Shaun Stanley
Shaun Stanley

Some Remarks On A ‘Good’ University

Manzini reflected upon her recent experiences at her new institution. I won’t comment on most of those reflections, and would rather focus on her closing remarks. She asks, “Ultimately, on whose standards do we measure and determine whether a university is ‘good’ or not?” There are two implicit questions here. First, is there but one measurement to determine whether or not a university is good? Second, if so, who or what determines that standard?

I think the answer to the first question is “no”. There is not only one measurement to determine whether or not a university is good. Primarily this is because universities serve many distinct functions. So, whether or not a university is operating well is determined by multiple distinct measurements. And, of course, a university may be good in regards to one function, but not regarding another.

We may, with an eye on practicality, think of the university as serving four potentially distinct stakeholder-types. Students, academics, the public, and the economy. It ought to provide general skills (like advanced numeracy, literacy, problem solving and presentation skills) to students. We may also think that it ought to deepen student’s understanding of some (or many) areas of human inquiry. It ought to facilitate students’ intellectual and, perhaps, social development. To academics, it must provide resources with which to conduct advanced research in, ideally, all areas of human inquiry. It ought, also, to foster a healthy dissemination of that research to its students, through teaching. The public ought, moreover, to benefit from this research – either in terms of technological advancement, or some other measure of socio-cultural progress. It ought, also, to help develop students toward some or other profession, and should help to stimulate, rather than burden, the economy.

Such is the schema of a more practical approach to the question. Ideally, one would elaborate on each of these dimensions. But, this skeletal formulation will do for the point I want to make now. It is that there is something defective about Amartya Sen’s view as to the function of a university. The view that universities should help to develop critical thought, public debate, and engagement with marginalized knowledge is too narrow. By extension, then, Manzini is mistaken to take Sen as her model.

Suppose we accept that there are multiple distinct functions a university must serve. Who or what, then, determines the measures of functionality and dysfunctionality? Clearly there can be no single person, or entity, which determines each of these measures. As clearly, the different stakeholders should have primary input in determining these methods – students, academics, the public and the economy. Nation-wide surveys, academic colloquia, market analyses, and whatever else would be required to gauge the needs of the stakeholders, are costly and complex. But attempting to find out, from the appropriate sources, what is going right and wrong at our universities would be one way of making progress on this difficult question.

In partial summary, then, there are multiple measurements which determine whether or not a university is good. Moreover, the stakeholders should have primacy over our standards of functionality and dysfunctionality. That, of course, is not exactly a direct answer to Manzini’s questions. But, I think, were we to think about this issue in these terms we would make more practical progress.

On a related, but different, note Manzini remarks, “When looking at UniZulu’s first philosophy curricula, there certainly is no inclusion of subjugated knowledge in an extensive manner… Based on the definition by Sen, I could argue that none of these universities…met the authors functional requirement of what a [good] university is”.

It is true, she could argue for that, but why should she bother if the definition in question is a bad one? Universities don’t, or shouldn’t, answer to what one or another academic says. It should answer to all those who have invested in it.

In terms of philosophy curricula (and, it seems, other related curricula in the humanities and social sciences) we should ask two questions. First, what would most benefit the students? Second, how can our academic insights better be disseminated to our student?

If learning about subjugated knowledges would be beneficial, then, and for that reason, that should be included in our curricula. And perhaps that would be enough motivation for an academic to conduct advanced research in that area.

Then again, it seems to me that first-year students, in any discipline, could do with a more skills based approach to teaching – what with many lacking basic numeracy and literacy skills, or basic knowledge about how to study, present arguments, and think carefully about the solutions to problems. If it turns out that first year students should rather be instructed in symbolic logic, say, and its application in structuring and evaluating arguments, and if this precludes (much more advanced concerns regarding) subjugated knowledges then, surely, so much the worse for subjugated knowledges. Transformation, decolonization, or, as I prefer, “educational justice”, cannot be about including modules for the sake of conformity with a certain (controversial) set of social theories (see post-colonial theory). It must be about doing right by our students. And it is not obvious that this requires much of what activists have so far suggested.

One need also wonder about the means by which academic research is conducted. Should universities, in accordance with the theories of questionable sociologists, place demands on the research programmes followed by academics – forcing them to pursue research on and teaching in so-called subjugated knowledges? Or should academics pursue such programmes if they think that doing so will solve certain sorts of significant problems? It seems the second option is better, and more in line with what academic research is about – it is about pushing the boundaries of human understanding, not about following the party-line of certain (again, questionable) sociologists.

To Manzini’s remarks that “When looking at UniZulu’s first philosophy curricula, there certainly is no inclusion of subjugated knowledge in an extensive manner…” one may ask, “so what?”. Determining what is beneficial for philosophy students, and determining how to conduct research the dissemination of which will be beneficial, is not something which can be legislated from on high.

My question, ‘so what?’, is not a rhetorical one: if it turns out that the appropriate reply is “then students aren’t benefitting as greatly as they might”, then that is a problem to take seriously. My point is that we should be guided by that principle, “to do right by students”, and not by adherence to the doctrines of some post-colonial theorists. A corollary is that one who does think that students would benefit more from exposure to such knowledges has to argue for that claim – it can’t be taken for granted. That is because these are controversial issues, whichever position one takes. As academics, we should be open to this controversy, and open to a dialogue about it, especially with the aim to discovering solutions to these controversies.

That, unfortunately, is not what has happened. Manzini is correct that conversations about transformation and decolonization have occurred most visibly at elite institutions, but the situation is worse than that. They are held in elitist (read: woke) corners of elitist universities, in which only a selection of views (read: doctrines) are considered as having any weight – in which having unique, or novel, opinions is discouraged or even disallowed. Manzini has suggested that these questions require greater interrogation. I agree, and I would suggest that we have a more open and honest view as to what interrogation means.




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