Transforming our universities into democratic civic institutions will help all South Africans — Ira Harkavy

Published On: 13 October 2021|

The largest higher education conference in South Africa’s history, presented last week by Universities South Africa (USAf) partnering with the Council on Higher Education (CHE), featured four international speakers who spoke on various aspects of the conference’s theme, The Engaged University on the first day of the event, October 6.

The first was Professor Ira Harkavy (right), Associate Vice President and Founding Director of the Netter Center for Community Partnerships at the University of Pennsylvania in the United States, who spoke on The Engaged Democratic Civic University. His other leadership positions include being Chair of the International Consortium for Higher Education, Civic Responsibility, and Democracy. The most recent book he has co-authored and co-edited is Higher Education’s Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic: Building a More Sustainable and Democratic Future, published this year by the Council of Europe.

The tenets of a democratic civic university

A democratic civic university focuses on democracy as the core purpose of the institute. Creating such a university involves partnerships with community, working with them, and implementing a curriculum focusing on community problems.

This type of university, said Harkavy, focuses on “the democratic purpose of educating ethically, engaged, empathetic, democratic citizens; and producing knowledge to improve the world”.

He said it’s about sharing and having an understanding of co-creation, where the idea of experts is not restricted to those in an academy. It’s about “a notion that our neighbours, and the people we work with, are not a means to an end, not a means to a grant, but ends in and of themselves”.

And it is not just about changing the community and improving the quality of life in the environment. Creating a democratic civic university is a mutual transformation that involves transforming and changing the university too.

How the Netter Centre at the University of Pennsylvania does it

The Netter Centre is working towards these ideals in three primary ways:

  • academically-based community service;
  • university-assisted community schools; and
  • a democratic anchor institution strategy.

The community service involves courses – integral to the curriculum in that the students gain credits for them – in about 30 departments and programmes ranging from linguistics to music, physics to philosophy. These courses work towards solving problems of the community. An example would be a course on improving nutrition that involves developing a health center with the medical school, nursing school, dental school and the community. In this way physicians, nurses, social workers and dentists learn in real life through engagement.

The community schools are based on the idea that schools are hubs in neighborhoods, open for extended hours, and serve the entire community – from children through to adults – with a curriculum that focuses on problem solving, and the university being the core partner. “We bring approximately 3800 students to eight or nine schools in West Philadelphia …. and these two approaches are part of a larger conceptualisation called a democratic anchor institution,” he said. The Netter Centre working on community development helps advance the University of Pennsylvania’s role as an anchor institution.

“If we’re going to produce a change, deal with the issues of social justice, change our societies for the better and have higher education realising the significance, the entire institution comprehensively needs to be engaged with the community,” said Professor Harkavy.

The economic, academic and co-curricular aspects of the institution are brought together in local partnerships so that the impacts are optimal and maximal, not only on the community, but also on the institution. This makes the institution come alive, he said.

The way ahead involves three steps

Harkavy advocates engaging “in a searching critique of what we’re doing, to understand that we have to rethink, reimagine and redo”. Every school and college needs to ask the question: How can we link our academic work to improving the quality of life in the environment the university is part of?

The second step is the Noah principle, as in the Biblical Noah. Universities should not only be putting in their own resources, but should be rewarded — based on a Noah principle, said Professor Harkavy.

“There should be no more prizes for predicting rain, for describing problems, and saying this will happen. Prizes only for building the odds, for being engaged, for learning from the ground, from doing and trying to produce change … and implementation related to academic work to improve the setting,” he said.

The third step he proposes is the necessity to engage in a global movement, “because these are global problems, but also because we need a global movement. This is not rocket science; it’s harder than rocket science. We need to learn and work together with our communities and do this on a global basis,” he said.

One example of such an international cooperation, and there are quite a few in the sector, is the Democratic Mission of Higher Education, which was established in 2021. It engages all the countries of the Council of Europe, the International Consortium for Higher Education, Civic Responsibility, and Democracy – which Harkavy chairs. There is also the Organisation of American States, and the International Association of Universities, of which USAf was one of its initial members and its CEO, Professor Ahmed Bawa, a key player.

Democracy must begin at home

Professor Harkavy concluded his presentation by quoting the philosopher and educator, John Dewey, who said: “Democracy must begin at home, and its home is the neighbourly community”. Harkavy adapted this to: “Democracy must begin at home, and its home is the neighbourly democratic civic university and its local community partners”. He said he would argue that is necessary to create the democratic civic university to deal with the severe problems we face. In fact, it is necessary to realise the democratic promise of societies all over the world.

“And if I could be so bold, let me say that creating the democratic civic university will help South Africa, I believe, to realise the extraordinary democratic promise for each and every South African,” said Professor Harkavy.

Q&A: An edited version of the conversation between professors Ira Harkavy and Mamokgethi Phakeng

The session’s chair, Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cape Town, probed Professor Harkavy’s ideas further when she asked him: “Do you think the university is complicit in the big challenges that we have in the world today? Or is it innocence?”

Harkavy responded: “I couldn’t agree more. I think that universities, in a variety of ways, contribute significantly to the dramatic inequalities we face.

“What is the lesson they’re teaching our undergraduate students, what are the values in their teaching?

“Universities are complicit because they have not made the issue of knowledge to improve the world a core focus. They are complicit because they do not take the issue of racism, of social justice and place it in the front. They’re not only complicit, but they are also shirking the core responsibility of being a responsible institution in societies. A core intellectual responsibility, too, because there would be much greater institutions, academically, if they did it.

Phakeng: “We can argue that they still continue to perpetuate racism in many respects?”

Harkavy: “Absolutely, absolutely.”

Phakeng: “Why should we trust universities? If we were called, as vice-chancellors of universities in the world, and young people said to us, ‘(we experienced) so much damage, in your hands’, what should we say?”

Harkavy: “Given that the influence of universities is so dramatic, and so significant, keeping things in the current status quo will only make things worse. If universities are turned in this direction, they can make a tremendous difference.

“I’m a product of the 1960s activism. And there was a debate in the ‘60s about whether you create alternative institutions or try to change large institutions. What I would say is, if you don’t change those large institutions, then poor, underrepresented minorities – black, Latinos and Native Americans in the United States – will be faced with second-rate institutions, because their main institutions and society will neglect them.

“So it is crucial that these institutions become engaged and provide, for our entire population, a first rate education for a democratic citizenship. Given our influence, and the necessity of making sure that we don’t perpetuate social injustice, it is crucial that we work with vice-chancellors like you to help produce change in the world, starting with changing universities.”

Wrapping up this session, Phakeng said Harkavy was the calibre of person she wished to engage some more, over lunch – an offer that Harkavy responded he would happily take her up on.

This conference, attended by 2000 delegates, mainly academia and bureaucrats from South Africa but also from the African continent and elsewhere in the world, was broadcast from the University of Pretoria’s Future Africa Conference Centre. Universities South Africa is the representative association of South Africa’s 26 public universities. The Council on Higher Education, the co-host, is an independent statutory body established to advise the Minister of Higher Education and Training on any aspect of higher education at the request of the Minister. The CHE is responsible for quality assurance in Higher Education. Both USAf and the CHE promote students’ access to higher education institutions.

Gillian Anstey is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.