strategic hope-generating initiatives. The list has grown since then; we now have almost 30 initiatives resorting under the HOPE Project, which was publicly launched on 21 July 2010.”
With regard to community interaction Prof Botman said that process of transforming community service at SU into community interaction, and elevating it to the level of a core academic function of the institution alongside research as well as learning and teaching started in 2003.
“Community interaction exists to nurture and manage partnerships with communities. This facilitates cooperation between communities and the University. And it provides the means whereby both parties can actively and in partnership discover knowledge and teach and learn from each other. Community interaction contributes to an environment where student learning is enriched and research relevance is enhanced. It supports SU’s institutional commitments to reciprocity, redress, development and transformation.”
Prof Botman said that SU is considered a leader in the field of civic engagement because of the extent to which community interaction has been institutionalised. “It forms an integral part of governance structures, budget lines, academic work and student activities at the University.”
In conclusion Prof Botman said that what Stellenbosch University has managed to do with its HOPE Project, “is to make community interaction fully part of its higher education mandate, which is to generate, share and apply reliable, scientific knowledge to the benefit of the community. By doing this in collaboration with community partners, the emphasis shifts from charity-like community service to a collaborative search for answers and solutions to life’s challenges.”