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[USR Summit 2022 Post-Event Highlights] Recognising and embracing diversity to build trust, empathy and solidarity for a sustainable world

(Presented by President Joy Johnson, President and Vice-chancellor, Simon Fraser University at the International USR Summit 2022)

Numerous existential threats are challenging the world, from pandemic, climate emergency, to growing economic inequality and the rise of reactionary politics. Reinvigorating university capacity through embracing diversity and strengthening collaboration pins the hope of university leaders in an international summit to lead to effective collective power to confront and overcome these enormous challenges.

The International USR Summit 2022, co-organised by the University Social Responsibility Network (USRN) and The Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU), was held virtually from 16 to 18 November 2022 with a theme of “Education and Action for a Sustainable Future”.

In the keynote presentation entitled “How Universities Can – and Must – Change to Meet the Demands of a World in Flux”, Dr Joy Johnson, President and Vice-chancellor of Simon Fraser University (SFU) in Canada, believed that all of the universities worldwide must change despite differences amongst institutions to achieve the shared hope for a more inclusive and sustainable future.

“These differences are in fact a source of strength as we come together to advance our shared goals for a more sustainable future. When we acknowledge our difference, embrace our difference – different ways of knowing, different ways of teaching and learning – universities can together help to extend the horizons of the possible on that journey,” she noted.

Dr Johnson spoke under the backdrop that Canada had a traumatic history of failing indigenous people by colonial practices and racism, contributing to a disproportionate rate of poverty, low post-secondary education rates and low participation in the labour market and the economy in the indigenous population. She recalled that the SFU community had worked tirelessly to indigenise the curriculum, building pathways to success for indigenous learners and bringing to a meaningful and lasting reconciliation.

“When thinking about universities and the need to change to meet the demands of a world, it’s clear we must reflect the diversity in the communities that we serve.” She emphasised that universities must be deliberate about achieving that goal. “This is a necessary condition for universities to have a meaningful impact and create a more sustainable future,” she said.

She described pandemics and climate crises as the most pressing challenges nowadays that transcend borders and boundaries. To solve these challenges, academics, researchers and community members in every country have to collaborate, share knowledge and build on each other’s strengths.

“However, we live in an increasingly polarised and destabilised world. Global politics are complicated and always shift,” she shared, “I’m worried about how this, how social media affects our ability to have productive dialogue for those who share different viewpoints from us.”

She noted that globalisation is wiping out differences. At the same time, people are stuck in the echo chamber and in a mode where they want to only listen to people who agree with them. Universities need to find a way to become public squares, a place where different ideas can be brought together and civil dialogue can take place.

Dr Johnson, who described herself not a fan of rankings, also advised universities to have an increased focus on building partnerships and collaboration, instead of competing with one another for rankings and prestige. Although universities should still focus on excellent research as the foundation for new knowledge, they should not sacrifice the educational mission. “We face common issues across very different cultures and political landscapes. We have to marshal our differences in service of effective collective action to solve these challenges,” she said.

“We aren’t walking away from the enduring purpose of higher education. We are reinvigorating that purpose for a new era.” She quoted an example of SFU leading a partnership of universities in a philosophy project and commented, “Universities are meant to advance and expand our understanding of what it means to be human.”

“Bringing indigenous ways of knowing and being into the classroom, embracing creative or unconventional forms of scholarship, breaking outside the canon to ensure that our students encounter a multiplicity of perspectives during their time at university is important,” she reminded, “and again, all of these takes time and effort.”

“Incorporating difference into the academic canon reinvigorates our academic mission. It also reinvigorates our capacity to affect change, not as disengaged witnesses to history, but as activist participants. We have a role to shape history,” explained Dr Johnson who regarded this as what USRN is all about.

According to Dr Johnson, we are facing a very challenging moment in our history marked by extreme inequality, the rise of reactionary politics and existential threats like climate change. “Universities can, and I totally believe we must, be the engines for expanding the economic and democratic franchise to more people in more places,” she said. She reminded that SFU was known as a radical campus and is now an engaged university that works to cross the bridge from campus to community.

She quoted some examples of universities in Canada and around the world that played a critical role in combating COVID-19, protecting public health and driving forward preparedness. While there was misinformation and conspiracy theories in the community, universities stood up for science and contributed to evidence-based public health decisions.  Universities are also leaders in the fight against climate change.

“We’ve been fearless in the pursuit of knowledge and ideas. We’ve been committed to better understanding human conditions in all of its diversity and complexity,” she praised the work of universities in the past, and reminded that these values are more important than ever at the current moment of tremendous polarisation and anxiety.

She said, “We can help to heal and repair a broken world. We can build trust, empathy, and solidarity, and we can expand the horizons of the possible and we can contribute to a better and more sustainable world.”

International USR Summit 2022 Keynote II: How Universities Can – and Must – Change to Meet the Demands of a World in Flux
by President Joy Johnson, Simon Fraser University

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