Rethinking the contemporary university: possibilities for decolonization

Rethinking the contemporary university: possibilities for decolonization

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Congress 2021 blog edition 

By Claire Kroening, University of Alberta human geography alumna and communications professional 

Today’s session “Examining Anti-Racist and Decolonial Possibilities in the Contemporary University” delivered a variety of perspectives from academics around the globe, on whether possibilities to decolonize contemporary university systems exist, and what anti-racist work in universities looks like.  

Dr. Breitner Tavares of the Universidade de Brasília began the panel by discussing his paper "The Importance of Affirmative Action for Black Students as a Strategy Against Mental Illness and Suicide in Brazilian Universities."  

The social inequalities between white Brazilians and Black Brazilians overtime have manifested in different ways within Brazilian academia. First, it was in student numbers: very few Black students attended universities when they were established. Then, as more Black Brazilians entered universities, disparities were seen in the dropout rates: Black students accounted for the majority of dropouts. Now, lack of support in universities for Black students leads to high suicide rates.  

Today, Black affirmative action movements in the country are working to address the prevalence of poor mental health and suicide, and are linking students to supports, and models that value diversity and health.  

Dr. Lena Sawyer of the University of Gothenburg and Dr. Nana Osei-Kofi of Oregon State University presented next, covering the paper “Pockets of Refusal: Working Against and Within Institutions of Higher Education.” They discussed how dominating neo-liberalist dynamics in universities across the world determine who teaches, what is taught and how it is taught, all while focussing on profit generation. “A neo-liberal institution is not able to do anti-racist work and anti-colonization” said Dr, Osei-Kofi. 

Dr. Sawyer explained “there have been, there are, and will be continuing pockets of refusal within academia.” For example, their art-based performance collaboration about colonialism, space monuments, and the Iron Well in Gothenburg challenged linear and goal-focused methods expected of academics. 

Another way to open possibilities in universities: “Academics need to stand in solidarity with other workers in their institution. We often see ourselves as experts and different from other workers, and so we silo ourselves – this doesn’t serve decolonization.”  

Next, Dr. Encarnacion Guiterrez Rodriguez of the University of Giessen in Germany spoke about the de-colonizing possibilities of her project, Building Bridges. She described how the project, which is a collaborative effort designed in part by a diverse student group, creates a new curriculum for German post-secondary. The curriculum centres around deconstructing Eurocentrism, and neo-liberal practices in universities. By doing so, German students are given terminology and ideas “Eurocentric, Black, people of colour, migrant resistance” that are not canon in the country currently.  

Dr. Shirley Anne Tate of the University of Alberta closed the presentation portion with a discussion on allyship. Her reading brought up that white people cannot truly be the empathetic allies they believe themselves to be if our societies and social systems continue to label Black people as “others.” She noted that today, we live in a system built off of exploitation of Black people that continues to exploit Black people. Until radical change of these systems happens, allyship will continue to be flat, othering, and performative.