Universities – What Is It Reasonable to Expect of Them?

Birmingham headlines

The University of Birmingham in the UK has recently been criticised by various advocacy groups for its refusal to intervene in a case where a female student alleges that she was raped by a male student. According to media reports, the students were not on the same course, had met up off-campus, and the event took place in privately-rented accommodation in the city. The university’s response was that this allegation was a matter for the police. It did not consider that it had the necessary jurisdiction or investigative resources to carry out a forensically-adequate and just response to the complaint. If a police investigation led to a trial and conviction, they would proceed on the basis of the official determination of the matter.

What interested me was the reaction of a number of prominent women academics on Twitter, people I would normally think of as concerned about the deficiencies of legal processes in dealing with cases of sexual assault. In this case, however, their sympathies were clearly with the university administration. Apart from the coincidence of both parties being students at the same, very large, institution, where was the ground for the university to get involved? The encounter had not taken place on campus, in university housing or at a university-sponsored event. It was quite properly a police matter: if the woman involved did not trust the police to pursue her complaint, she had a right not to go to them – but she could not reasonably turn to the university as an alternative. While she might run across the male student on campus, was this really any different from the risk of turning up in the same supermarket or shopping mall?

This led me to think further about the weight of expectations that was being placed on the contemporary university and whether this was in any sense fair or realistic. A casual trawl of the trade press and social media identifies calls for universities to feed and house students for free or at highly subsidised rates, to protect their mental health, to compensate for their physical and learning challenges, to deliver social justice and to save the planet. In effect, they are asked to exercise all the responsibilities of parents and to act as a secular equivalent of the medieval church as the conscience of the nation.

We might be led to ask two sets of questions here. First, on what basis the parental model might be legitimated – and paid for? Second, on what basis universities might claim to act to a higher moral purpose than other institutions?

My birth cohort (born 1950) are the tag end of the boomers. We had the last best years of the post-war period before hitting the labour market just as the oil price shock turned the 1970s sour. One of our big concerns was to roll back the historic claim of universities to act in loco parentis, in the place of parents. This might have suited a time when students were much younger but was hopelessly out of tune with the culture of the 1960s.

Ironically, as our own children became students, we began to develop the ‘helicopter parent’ syndrome that demanded a degree of paternalism that we had rejected for ourselves. This gradually became an entitlement, whose basis has never been wholly clear. Why should we treat students as if they were children, who cannot act autonomously and accept responsibility for their actions? Why would we give them a degree of social protection that we do not offer to other young people who lack their educational advantages? Is it socially just that a university student should have better access to mental health care or a degree of insulation from the criminal justice system that is not available to their contemporaries? Is it right to tax people whose lifetime earnings will be so much lower in order to offer benefits to a group who will, in general, enjoy more secure jobs and economic prospects? Where do students learn how to be adults?

Universities are also frequently confronted with demands to conform to a higher ethical standard than other organizations. Should they take a lead in investment policies, environmental concerns, reforming food systems, reducing emissions, diversity and social inclusion…the list is potentially indefinite. Whatever is thought to be good, universities should deliver more of it, over and above basic compliance with legal obligations and regardless of direct or indirect cost. Clearly, universities can, and should, take a longer-term view than many other organizations: they have been around for a long time and are rarely allowed to go bankrupt. They are permanent organizations in the sense of the French sociologist, Georges Gurvitch. Their autonomy and independence from short-term concerns are an important source of dynamism in societies. Indeed, they often provide the space for the development and expression of the moral challenges that are turned back against them. In this respect, they are different from business corporations, where public criticism from within of their strategy and direction may rightly be a basis for dismissal.

Nevertheless, universities do not exist apart from the society that they inhabit. Should we not be concerned about imposing obligations upon them beyond those necessary to uphold the core mission of education and research? Promoting integrity in scholarship is one thing: imposing plant-based catering, banning high-sugar sodas or non-binary toilets and changing spaces might be another. We might think this question has particular force when those extended obligations are not the result of due processes of politics or law but derive from the actions of self-appointed moral entrepreneurs.

Is there no end to the responsibilities of a university? Can anyone realistically manage an organization with such a diffuse and indeterminate mission that is constantly buffeted by changing fashions in its environment?

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Robert Dingwall

Robert Dingwall is a consulting sociologist, providing research and advisory services particularly in relation to organizational strategy, public engagement and knowledge transfer. He is co-editor of the SAGE Handbook of Research Management.

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