University life is charmed, but also challenging. It is a privilege to teach talented young people, pursue cutting-edge research and contribute to the governance of postsecondary institutions. Yet university actors are also called upon to fulfill another duty – namely, to remain firmly committed to the long-standing academic ideals of postsecondary education while engaging meaningfully with ever-changing social norms and realities.
In responding to this obligation, universities understandably focus their efforts and energies on their core academic activities: research and teaching. We presume that innovative science, coupled with inspiring pedagogy, create prime conditions for academic success.
Yet, as universities ready their chief constituents – students – to face the world and lead our complex societies, three basic principles merit foregrounding. While these principles are relevant to many institutions, they are especially crucial within higher education. I label these the “three Rs.” While rudimentary, I see them as foundational to success in postsecondary settings.
Respect. University discourse has become filled with big, impressive nouns. Words like oppression, supremacy, dominance, hegemony, subjugation, violence, resilience and resistance course through everyday conversations on campus. This language has its place, but it is dramatic, and its pervasive use might polarize and halt conversations, the opposite of what should occur in a university.
At the root of most claims to deploy this vocabulary is a call for respect for ideas and identities in all their diverse forms. That is entirely valid, and a focus on respect should resonate with every member of the campus community.
So, when campus debates emerge over delicate, divisive topics – such as hosting controversial speakers, use of preferred pronouns, space for religious observances – we might ask: what does respect call for in this situation? Working through this question may require more time and effort than turning to a rule or policy, but it can yield more nuanced and inclusive answers.
Relationships. The individualism that marks North America’s dominant culture and ethos is often lamented, and can be especially prob-lematic for young people, who operate often via social media and virtual connections. For them, isolation – not just individualism – presents a real risk. We are also increasingly aware of the mental health challenges that many university students encounter, especially when away from family and home for the first time.
No panacea exists to address these intricate challenges. Yet a key step toward improvement seems to lie in recognizing that human conn-ections, community and relationships – real, as opposed to virtual – are vital to our success and well-being.
All campus actors can take steps to cultivate spaces and activities that foster exchange, mentorship and shared learning. These might be inspired by models like the public square, town hall, or local community centre – all spaces in which participants engage voluntarily, benefit personally, and contribute socially and intellectually. Creating such spaces for interaction and engagement on campuses might cultivate relationships and community, thus enhancing academic growth and reducing isolation.
Responsibility. This last principle is too often overlooked in favour of another “R” word that gets ample airtime: rights. Campus-based claims are often framed in language that presumes entitlements to do or have certain things.
Rights exist and merit protection. Yet responsibilities are rights’ corollary, and responsibilities are shared across the campus community. Specifically, an overarching commitment to responsibility on campus compels action and decision-making based on integrity and evidence over impression. It further calls for recognizing one’s own authority and power, and exercising this with accountability and fairness. Whereas a focus on rights permits us to tout our own interests first, prioritizing responsibility prompts us to consider our respective privileges and capacities to contribute to and enhance conditions conducive to the success of others.
The university of 2018 is a complex institution, tough to navigate and complicated to administer. The challenges our campuses encounter continue to grow in frequency, scope and intricacy. At the same time, the university remains bound to deliver its academic mission with intellectual rigour, openness and a commitment to the highest standard of integrity. In this context, recalling the basic but critical principles of the three Rs is essential.
Angela Campbell is the associate provost, equity and academic policies, at McGill University.