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The role of universities in catalyzing social change

12 de marzo de 2024

Por Ana Mari Cauce, PhD

Quote card: Prof Ana Mari Cauce, President of the University of Washington, writes: "Our university must remain arenas where social and political issues can be freely discussed from a broad array of perspectives."

At this pivotal moment in history, those of us in leadership positions need to ask not whether but how our universities can best meet the need for critical and constructive debate.

Over the last few months, there has been a great deal of debate about what role universities should play vis-à-vis our society at large. One school of thought draws from the Kalven Reportse abre en una nueva pestaña/ventana, published by the University of Chicago in 1967, when protests against the Vietnam War were erupting on campuses across the US. The report asserts that university communities “cannot take collective action on the issues of the day without endangering the conditions for its existence and effectiveness,” namely the ability of its members to openly hold a diversity of perspectives that they should consider, debate and act upon as individuals. The report can be interpreted more or less narrowly in terms of how much it should limit university-wide involvement in social or political statements and action. In fact, Kalven’s sonse abre en una nueva pestaña/ventana, as well as other scholars, have suggested that some have used it as a “shield,” ignoring the report’s nuances, as President Emeritus Michael T Nietzel of Missouri State University writes about in Forbesse abre en una nueva pestaña/ventana in response to campus turmoil over the Israel-Hamas war. However, in keeping with the concerns expressed in the report, there have been increasing calls for university presidents and administrative leaders to curtail their direct statements about, and engagement with, current issues affecting our world and related political and social action.

This post is from the Not Alone newsletter, a monthly publication that showcases new perspectives on global issues directly from research and academic leaders.

There is no question that our universities must remain arenas where social and political issues can be freely discussed from a broad array of perspectives. It is important for presidents and other university leaders to be thoughtful and measured about when and what topics to make statements about. And they certainly should do so in a manner that allows for critical and constructive debate. Many universities, including the University of Washington, have guidelines that address the responsibilities — and limitations — of speaking publicly on difficult or sensitive topics. Yet in my experience, more often than not, when we have chosen to speak on such topics, it has been not just important to our community but productive in reaffirming our values and our ability to work together in an open society.

For example, I have been personally involved in contentious debates about the role of the police both on and off campus, with some arguing there should be no police presence on campus, and others arguing that we don’t have enough. We are now working on a campus safety plan that draws from both perspectives. My office has also co-sponsored a lecture series in our Jackson School of International Studies on “The War in the Middle East,” which features speakers with a range of perspectives and lived experiences. Some have criticized the series for platforming speakers who are Zionists; other critics argue that some speakers have not sufficiently condemned Hamas, which suggests to me that we are striking a good balance.

Far from retreating from the fray at this pivotal moment for our country and the world, those of us in positions of leadership at major universities need to ask not whether but how our universities can best play a role in meeting the urgency of this moment and the challenges to come. As institutions built to endure, we can and must be both timely and timeless, and we can and must develop approaches to leading positive societal change — approaches that are neither solely top down nor bottom up.

“Far from retreating from the fray at this pivotal moment for our country and the world, those of us in positions of leadership at major universities need to ask not whether but how our universities can best play a role in meeting the urgency of this moment and the challenges to come.”

Prof Ana Mari Cauce is President of the University of Washington.


Ana Mari Cauce, PhD

Professor of Psychology | President en University of Washington

Creating an “impact ecosystem”

Universities have many strengths, but one that is often overlooked in the public discourse is our convening power. It allows us to engage broad sectors of society in collaborative problem solving, both across the diverse disciplines within the academy and in concert with other universities, governmental agencies and public and private entities across our state, country and globe. We are uniquely positioned to create and catalyze change by leveraging both our expertise and our ability to put it into action: in education, in research and innovation, in healthcare and in community engagement. By cultivating interdisciplinary collaborations and deepening our engagement with local and global communities, we can leverage our strengths to create what we at the University of Washington refer to as an “impact ecosystem.”

