The Arrighi Center for Global Studies has been awarded funding from the JHU Exploration of Practical Ethics Program for a project titled “The Practical Ethics of University Engagement: Lessons from the Local and Global.” The project explores ethical issues that arise out of the historical legacies of racial and class inequalities, both within the university and between the university and community. Through a year-long General Seminar involving faculty and students, the project will critically examine experiences with community-based learning/research, service-learning and university transformation, with a special emphasis on learning from the experiences of colleagues facing analogous challenges around the world, from the UK to China and South Africa.


Here, Beverly Silver (Director of the Arrighi Center for Global Studies and Chair of the Sociology Department), Sahan Karatasli and Daniel Pasciuti (Assistant Research Scientists at the Arrighi Center), Chris Westcott (PhD candidate in English) and Christopher Nealon (Chair of the English Department), answer our questions.


What inspired this project?


When the Arrighi Center for Global Studies was established in 2012, our goal was to provide a space for a critical analysis of urgent problems arising from contemporary processes of globalization, including ethical debates around questions of local/global governance, democratic entitlements, violence, and inequality. The April 2015 uprising in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray gave a new sense of urgency to our desire to focus directly on the ethical dimensions of contemporary capitalism, as it not only put a spotlight on the deep racial and class disparities in the city but also brought to the surface a set of urgent ethical questions about the relationship between the university and the community. The Explorations in Practical Ethics grant call arrived just as we were discussing ways to intensify our focus on the ethical dimensions of 21st century capitalism locally and globally.


A second inspiration for this project was the spring 2016 launch of a program by the JHU Center for Social Concern to encourage JHU faculty to design “Community Based Learning” courses—that is, undergraduate courses in which JHU faculty partner with Baltimore community organizations to design and run a class that attempts to move beyond the limitations of service learning by establishing a full and equal partnership with the community. Two of the program’s three inaugural courses in spring 2016 were taught by members of the Arrighi Center Faculty Advisory Board (Daniel Pasciuti and Lester Spence). We saw the year-long Practical Ethics seminar as a chance to critically reflect upon the successes and failures of these initial experiences with Community Based Learning by bringing together the JHU faculty and representatives of the Baltimore community organizations involved in those courses, colleagues at other universities around the world who have been working on analogous projects, and academic researchers who have been studying the opportunities and pitfalls of such efforts.


What do you hope to learn by comparing such different communities and contexts—Baltimore, China, and South Africa?


A premise of the Arrighi Center is that there is much we can and should learn from scholarship and practice in the “Global South.” Unfortunately, most knowledge flows in one direction, from “Global North” to “Global South.” The ethical implications of university-community engagement and university transformation are among the arenas where we have much to learn from colleagues around the world. In China, for example, the founders of the New Rural Reconstruction Movement, an innovative combination of community service and learning, have brought thousands of urban university students to the Chinese countryside, and have thoughtfully wrestled with the implications of the power relations involved in this exchange. In South Africa, colleagues have been deeply involved in efforts to transform the University to overcome the legacies of entrenched racial and class inequalities.


We see the Practical Ethics Seminar as an opportunity to bring these distinct scholarly and service projects into more explicit conversation with one another. The projects initiated in China by the university-based New Rural Reconstruction Movement raise questions of how and whether university-led redevelopment can take on organic life in poor communities. The current student-led struggles in South Africa against high university fees and the continued legacies of the apartheid-era educational system have resonances with the persistent problems of access to higher education and diversification of universities in the United States. Moreover, a broad set of ethical concerns arise from the role of universities as employers, property developers, and policy-makers, and their contradictory effects on the life chances of individuals and families in local communities. We see the Seminar as a chance to dive deeply into these questions.


What ethical problems arise from interactions between universities and surrounding communities?


Differences in wealth, power, and prestige between universities and those who live near them, pass through them, or become the objects of their research are often stark—even as universities face their own fiscal and administrative struggles. These inequalities often give rise to challenging questions concerning access to and control of knowledge, land, and money. In our September 30th seminar, Professor Robbie Shilliam (Queen Mary University of London) shared his experience with “community engaged research” and his efforts to overcome the ways in which social research in the university has often perpetuated the colonial divisions between “knowers” and “the known,” even after the abandonment of explicitly racist social theory. His work has helped us ask how our research can break free of such claims to epistemological primacy. In our seminar on “Johns Hopkins as Landlord,” several current and former JHU PhD students shared their research on the material circumstances of university expansion and securitization in the racialized and contested urban spaces of Baltimore, inquiring into the ways institutional responsibility (and therefore accountability) is managed in light of outcomes and potential criticisms.


