Leiden International Studies Blog

What role should universities play in society? In politics?

What role should universities play in society? In politics?

University Social Responsibility is a recent concept. We know about Corporate Social Responsibility as an attempt to take the hard edges off free market capitalism, but USR?

Initially supported by the EU, it proposes “universities should go beyond the core functions of teaching, research, and service and voluntarily act beyond legal requirements to promote the public good and environmental sustainability” (Lo, Pang, Egri, & Li 2017).

In recent years this has led to the drafting of ‘benchmark standards’ for assessing progress based on a set of criteria: research and teaching, public engagement, governance, sustainability, and fair practices. This is not only a way to inspire institutional reform (see the EU-USR project at www.eu-usr.eu) but also to enable student empowerment as a central part of the process (see the European Students Sustainability Auditing project at www.essaproject.eu). After all, universities are not simply academics and administrators. There is now a USR network involving nineteen universities spread across the globe (none in the Netherlands, two in the UK), but with the head office based at Hong Kong Polytechnic and a strong Chinese presence it could be that the network’s approach is no longer independent.

Much of what USR is about is local – strengthening the ties between the university and the town/city where it is located. There are now several projects running at Campus The Hague that unite Leiden University with institutions and neighbourhoods across the city, bringing the expertise and civic engagement of staff and students into contact with those in the wider community. Our colleagues at Urban Studies are naturally part of those initiatives and we also know of students from our own International Studies community who have been involved in local projects.

But there is, of course, a whole global dimension to this that needs addressing as well. If universities want to promote ethical standards and “improve the relevance of higher education in society” then issues of relevance need to be addressed, be they local or global. USR doesn’t end at the suburb’s edge. But how far does ‘social responsibility’ go if one includes solidarity with the emancipatory causes of others, the fights for democracy and against inequality and oppression? What is USR in relation to Ukraine, or Xinjiang, or Palestine? Or ongoing debates about the legacies of slavery? If Corporate Social Responsibility is related to business activity everywhere, then USR is surely also an ambition wider than simply the immediate neighbourhood?

This is where it would be good to engage with the intentions of USR to clarify how (our) university, as a site not only of research and education but also ethical standards, can reflect on its role as a global actor. USR is not mentioned in the new University Strategic Plan, so there is space here for some blue sky thinking.

In terms of sustainability, there have been strong moves to pressure the University of Amsterdam to withdraw from fossil fuel-related investments, led by the UvA Fossielvrij platform. Should this not be a standard approach? What is the Leiden position on this initiative? “As the BA International Studies (IS) focuses on identifying global and local actors and tries to highlight the interconnected processes in this world, bringing more environmental topics to IS would provide an even better understanding of dynamics in the current world.” This was written by two of our own students in their report “A Demand for Sustainability among Students” from March 2021, and they are right (we have created our new Minor as a first step, and have Environment and Society as a key theme when deciding on the choice of Thematic Seminars).

And then ethics. We are now faced with the unprecedented catastrophe of the Russian attack on Ukraine and there have been many excellent grassroots initiatives to bring support and aid to those suffering the consequences. But institutionally we are seeing a patchwork of opinion, some programmes voicing the wish to cut off connections with Russian universities, to the point of making Russian students currently in Leiden unwelcome, while at the same time there are initiatives to help students from the region who are affected by the war, regardless of their nationality. On the other hand, there have been instances of provocative behaviour in Leiden that has crossed the line of academic freedom to advocate for the war. But there are many other instances of long-running violence and oppression in the world that also deserve attention. Academic freedom requires mutual respect from all sides, and must not be reduced to an identity politics that closes out participants simply because of where they come from. At our International Studies meet-up on 2 March, one of our students commented that it would be helpful to have some insight from the university on where it stands on issues of concern such as this. Some kind of an ethical code, or guidance. That student raised an important issue. USR can be a means to address it. Let's begin the discussion.