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Humanities Conference Discusses Role of Higher Education Institutions

Distinguished faculty from several UC campuses spoke on the role of universities in relation to state authority, as well as the responsibilities of higher education in the future of modern thought, during a conference held at Humanities Gateway Nov. 2 and 3.

  Panels focused on the need to accept self-identity, questions of academic and personal freedoms in the context of the state or national authority and the university’s need to be conscious of changing cultural context.  

  Annie McClanahan, UCI assistant professor of English, discussed the importance of looking at the cultural context within which the university finds itself — a context in which 25 percent of graduating students become the first generations to have negative returns from their degrees since the 1930s, and class differences lead to an increased gap in income between skilled and unskilled workers.

 “There is a larger transformation of the class system rather than the university,” said McClanahan. “The university is a piece of this larger change.”

Part of this change, McClanahan stresses, is close scrutiny of the role of universities as a public good versus their increasingly prevalent role as business institutions. Elizabeth Collingwood-Selby, a guest panelist from La Universidad Metropolitana de Ciencias de la Educación (UMCE) Chile, reading her speech in Spanish, discussed the measure of what is possible for higher education institutions facing opposition, in the sense that they are held in an “endless transitional phase” in which they must be able to constantly reform and change around their obstacles.

Jacques Lezra, UC Riverside professor of Hispanic studies, discussed similar openness to reformed ideas, focusing on the ability of the university to create alternative forms of power.

“If everything produced by the university machine has alternative uses in an perpetual open horizon, a horizon of instruments open to contingency, it is on the condition we operate with an open structure so as to create alternative forms of knowledge and power,” said Lezra.

 Rachel Corbman of Stony Brook University and Alicia Cox, comparative literature professor at UCI,  both spoke about the need to accept various forms of of self-identity and gender dynamics, and the question of the university’s role as a principal actor in decolonization as well as an  access to knowledge.

Other speakers at the conference covered administration and management of the university system. Ultimately, the conference contemplated the question: “Who has the right to know and ask questions?”