Silke Muylaert Faculty of Relgion and Theology VU

Postdoctoral Researcher Texts and Traditions

The University of The Future: Building institutional trust from below

AYA Magazine #2

Future is a promise that provokes imagination, speculation, desire, and yearning for a more fitting reality, more pleasant or at least somehow more palatable than what is being experienced now. I am sure most academics have kicked back in their chair once in a while and stared into the abyss of their computer screens to dream of the university of the future. Dreaming of how cool it will be when some old-fashioned colleague retires and a new generation steps in, or how great it would be if students were more interested, or what could be done to dismantle the tyranny of grant-giving institutions.

I dream of a university where it is more than a place just to teach, just to research, just to meet, or just to deal with work politics, but an academic home where everything and everyone are entangled and vibrantly connected to each other to create fulfilment. My hope for an academic home as a place of fecundity, flourishing and fulfilment is slipping away. So dear readers, maybe you could come along and read further to imagine the university of the future and hope for institutional trust?

Institutional trust is an informal bond which links and nurtures members of an organisation to collaborate and co-create. It is not just a pact between upper echelons of a university and those under their care, a collegial social contract or a bureaucratic agreement for promotions, benefits and compensations. Institutional trust is a quality of the academic home interwoven into the desire for transparency and an inclusive working style. Please, read my words carefully! I stress the desire and the willingness to be transparent and inclusive, because that can create an environment of trust. Employees of the university of the future could trust and experience safety if the desire and urge to operate with transparency and inclusivity were displayed and put into practice.

“I dream of a university where it is more than a place just to teach, just to research, just to meet, or just to deal with work politics.”

Transparency and inclusivity are currently partially integrated into institutional policies of some universities. However, they remain an imposed top-down organisational feature which does not necessarily translate into practice. This feature does not nurture institutional trust because employees are not included in the trajectory of the formation of institutional policies and structure. In addition, Clare Birchall (2012), in her wonderful research on transparency 3, shows how upper echelons display limited transparency to satisfy the critical minded, and that the ‘actual’ talks take place behind closed doors. However, this can be upended in the university of the future if the desire for transparency and inclusivity is explicitly expressed by the faculty boards, and management teams. Such expressions operate as invitations for collaboration and a means of calling on every colleague to join in and co-create along with initiators.

Desire and desiring are the keywords, because it is desire that indicates the mindset, attitudes and openness to build an academic home together rather than imposing the modes of operation like Ford assembly lines. Expressing the desire for transparency from upper echelons will include enabling the members of the university of the future to think along with those who have taken managerial responsibilities, rather than merely being managed. This will nurture the institutional trust and permit the university of the future to emerge bottom-up organically and in collaboration with others.

Currently, desires in Dutch universities such as Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and the University of Amsterdam are dominated by a growth discourse, grant-seeking ambitions, impact-driven research and anxiety related to a decrease or increase in student numbers, among other things. This is partly due to budget cuts and educational policies of the right-leaning government in the Netherlands.

However, the responsibility to compensate for shortcomings has been placed on the shoulders of academics who have to write more grant proposals, valorise more and more, become more socially relevant so that policy-making bodies are more inclined to rely on scientific research and find ways of being creative, with less time allocated to teaching and pedagogical activities. There is no evident desire to find inclusive solutions.

Vulnerabilities that influence the university management system, decision-making and administrative bodies need to be treated as challenges for the entire academic system. Sharing vulnerabilities involves putting a precisely elaborated problem on the table with the relevant team and expressing it as a managerial vulnerability that could be solved collectively. Not very long ago, a former head of the department of political science at VU, transparently put all available teaching hours on the table and asked all the teaching staff to strategize with him. His attempt at sharing the vulnerabilities transformed the academic unit under his care into a collective that begun to think together rather than entering into negotiations with the system individually.

Institutional trust will follow if the desire for transparency and expressing vulnerabilities are integrated into managerial discourses of universities. Without institutional trust, universities cannot evolve into inclusive platforms where everyone is able to contribute to the question of how to practice the art of living with the damaged planet. The university of the future can rise and contribute to the fulfilment of its members if institutional trust emerges from below by treating desires and willingness for change as open invitations.

Bibliography
  1. Clare Birchall, 2012, Transparency, Interrupted: Secrets to the Left, Theory, Culture & Society 28 (7): 60-84
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