Universities and their debt to society

Universities and their debt to society

René Mendoza V.[1]


two burrosThe Figure of the two burros is illustrative: there is food for both, but they are individually struggling with one another under the idea of “everyone for yourself” and “the law of the jungle”, and in the end neither eats, until they see one another, recognize their situation, and collaborate in order to survive. Something like this happens to us humans, many times we are not able to see one another, the myth that “the one who pays the piper gets the tune” ensnares us. Recognize one another? Collaborate? Using this image, and taking advantage of a panel of representatives of Universities that was held in Colombia (November 2014), I analyze how universities, generally in an environment where urgency takes precedence over importance, define their teaching and research agenda; then I argue that that importance has to do with the agrarian issue and forms of rural organization, particularly cooperatives; and I conclude pointing to a mechanism so that universities and organizations, like the two burros in the Figure above, in the end might cooperate to produce the most precious resource of our time, knowledge.

The University agenda for research and teaching

Juan P. Martí (La República University, Uruguay) identified three subordinate models: the inbred model, where the university, independently and isolated from society, believing itself to be on the frontier of knowledge, decides on topics to research and teach; the state model, where the public university that, because it depends on public funds, conforms its agenda to the interests of the government, which are not necessarily the concerns of society; and the business model, where the agenda is defined according to the interests of companies, subject to capital. This subordinate character turns the universities into institutions of consultancies.

Antonio Cruz (Federal University of Pelotas, Brasil) thinks that the university is an institution composed of autonomous units with various heteronomic and hierarchical views. If some of these units respond to the logic of the market, and are connected to cooperatives that also respond to the market, the resulting agenda is “more of the same”, a model subordinated to companies – as Juan P. Martí would say. And if some sectors of the university committed to change are connected to cooperatives with similar objectives, there are possibilities of composing a transformative agenda. This agenda implies collaborating, producing a new approach linked to sustainability, and consequently changing the content of the teaching from “economic growth at the cost of the natural resources”, like the practices of some cooperatives of “growing”, similar to agrobusinesses.

This change includes pedagogical and ideological practices. William Delgado (Catholic University of Colombia) questions how to be cooperative if the incentives in the teaching (e.g. award the one who gets the best grade) produce selfish students, like many cooperatives awarding the individual action of their members. Yolando Ruíz (Uniminuto de Dios, Colombia) argues for an economy freed from liberal theory, which according to Antonio Cruz requires an ideological change in the professors to recognize that there is not just “Emilia Romagna” but also the “Mondragón cooperative” with empirical and theoretical evidence that show high collective yields. And Sonya Novkovic (Research Director of the International Cooperative Alliance) stresses the need to correct a half century of free market economic policy focused on ideas of being rational, the miser that seeks his profit, and that instead work be done on the principles of a new economy focused on people, a localized economy, constructed on social relationships, practicing economic democracy, using finance in an ethical manner, and being sustainable and with the power of recovery.



Historical importance of the peasantry and small scale production

Even with the changes discussed, the unfortunate thing is that the Universities have turned their backs on peasant families and small scale producers. The United Nations declared 2014 “The International Year of Family Agriculture”. Even with the growing urbanization of Central America, agriculture continues to be its basis of development. And that, theoretically, comes from centuries ago in terms of the agrarian question; let us remember Lenin´s question of accumulation, Kautsky´s question about production, Engel´s political question, and Chayanov´s question about differentiation. The peasantry in Latin American weighed in as a political-economic actor in the decade of the 50´s and 60´s, considered “small production” by the farm modernization imposed by the dictatorships of the 70´s, and later by the neoliberal policies from the 80´s. The topicality of these issues is so real that Peter Marchetti (Rafael Landívar University, Guatemala) finds that the 2008 World Development Report on “agriculture for development” is in line with Lenin´s question.

This weight in terms of ideas is also expressed in the numbers. Out of a population of 45 million in Central America, 50% is rural; according to Eduardo Baumeister, assessing the percentage distribution of the gross agricultural aggregate value by type of farms, family agriculture is 48.7% According to studies of  IFAD and the World Bank the region needs to increase its productivity, which according to Adolfo Acevedo is possible only if agricultural activities improve their productivity – in other words, the peasantry and small scale production.

The universities have turned their backs on these hundred year old ideas and forces. Because they prioritize business majors and teach the economic and administrative logic of large enterprises, which is adverse to the peasant/small production logic. The “solidarity economy” that is growing in Latin America is not taught in any University of Central America. André Martin (Sherbrooke University, Canada) says that the students who finish administration do not know how a cooperative is managed, and adds: “the cooperatives in Canada say that they know how to manage the cooperatives, but for 20 years they do not know why they are managing them”; we have cooperatives in the region offering services of financing, commerce and/or technology that are responding to the neoliberal approach and to the ideology of “growing in order to later share” where generally that “later” never arrives.

Mechanisms of cooperation in order to generate knowledge

The debt of the universities with society is a debt shared by some of the cooperatives. Marietta Bucheli (Rural Studies Institute of the Javeriana University, Colombia) says that you have to understand the rural sector through their organizations within a framework of “a dialogue of knowledge” and study the solidarity organizations in the sense of recognizing their contribution as innovative organizations, and not just highlighting their participation in some activity.

Let us go a bit further. It is a matter of recognizing the importance of the agrarian issue, farming families and their organizations, building non “neutral” mechanisms that point toward a way of being  society and university. It is “getting smaller in order to grow”; sustainability and redistribution. It is work done between universities and rural organizations, expanding horizons and mechanisms for rewriting the economy and recognizing realities like “Emilia Romagna” and the Mondragón Cooperatives in the region. This is the way to work on a research and learning agenda with society, and interacting with the state and the markets, replacing the myth of the University as the “house of knowledge” with that of a path, sharing and debating, a place for the construction of knowledge.

The burros in the Figure took a step, cooperating in the short term. Universities and cooperatives need to take another step, producing knowledge, developing a new vision in order to solve 100 and 1000 years of challenges, like the pioneers of Rochdale. Is it time to repay the debt?

[1] Collaborator of the Wind of Peace Foundation (http://peacewinds.org/research/), associate researcher of IOB-University of Antwerp (Belgium) and of the Research and Development Institute, Nitlapan-UCA (Nicaragua). rmvidaurre@gmail.com

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