Luiss Inauguration Ceremony 2020-21. Universities must dismantle hierarchies of identities to transform the 21st Century

November 18, 2020
Editorial Open Society
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  1. Two mutually reinforcing features of the relationship between the University and the Society are central to the process of transforming the 21st Century:

a. The first is that the university is a microcosm of the society from which it emerged; it invariably mirrors the values, aspirations, and the structural inequalities in society.

b. The second is that the university has a social contract with the society which comes with an expectation that universities will contribute to society’s progress. A key part of this progress is that universities will have the courage to tackle structural inequalities and biases in society and not reinforce them. Failure to do so invariably undermines knowledge production for society’s progress as well as the preparation of the next generation for leadership in local and global society.

  1. We are witnessing a momentous shift: The 21st century society is changing profoundly and universities cannot remain passive. Several aspects of this changing century will compel action from universities that aspire to global relevance:

a. A rapidly changing global environment – climate change, new technologies; patterns of migration;

b. Extraordinary moments and events – Interconnecting crisis – climate change, migration, COVID-19, the killing of George Floyd – all of which reinforce structural biases in local and global society; and

c. The character and attitudes of a new generation – future leaders; Generation Z – across our universities and societies, who have a different worldview, abhor inequalities and injustice and organise differently, with a transnational outlook. They are demanding change and they are uncompromising.

  1. In the last couple of years, we have witnessed first-hand how Generation Z responds to climate-related issues; and its transnational organising in response to social injustices. The killing of George Floyd has shown the solidarity that connects Gen Z as well as the “allyship” in society across races, genders, generations, etc.
  2. This is a “wake-up call” for universities that have been coasting, permitting the structural inequalities in society to pass by because these may not have seemed to be of immediate relevance to universities. But the “Ivory Tower” nature of our universities is under question in this century and we can no longer be innocent bystanders in society.

a. The social contract of between university and society may have been interpreted rather loosely e. that contribution to society’s success only requires the training of those who succeed in becoming members of our university community. They are very often the privileged ones while we ignore the structural inequalities that sustain that privilege, which do not give those excluded a fighting chance to succeed in life.

b. This invariably has consequences for the local society and a globally connected education system.

  1. But our universities are not all alive to these questions of inequality and injustice in the same way. Some of our campuses are changing rapidly with more diverse groups of students gaining entry. Others are not as diverse.

a. For diverse campuses, our universities are compelled to respond to systemic inequalities on our campuses today and NOT tomorrow. Systemic bias is an issue that cannot wait. Our students make demand on us every day; they ask us to “decolonise” the curriculum; make the university staff (particularly at senior level), more representative of the diversity of our campuses, they ask us to intervene in environmental injustice by watching our behaviour and what we invest in; they ask us to speak up about injustices in the world, the differential impact of the coronavirus for people of colour, the killing of George Floyd. They are not happy to be part of a university that is institutionally unjust. Our students have become the voice of our conscience. All members of our community must have equal opportunities to succeed; one group should not be guaranteed of success while others are condemned to failure.

b. For campuses that are not as diverse, the universities might not have a real sense of urgency to respond to issues of structural bias but it is only a matter of time before such universities are compelled to respond. The harsh reality is that even universities that do not feel the urgency to tackle systemic inequality or feel that not all forms of inequality are relevant for their society, will face the challenge of irrelevance in a globally interdependent world. No aspiring world class university will be immunized from this problem.

  1. The challenge that confronts universities is to move from a mode of reacting to one form of inequality at time, to a simultaneous tackling of all systemic inequalities in universities.

a. Ad hoc responses or attention to one aspect of inequality and not others only creates a hierarchy of identities, in which we pick issues of inequality that are easier to tackle or of which some members of our community are more accepting. Yet, inequalities are naturally co-constitutive and we cannot pick and choose what we address without undermining our communities.

b. We cannot deal with the inequalities surrounding a person’s colour today, their gender tomorrow and their class the day after. Doing so will reinforce their exclusion every time. This is a systemic challenge that requires culture change and a system-wide response by university leaders.

  1. My proposal is that universities should embrace an inclusive logic of intersectionality in addressing systemic inequality simultaneously, and by so doing de-hierarchising identities to ensure that members of their community have equal chances of succeeding in life.

Some of this:

  1. Universities that will be relevant to changing this century for the better must strive, in addition to de-hierarchising identities through systemic change, prepare all their students for global leadership in the 21st

a. The ability to recognise and engage with dynamic social and cultural complexity is what sets global leaders apart. This complexity combines features such as multiplicity, inter-dependence, ambiguity and flux.[1]

b. This requires equipping students and staff with the cultural competency needed to thrive in diverse socio-cultural contexts and to contribute to global problem-solving from any setting – at home, abroad or virtually. University experience must be transformative, enabling students and staff to step outside of their worldview to see situations through the lens of the ‘other’ in their full diversity – including, for example, race, gender, nationality, ethnicity, disability, sexuality, creed and inter-generational perspectives.

  1. The demands of operating in a 21st Century globalised world foreground two important elements.

a. First, individuals must be well-prepared, confident, and resilient.

b. Second, they need an ability to see the bigger picture from different perspectives, and to work collaboratively in finding inclusive and adaptive solutions to complex challenges thrown up by technological and economic change, cultural and social change, and environmental and health risks.

c. While these skills and competencies are increasingly demanded by Governments, business and civil society organisations, universities have not sought to develop them systematically amongst students and staff.

d. Next generation leaders must be able to thrive across different socio-cultural contexts while achieving success in organisations. In this dynamic context with a wide array of diverse actors and stakeholders, global leaders need a unique set of skills and must be uniquely prepared. They need to be able to communicate across cultures and work in varied settings.

  1. The development of culturally-competent people who successfully navigate global contexts while collaborating to solve societal problems is the objective we have set for ourselves at King’s College London; and on which we aspire to collaborate with our university partners such as LUISS. This is the essence of King’s Internationalisation Strategy and I look forward to pursuing the mutual aspirations of both our universities.



[1] B. Sebastian Reiche, Mark E. Mendenhall, Alan Bird and Joyce S. Osland, “What is Global Leadership?” The World Financial Review, March 2013, pp.24-27

The author

Funmi Olonisakin: Vice President & Vice Principal (International), King’s College London.