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Universities engaging with society in turbulent times

Principal Patrick Deane leads global university conference in Bologna, Italy.

Academic regalia (the fancy gown and hat) is not something Principal Patrick Deane wears often save for convocation and a few other special events, but he recently took his gown across the Atlantic to wear at the anniversary signing ceremony of the Magna Charta Universitatum (MCU).

Principal Patrick Deane presided over the MCU anniversary conference at the University of Bologna, Italy earlier this month. This three-day event saw more than 170 university and higher education leaders from 45 countries assemble to discuss how universities can support society during challenging times. Principal Deane is the current President of the Magna Charta Observatory (MCO) Governing Council which is the oversight body that protects and promotes the MCU.

“Being a signatory is important because it’s a reference point for our values as a university and acts as a reminder to us of the premise upon which the university is founded,” says Principal Deane. “We must defend these values because academic freedom and university autonomy are subject to challenge around the world — sometimes in more obvious ways than others — and it is critically important that as an institution of higher learning in a free country we continue to talk about and promote these issues.”

Academic freedom, university autonomy, the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals and how universities serve society were all topics shared at the conference. At a panel discussion moderated by Principal Deane, the discussion focused on how universities support society in times of crisis. He was joined by Sibongile Muthwa, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of Nelson Mandela University in South Africa, and Roman Gryniuk, Rector, Vasyl’ Stus Donetsk National University in Ukraine who travelled more than 38 hours by bus to attend the event (you can read more about Rector Gryniuk and the challenges facing Ukrainian universities in this article from University World News). Other keynote speakers included Ron Daniels, President of John Hopkins University and Chris Brink, former Vice-Chancellor of Newcastle University who wrote the book The Soul of a University that famously posits that universities should not only be looking at what they are good at but, “what are they good for.”

The MCU was revised in 2020 to more aptly reflect the responsibilities universities have to society and to the planet; Principal Deane was a member of the drafting committee that wrote the new document. The conference culminated in a signing ceremony of the MCU, with signatories wearing full academic regalia. New signatories and those who had signed previously are invited to sign the document, making a public recommitment to the values espoused in it. There are currently close to 1000 universities around the world that have signed the MCU.

“This event was a great opportunity to meet and network with colleagues around the world,” says Principal Deane. “The challenges that face higher education globally are considerable but events like this strengthen our collective sense of unity and determination to uphold the values of the academy and the importance and nobility of our mission.”

This conference was the first in-person event the MCO has hosted since the previous anniversary conference that was held in 2019 at McMaster University in Hamilton. It was there that Queen’s signed the MCU for the first time.

The MCO holds regular webinars on these topics that are free to attend. The next on Oct. 6, 2022 features Rector Roman Gryniuk talking about how universities serve society in times of crisis. Registration is open now.