Even at a basic level, in our discussion of the successes and failures of the inaugural Community Based Learning courses, we were acutely aware of the “costs” that fell on the community, even as these courses themselves sought to support the community. These “costs” were the labor of the community members who were directly involved in the course and the resources of the organizations that were strained by the temporary inclusion of undergraduates into an existing structure with its own political and social organization. Some of the partner community organizations were entirely made up of volunteers, who while seeing benefit in the partnership with JHU, also often described the collaboration as having a second job. Thus, community engagement by the University can operate as a resource draining project as much as a resource providing project. Explicitly considering this balance is essential to creating a level of engagement that is productive and beneficial for the community in the long-term.


How has the seminar’s interdisciplinary scope influenced your thinking about pedagogy and research?


Johns Hopkins has a long reputation as a site for interdisciplinary work across the humanities and social sciences and this project continues this tradition. It builds on The Arrighi Center’s recent experience with running the Mellon Foundation Sawyer Seminar on “Capitalism in Crisis, Capitalism in Transition,” which from 2012 to 2015 brought together faculty and students from across the social sciences and humanities for sustained collaboration and exchange. The Practical Ethics Seminar explores the ways that fruitful exchange can specifically deepen our understanding of the ethical dimensions of capitalism and university-community engagement.


For instance, at our November 4th seminar, the poet and activist Mark Nowak’s discussion of his poetry workshops in factories and among service workers from Detroit to South Africa offered a glimpse of how imaginative and humanistic work beyond the academy can share common cause with scholarly work within the academy—by articulating, for example, collective experiences, sentiments, and analyses, and by providing a fascinating case study for thinking about the role of poetry workshops and other innovative organizational forms in social movement mobilization and international solidarity.


What are the benefits of studying intellectual work within its broader social and historical setting?


It is important to recognize that ideas, theories, or policy proposals produced in universities have never been independent from the political, economic, and social relations surrounding universities. Different ways in which universities are linked to governments, corporations, or social movements have major impacts on the kinds of questions asked, types of research conducted, and forms of knowledge produced. Situating intellectual work within its broader social and historical setting is crucial also because universities themselves are transformed with changes in the priorities of governments, business enterprises, and the emergence of new social movements.


Our November 11th seminar with Professor George Steinmetz (University of Michigan) explored these issues by focusing on the relationship between universities, knowledge production, and policy-oriented research from a historical perspective, paying particular attention to the question of “autonomy.” The seminar examined the evolution of universities and different fields of science in various geographies of the world— including the United States, Germany, France, and colonial Africa—and their broader links and connections to states, corporations, and movements. Our conversation with Steinmetz turned attention not only to the problems associated with the threatened demise of scientific autonomy but also to the lack of an explicit ethical philosophy of science. It produced a lively debate around the question of whether or not it is possible for universities to conduct ethical research and make responsible policy proposals in the absence of an explicit ethical philosophy of science and full scientific autonomy.


What are the lasting effects you hope to see once this project is through?


We plan—individually and collectively—to draw some conclusions that we can share in various formats about the opportunities and pitfalls of university-community engagement. The broad outlines of an alternative approach is in the process of emerging from the ongoing work of the Seminar. For example, the discussions in our seminars to date have led us to conclude that a one-directional form of communication and participation, bringing knowledge to those who lack it, is fundamentally flawed and needs rethinking. Moreover, deep and ongoing discussions around the question of autonomy (from whom) and engagement (with whom) take on added urgency as we head into 2017.


While the intensive phase of the Practical Ethics Seminar is scheduled to last for the 2016-2017 academic year, we expect it to lead to a natural tendency to more fully include ethical dimensions into the ongoing work of the individuals and programs who participated in the intensive phase of the project. We also hope that this project will inspire new intellectual and pedagogical experimentation with forms of community learning and engagement at JHU and beyond.



Link for more information about the JHU Exploration of Practical Ethics and all nine funded projects, and link for free registration for our upcoming symposium (January 24, 2017; 2:00pm – 5:00pm; Feinstone Hall, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health

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2 Responses to “The Practical Ethics of University Engagement”

  1. […] The Practical Ethics of University Engagement: Lessons from the Local and Global Beverly Silver and Daniel Pasciuti, Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, in collaboration with the Faculty Advisory Board of the Arrighi Center for Global Studies […]

  2. […] The Johns Hopkins Berman Institute for Bioethics published a blog post on the Arrighi Center’s 2016-2017 general seminar on the Practical Ethics of University-Community Engagement. Read the entire post here. […]

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