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Margin Notes

UN seeks university partners to create Academic Impact

New initiative aims to engage higher-ed institutions with United Nations development goals.


Last week in New York, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon inaugurated Academic Impact, an initiative to engage the organization more fully with the academic world. Specifically, the project is described as a “global initiative that aligns institutions of higher education with the United Nations in actively supporting 10 universally accepted principles in the areas of human rights, literacy, sustainability and conflict resolution.” Under the project, participating colleges and universities are also asked “to actively demonstrate support of at least one of those principles each year.”

A handful of Canadian universities have signed on, with a particularly strong showing from Quebec.

It’s easy to be cynical about such endeavours. The UN does tend to be heavily bureaucratic and it’s possible this project will get bogged down under its own inertia. But it sounds like a very worthy initiative and I wish it luck.

Patrick Deane, the new president of McMaster University, mentioned Academic Impact in his installation speech at McMaster’s fall convocation on Nov. 19. His remarks help to put the new initiative in context, so permit me to quote at some length from his speech:

Today, at United Nations Headquarters in New York City, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is being joined by representatives from academic institutions in more than thirty-five countries formally to launch UNAI, or United Nations Academic Impact, an initiative intended to promote the direct engagement of institutions of higher education in programs and projects relevant to the United Nations mandate, and in particular to the realization of that organization’s Millennium Development Goals: the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger, achievement of universal primary education, the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women, the reduction of child mortality, improvement of maternal health, progress in combating HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases, and the achievement of environmental sustainability. …

What is going on in New York is an attempt … to make the work of the university more meaningful – and the learning process more successful – through a dynamic and interactive engagement with the very human problems which it seeks to address. Over the last decade universities, especially in the English-speaking world, have participated increasingly in a bloodless marketing discourse, focused on “global citizenship” as the goal towards which they and their students should aspire. But for all this time they have failed effectively to re-negotiate the relationship upon which such aspirations might successfully be built, the link between institutions of higher education and the world which purportedly they seek to serve. To require that students acquire an “international experience” at some point in their degree is admirable enough, but also minimal in what it is likely to contribute either to the student’s development or to the nation visited. What kind of education is it that relegates experience of the broader world to an optional add-on available only in the senior years, or – worse – assumes that experience of the world is unworthy of academic credit and must be postponed until after graduation?  …

I have recently said that at McMaster we will need to define and refine our understanding of our place in the international context. I do believe, though, that we must understand our international commitments as merely a subset of our encompassing human obligation, and it is in attending to the latter that we will find a firm and clear direction to follow. That obligation is not confined to the Milleniium Goals of the United Nations, although they do provide a helpful hook on which to hang a more defensible vision for higher education. Universities are comprehensive, multifaceted organizations, and it is just as important to recognize the complexity of the interface between the university and society as it is the simple requirement that we derive at least one part of our authority from society, and from the human dream of health, prosperity, civility, and cultural fulfillment.

University World News also has a report on the new initiative, here.

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is the editor of University Affairs.
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