The impact ecosystem enables us to catalyze and accelerate programs of applied research and community/social action in areas where we can make the biggest difference based on our strengths, geography, and opportunities for partnership. The prototype for this strategy was developed and put into action with our Population Health Initiative (PHI), launched as a Presidential Initiative in 2016. Rather than focusing on the health of individuals, like the traditional medical model, the initiative’s goal is to improve the health of all people. Initially, we often struggled to explain this model, and I was asked questions like, “Why should we spend taxpayer dollars fighting diseases on the other side of the globe?” However, when the pandemic hit, the logic of this approach became suddenly and urgently clear: The health of anybody is inextricably intertwined with the health of everybody.

Through the PHI, we have been leveraging our deep expertise and the huge service capacity of our academic healthcare system, which in turn is bolstered by one of the densest concentrations of global health organizations in the country here in Seattle. We’ve learned how to convene stakeholders to co-create pilot programs which can then be accelerated and scaled up when they work. Since its launch in 2016, the initiative has engaged more than 18,000 students and 1,800 faculty. It has funded 364 student awards and 196 faculty projects. It has also led to engagement with nearly 200 separate community-based organizations. For example, this past fall, we launched the Center for Disaster Resilient Communities, a collaboration that will unite more than 100 UW faculty and their students, including disaster researchers, engineers, data and environmental scientists, and experts in public health, medicine, nursing and public policy and planning.

As we witness the devastating effects of wildfires in Maui, some of the most severe storms of the century pummeling California’s coastline and interior, and flooding in the streets of New York, the need for this kind of discovery and innovation is pressing. Just a few months ago, Florida International University, one of our country’s largest public minority serving universities, launched their own population health initiative, and we look forward to collaborating with them.

We ourselves are using the lessons learned from the PHI to expand our impact ecosystem to three areas:

  • Climate change

  • Behavioral health and

  • Applied AI and equitable computing

Our students continually remind us of the urgency of these issues, pushing us to move more rapidly toward carbon neutrality, demanding greater investment in mental health resources, and increasing demand for coursework in computer and data science and AI literacy. Their interest is much more than personal or theoretical; it’s about making a difference in the world even as they — and we — continue to debate the most desirable outcomes and effective strategies.

Embracing our lived experience in research

Early in my college career, I developed an interest in issues of bilingualism, immigration and acculturation and their impact on education, mental health and family relations. This interest was largely fueled by my own experience as a Cuban refugee who arrived in Miami at the age of 3 near the start of a major exodus that would reshape the city. I witnessed the struggle of many of my friends, trying to craft a future in a world their parents often barely understood and could not help them navigate. And I saw how the mental health and educational system too often failed them.

While some mentors, professors and peers encouraged me to pursue these interests, others sarcastically referred to my work as “me-search” rather than research. And the truth is that my own lived experience did make me question some of the received wisdom of the time, like the belief that bilingualism led to cognitive confusion or that immigrants were less intelligent than their native-born counterparts.

Looking back at my career almost 50 years later, I’m glad I resisted the advice to focus my education and scholarship on areas where some believed I could better practice scientific neutrality and objectivity. Indeed, it was my deep passion for this work that led me to persevere in my studies in the face of a family tragedy that had me considering dropping out of graduate school. And my work, which started with a focus on the populations I knew best, soon led to collaborative research that has informed prevention programs and interventions that have served thousands of Latine families from a variety of cultural backgrounds across the country, as well as to programs that serve refugees and immigrants from Asia and Africa. Deep engagement at the local and personal level can prove to be a good testbed for the design of strategies that can be utilized on a national or even global level.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t strive toward neutrality and objectivity in our research. But this does not require us to ignore or suppress our own experiences or deep caring. We can balance these aims by cultivating self-awareness, adhering to the protocols of our disciplines, and by building partnerships with others who bring different perspectives and lived experiences to our research and program development. We need to remain open to having our pre-conceptions proved false. But passion, lived experience, connection to community, and the desire to play a role in creating change play a powerful and positive role in enhancing educational engagement, driving discovery and creating solutions. They are to be embraced, not denigrated.

Universities must create brave spaces

At a time when young people are having second thoughts about the value of higher education, and many in the broader community are questioning our relevance, it would be a mistake to signal a retreat from community-engaged research and involvement with those issues that that are most salient in society, even if it can be messy at times. To serve the public good, both locally and globally, universities must create brave spaces as well as safe spaces. This is a time that requires us not to retreat from the fray, but to step forward with appropriate caution.