Now, more than ever before, higher education institutions globally have to practise good citizenship and social responsibility, and promote civic engagement and partnership to counter the effects of COVID-19 on communities and institutions. This was the conclusion reached at the Talloires Network of Leaders Conference 2021 (TNLC 2021) co-hosted virtually by Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life and the Harvard Kennedy School's Institute of Politics.
Stellenbosch University (SU) proudly served as a satellite host campus for the event and joined 418 other higher education institutions from 78 countries for the four-day conference themed “Global universities, local impact: Power and responsibility of engaged universities". In particular, participants examined higher education's responsibilities to encourage COVID-19 recovery and help resolve the societal problems amplified by the pandemic.
All persons on this planet should be active citizens, working together to improve the well-being of all, said Dr Lawrence (Larry) Bacow, president of Harvard University, during the opening ceremony. With COVID-19 having exposed and exacerbated socioeconomic inequality and pushed another approximately 120 million people into extreme poverty in 2020 alone, higher education institutions need to act to make a tangible difference, and not wait for others to bring about change, Bacow added.
SU's Prof Nico Koopman, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Social Impact, Transformation and Personnel; Dr Leslie van Rooi, senior director of Social Impact and Transformation Division, and third-year medical student Marc Nathanson each moderated an interactive session with academics and students during the event.
Koopman moderated the discussion on how institutions and their students could promote social engagement. The working group explored the future of learning, teaching and research, and how universities could actively connect academic interests to real-world issues in post-pandemic communities. In the session chaired by Dr Van Rooi, in turn, participants deliberated on ways to assess and measure universities' social engagement so as to constantly evaluate and improve their efforts. The group led by Nathanson discussed the effects of COVID-19 on students and communities, and how they had responded and adapted to the crisis.
A key theme emanating from all the discussions was that the global pandemic had revealed and compounded many other, underlying challenges, including inequities in access to health care and education, economic inequality, gender oppression, structural racism and climate change.
The conference culminated in the introduction of the 2021 Talloires Declaration (Boston) by two student leaders, Rowyn Naidoo from the University of Cape Town and Susan Azizi from the American University of Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan. Some of the major commitments in the declaration are to:
- promote human rights and further the free exchange of knowledge, ideas and practices;
- realise the potential of university-community engagement to improve research and teaching and to address societal challenges through collaborations that are adaptable, respond quickly to emerging social issues, and encourage the co-generation of knowledge;
- embrace differences as an essential ingredient of productive collaboration;
- develop the next generation of active citizens to address global challenges;
- create socially inclusive institutions and promote quality education for all;
- amplify the voices and lived experiences of all marginalised groups, including women, refugees, indigenous peoples, children, people with disabilities, and the elderly; and
- declare climate justice an urgent priority and mitigate harmful carbon emissions.
* The Talloires Network of Engaged Universities is an international association of socially responsible higher education institutions. The network hosts conferences, produces publications on university civic engagement, provides financial and technical support to regional university networks, and awards the annual MacJannet prize for deserving student civic engagement initiatives.