Social impact and its role in Universities

Social impact has secured its legitimate place in University conversations across global spaces.

In the face of the global challenges we face, Universities both feel the pressure from taxpayers as well as see an opportunity in generating knowledge directed at addressing social impact.

Some form or the other of the rhetoric of social impact is a part of the branding strategy of most Universities today.

Yet, I worry that the conversation on social impact often ends up in empty sloganeering, devoid of accountability to the various stakeholders that a social impact conversation would hold the University to.

Slogans such as "We change the world," and "Making a difference" are so widely used that "change" and "difference" have become commonplace words, devoid of meaning and value, and devoid of mechanisms for holding Universities accountable to these slogans.

In other words, like bad advertising campaigns, they have become selling propositions, often signifying "feel good" emotions but disconnected to difficult and fundamental questions of value of university life.

For a large number of Universities, the rhetoric of social impact is far removed from a commitment to generating knowledge that makes a difference. For most universities, academics have been trained to feel comfortable in the ivory tower, to disconnect themselves from the everyday threads of community life.

For the high priests of academia, elitism serves to both produce as well as maintain power. More importantly, the power of academia as a site of knowledge production is reproduced through this fundamental disconnect from community life.

Modern universities thus are often in spirit antithetical to a commitment to social impact.

To commit to social impact is first and foremost to change the way we think of our work as academics, to transform what counts as academic work, and to find ways of valuing impact across the various spaces of academic life.

For a University to move toward committing to social impact calls for a continued commitment to opening up the processes of production of knowledge to communities, establishing frameworks of accountability in local, national, regional, and global community frameworks. In this sense, the conversation on social impact also democratizes universities by setting up parameters for evaluating academic life that are grounded in the day-to-day elements of everyday life of communities, societies, eco systems.

And this is precisely where the conversation on social impact is difficult, essentially threatening to the status quo of academic life.

As elitist structures, Universities have historically worked on setting up walls and barriers. To commit to social impact then is to first and foremost break down the practices of elitism that safeguard and perpetuate academic privilege.

Now this transformation in academic life is threatening to the status quo, to the usual way of doing things.

A University that commits to social impact thus has a long and difficult road ahead of itself.

The journey ahead begins with undoing the Brahminical elitism that forms the basis of academic life.

A socially committed University has to begin by actually committing itself to this arduous journey of undoing what it has known to be the basis of academic life. This means it has to align its values to social impact. This fundamental transformation of values then must be reflected in every layer of University life, in the practices of academe, and in the ways in which evaluations are carried out in academe.


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