UniverCity Dialogues: The role of the university as placemakers

On Friday 5 July I had the pleasure of being invited to be a panelist at a dialogue series initiated by CHEC (Cape Higher Education Consortium), at UWC. I was one of five panelists asked to reflect on the role of universities as placemakers in cities from our different vantage points. We were also asked to include in our reflections, responses to the keynote address by Minister Naledi Pandor.

I started off by sharing a process that I had become aware of that was taking place in my own head. Although frequently called upon to speak about D6M’s role – something which I am always keen to do – being invited to speak in a university context (particularly SA universities) is not a regular occurrence. In preparing for this occasion, I found myself scouring for relevant and current references, lining up quotes from various authorised sources, much more than I generally would have done. In effect, I found that the ‘university discourse’ had made and occupied a place in my own head that signalled the gathering of published voices of authority, and I had to reverse my way out of that place, finding myself doing exactly the opposite of what I was intending to refute- that authorised knowledge only existed in places sanctioned by academia.

So I stood, taking up my place as an independent knowledge-maker, citizen-intellectual [citizenaris intellectualaris! 🙂 ]

My main context of involvement is located within an organisation which has been defined by a struggle for place. D6 was first best known for its destruction under apartheid; more recently our main focus is on the struggle – surprisingly hard – to make an impact on place-making within a process of restitution and redevelopment.

I would like to proceed by thinking of placemaking, not as a bounded geographical concept only, but rather as a series of engagements which include events, processes, and experiences which are made and constantly re-made through the movements and activities of everyday life. Which can either be ways to open up and invite in, or processes which create places which exclude and lock the ‘inner community’ into an enclave which have norms and standards which, as often in the case of academic places, apply to itself but is sometimes out of sync with what applies outside of its boundaries however these are perceived of: as boundaries of expertise, succession, geography, as some examples of the invisible ceilings which serve to ring-fence.

Some scholars have referred to placemaking as being concerned with “the cultural processes and practices through which places are rendered meaningful – through which, one might say, places are actively sensed” (Feld and Basso 1996:7). The emphasis here is squarely on the place-makers, as their voices are what animate a place to begin with and in this way universities are crucial place-makers in the sense of imbuing places with essences and influencing thereby the making of built environments as well.

Universities play a vital role as ‘cradle’ of professions and in many ways the primary socializer (not the only) of future professionals. In this sense, the model of professionalism that prevails on particular campuses shapes the nature of the professionals emerging from that campus. Thus making any profession more community-oriented and socially-aware should begin with making universities more open to being that way both in its programme and orientation.

I am assuming that this is an intention that is desirable, as signaled by this process, ie The UniverCity Dialogues.

Five aspects of universities which merit some reflection from my perspective:

1. Universities need to acknowledge the varied locales of knowledge. Where does expertise lie, both individually and collectively / organisationally? How is this sought and enhanced?

I share this from a context where scholars have both lauded the wealth of information and ways of enhancing knowledge that our practice has managed to grow; and in the next breath implied that it needed to be examined and interpreted within a validated knowledge environment. Thereby showing a lack of appreciation for different ways of knowing, and making assumptions without much thought that ‘best practice’ is not able to live outside of the academic environment.

In this regard I appreciate the US-based Kettering Foundation’s reference to ‘scholar-citizens’ as a useful concept. They use this to think about who should be recruited into membership of a larger community of faculty and scholars.

I am reminded of a quote by one of my favourite oral historians (Alessandro Portelli), now dated but still making the point which I wish to illustrate. He wrote this at the time when oral history was still regarded with some suspicion by some historians: ‘A spectre is haunting the halls of the academy: the spectre of oral history’. In some ways it feels as if the same might be true for the knowledge of people who are not recognised academics: while their perspectives are desirable in terms of enhancing knowledge on certain areas of research, there is still some scepticism about how to deal with knowledge not validated in the regular ways. Many want the ‘voices of the community’ but shy away from the complexities involved in acquiring this.

“More and more knowledge is being developed outside the halls of higher learning. . . The intellectual style in these places is different from that associated with the university. . . . [T]his kind of knowledge dissolves the categorical distinction so often made between theory and practice. It’s open-ended and embraces a plurality of perspectives.” —Thomas Bender, The New Production of Knowledge

2. Producing knowledge through research and teaching in a particular way makes sense within an academic environment , but when engaging with the world which exists beyond the academy, there are broader rules of life and dialogue that need to be taken into account. So, people- their lives and processes , while observation and reflection of these can do much to enhance our knowledge of how the world works, they do not exist in order to corroborate or refute theorems, or to meet academic milestones within a specified time period. I would like to cite an example by way of illustration at this point. A

3. Civil society can benefit greatly from the expertise and focus that academic life is able concentrate on issues that can enhance society. And here I am not only thinking of resolving technical challenges such as affordable housing, climate change, and sanitation solutions, as some examples. I am thinking here also of ways of living together, problem-solving around reconciliation, community building, ways to enhance knowledge reception, etc. This can take place when academics are based not only within their disciplines but also in a vibrant relation to the public realm and its issues, thereby restoring a dialogic relationship between society and the academy. Research issues cannot emerge in a vacuum. When academics are able to act beyond the boundaries presented by their particular disciplines, or the distinctions made between research, teaching and service; or the statuses associated with under- and post- graduate levels. How do academics speak into various contexts, and how do they enable other contexts – very different from their own – to speak to theirs?

4. Find pathways of letting scholarship live in practice. How does it find its way back to speak to contexts, in addition to being works celebrated for their quality of research as well as writing, achievements of which are not to be diminished.

5. Who validates who? In effect, what constitutes valid knowledge? How do academic and other researchers decide who are valid research partners or collaborators? How do communities make decisions about which academic or other researchers they can work with? What role does self-interest play in all of this and how might this be mitigated?

(I was extremely heartened by Minister Pandor’s rich presentation and I hope that it will be shared with many people. The following three points in particular stood out for me: (1) Developments should work towards inclusion of existing and poorer citizens (not exclude or replace them, wholesale); (2) Place-making should include as its aim the building of new associations and new diversity; and (3) universities and places of higher education should contribute towards changing peoples’ sense of themselves. I was encouraged that she had placed these issues squarely as part of the process of place-making, not as ameliorating, cosmetic add-on’s once developments are complete. What is usually regarded as ‘soft issues’ in the discourse of spatial planning.)


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