Rallying cry for HE as an agent of societal well-being
The Magna Charta Universitatum 2020 (or MCU 2020) was first signed earlier this week under drastically different circumstances than before the original MCU document was signed in Bologna, Italy, in 1988.
It was a virtual event, whereas the previous occasion, in Piazza Maggiore of the old town, – “four years before the definitive abolition of the borders between the countries of the European Community” as the preamble of the document noted – was attended in person by hundreds of academic leaders and officials from across Europe and other parts of the world, representing government, church and industry.
Despite being written in Latin and by this means suggesting the timeless value of its statements, the 1988 document was very much about the role of universities in history.
It was born not only from the currents that led to the Maastricht Treaty in 1993, but also from a growing global dialogue on the relations between universities and society.
This was the theme of the Bologna conference in 1988, when the University of Bologna celebrated its 900th anniversary by focusing on the political function of the institution – its role in the training of the intellectual cadres who under- tend society. It was on this platform that the MCU was launched.
Two years earlier, the European rectors had started to talk about the advisability of a transatlantic dialogue with the American and Canadian institutions; similar discussions had taken place with Latin American rectors; and communications had been opened with universities in China.
This is the ferment behind the reference in the MCU to “a changing and increasingly international society” and its first and fourth principles: the first noting that “the university is an autonomous institution at the heart of differently organized societies due to geography. and historical heritage ”; the latter affirming “the vital need for different cultures to know and influence each other”.
However, in 1988 the university was also declared a “repository of the European humanist tradition”, suggesting less tolerance for cultural differences that other parts of the document might imply.
While this observation seems to lead to a significant retraction – it implies that “universal knowledge” must be equated with European knowledge – it is difficult to explain why, in the meantime, institutions from all parts of the world have come forward. the anniversary conference in order to sign the MCU, and embraced its values.
I, for example, signed the original document on behalf of two separate North American universities, neither of which considered European roots and the orientation of the document to be exclusive.
The explanation is not that non-European academics are truly European without knowing it, but that the principles of the MCU are compelling in that religious principles, for example, are sometimes felt to be true, even by non-believers. . The conception of the university as an agent of human and societal well-being included in this document is functionally translatable from one culture to another.
For nations and communities to prosper, they do require places of learning and discovery where the pursuit and dissemination of knowledge are protected from interference and control, where teaching and research are mutually pursued, and where diverse opinions are brought together in respectful debate.
The global academy
The 2020 MCU doesn’t take anything away from the 1988 statement, but it addresses the “world academy” where the previous document focused on Europe; and it uses a discourse that is more descriptive than prescriptive, more engaged in history than in theory.
As in 1988, MCU 2020 begins by taking note of far-reaching changes – across the world, this time, rather than just Europe – that are transforming and are both being driven by universities. There is no Latin version, because the purpose of the document is not to declare that universities appropriate timeless prerogatives, but rather to talk about what to do with them, or what is already. done with them.
“Intellectual and moral autonomy”, for example, “is the hallmark of any university”, but it is also “a prerequisite for fulfilling its responsibilities to society”.
In this sentence is captured the passage from 1988 to 2020. These characteristics of the universities that the original MCU was written to uplift and codify are now taken for granted in a document that systematically focuses on the responsibilities of institutions to civil society. , to the life of the spirit, to ethical research, to “global networks of scientific research and scholarship” and their “local communities and ecosystems”.
These are all directions of the college mission that were sketched out to some extent in 1988, and in this way MCU 2020 is clearly a continuation of the original document. What is new, however, and what justifies the efforts of the editorial team and justifies the celebrations underway this week, is that in the final paragraphs of the document comes a dismal plea for social justice.
We are told that “education is a human right, a public good and should be accessible to all”. Further, “universities recognize that individuals and communities, often due to unfair circumstances, have difficulty accessing higher education or influencing the modes and subjects of university study. To realize human potential everywhere, universities are deliberately looking for ways to welcome and engage with diverse voices and perspectives ”.
COVID-19 has delayed the release of this document which broadens and expands the vision of an inclusive and diverse global academy that the original Magna Charta Universitatum envisioned. While it would obviously have been better to launch it by summoning the world to Piazza Maggiore again, as in 1988, the need to reaffirm this vision and build it could not wait.
Patrick Deane is Director and Vice-Chancellor of Queen’s University in Kingston, Canada, and Chairman of the Board of Directors of Magna Charta Observatory. He was a member of the MCU 2020 writing team.