The activist university: third, fourth or fifth Mission?

Posted in: activism, Education, Higher Education

As we look ahead to the new academic year, the Business and Society blog is spotlighting The International Centre for Higher Education Management. Throughout the month of September we'll feature research which looks at university leadership, management and policy. 

Dr Luz Longsworth is a graduate of the Bath DBA in Higher Education Management programme from ICHEM. She is the former Pro Vice-Chancellor (Global Affairs) and Principal of the University of the West Indies Open Campus. Currently she is a consultant in the areas of Higher Education Leadership and Management. In this piece she explores universities’ relationship with activism, and asks whether we can consider this as part of the University’s ‘Third Mission' – referring to their community outreach – or if it should be categorised in a new way.

In recent years we've seen increased academic interest in what has traditionally been called the 'Third Mission' of universities. The 'First' and 'Second Missions' of the university have been universally understood as teaching and research respectively. However the Third Mission has evolved from referring initially to the institution’s externally driven activities - the broad terminology of ‘outreach’, that is, the University’s role in the community - to referring to more active institutional engagement in ‘hot button’ social justice issues such as climate change, racial inequity, gender based violence etc.

Along with Ellen Oftedal and Emily Dick-Forde I contributed a chapter to a recent publication called Universities and Regional Engagement: From the Exceptional to the Everyday. This reflected on the concept of ‘Activist Leadership’ in the Caribbean, looking at the case of the University of the West Indies (The UWI).  We used the framework of ‘Entrepreneurial Architecture’ as described by Nelles & Vorley, to examine how the interrelation of ‘Structure, Systems, Strategies, Leadership and Culture’ intertwine and embed the third mission of the university. Expanding on this, we looked at how this third mission is embodied in various Universities, focusing specifically on the UWI. This focus is primarily because the institution was established with a clear third mission mandate, given its unique regional role serving 17 autonomous nations in the Commonwealth Caribbean and the region’s underdeveloped economies coming out of 300 years of slavery.

In giving a wide interpretation of the third mission – or what has also been described as the ‘extended’ third mission – we found that the UWI has embraced an ‘activist agenda’ in an increasingly intentional way over the past twenty years, through the evolution of its five-year strategic plans.  As the leading research and teaching Higher Education (HE) institution in the Commonwealth Caribbean, the UWI has arguably always embraced an activist agenda. One of the founding documents of the UWI, when it gained ‘independence’ from University College of London in 1962, stated that its purpose was to create a West Indian intellectual class that would guide the region’s development.  This began with the development of a Medical School that would focus primarily on the public health challenges of the region. As a leading voice of decolonisation of education, the UWI fostered activist faculty who focused on creating a Caribbean awareness in several areas: Nobel prize winners the economist Sir Arthur Lewis and poet Derek Walcott are prime examples of an activist consciousness honed within the UWI setting, advocating for home grown solutions to the challenges of post-emancipation West Indian development. It could be argued that this activist mission is unique to the UWI due to its specific geo-political and socio-economic environment. However there are interesting developments in how some universities are now reviewing their role in society which points to a changing perception of their role and mission in this century.

Should the University update its mission in response to  21st century issues?

It can be argued that the university has always been a conduit for activism and struggle for social justice via the individual actions of academics and students. However, the burning question for the 21st century is - does the University, as an ‘ethical’ institution, also have a responsibility to become an institutional player in the advocacy for social justice?

From a critical perspective, another question is whether this is simply a part of the traditional third mission of the university (referring to public/service or outreach). Or are we seeing the evolution of a transformative fourth or fifth mission spawned in a century battling with climate change, terrorism, growing social and economic inequities and the fight for reparations by the descendants of enslaved persons?  Must the University now burst out of the traditional tripodal role - or even from the triple or quadruple helix conceptualization of innovation and engagement – and take on a more active role in advocacy for social justice?  Indeed, the urgent challenges of the 21st century have brought about the emergence of the quintuple helix model of societal engagement and the shaping of a more activist role for the University.

Universities across the globe had already begun redefining the quality of their social engagement prior to the COVID 19 pandemic. In Colombia for example the Universidad del Rosario along with other Colombian Higher Education institutions has been playing a key role in peacebuilding and the elimination of violence through developing special programming for ex-combatants of the FARC, a militia group that had been engaged in armed conflict within Colombia since the 1960’s. The University of Bath has been recognised by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation for its work on promoting a circular economy through its learning and teaching, its applied sustainability research and its climate action framework  to reduce carbon emissions across campus.

Columbia University in New York, USA had set up a Task Force just prior to the pandemic to review what they called ‘fourth purpose’ activities. In the report dated December 2020 the assertion was made that the ‘fourth’ purpose included ‘directed action’ which was also intrinsically linked to the original purpose of the University – that is, research, teaching, and public service. The report is clear that this link to the socio-economic, political, cultural and environmental realities of the local and international communities served by Columbia University is not a simple extension of the traditional three purposes.

In the United Kingdom, Glasgow University (through its partnership with The University of the West Indies) has issued an apology for its role in the slave trade and identified a sum of 22 million pounds sterling towards programmes that will enhance the discourse surrounding reparatory justice .  Similarly Harvard University has established a 100 million US dollar endowment fund  as a recognition and as ‘directed action’ towards reparations for its role in the slavery enterprise.

Towards a new or extended mission for the University

Though the UWI has not yet declared its social advocacy as a fourth or fifth mission, its leadership has identified the institution as an activist university, with a responsibility both to participate in debate around the issues threatening the region it serves, but also to find and implement solutions.  So, what would signal a commitment to this amendment to the University’s original purpose?  I propose that the implementation of an institutional response to issues of social and economic justice constitutes a firm commitment to this new mission.

The recommendations from Columbia University’s ‘Task Force on the Fourth Purpose’ include the establishment of a governance structure which gives responsibility for any Centres and Institutes identified as “fourth purpose” initiatives to the Office of the Provost, and the appointment of a Vice Provost to lead this directed action portfolio.  Glasgow University has partnered with the University of the West Indies to form a joint Glasgow Caribbean Centre for Development Research primarily to lead projects on reparatory justice in the Caribbean.  The UWI has been asked by the International Association of Universities to lead a consortium of Universities on the Climate Change and Climate Justice agenda and has established a Global Institute for Climate-Smart and Resilient Development.  The UWI has also established an Institute for Reparatory Justice to lead research and advocacy activities for reparations for the descendants of enslaved peoples, both on a regional and global level.  The fact that both these UWI Institutes sit within the Office of the Vice-Chancellor indicates the institutional commitment to this activist mission as articulated by the UWI’s Vice Chancellor Sir Hilary Beckles.

It is becoming increasingly clear that the definition of the role of the University to reflect the changes brought about in the 21st century is being transformed. HEIs supported by public funds in particular must evolve beyond the narrow definition of Research, Teaching and Public Service.  Whether defined as a fourth mission, fifth mission or more conservatively an “extended third mission”, there is no doubt that Universities with their vast and deep research, knowledge production and innovation capacities are required to now play active roles in the societies in which they exist, and even beyond.

Issues such as social inequities, gender bias and the existential threat of climate change (which is particularly important for Small Islands and Developing States) require more direct involvement from our HEIs.  The institutionalisation of such actions indicates that Universities such as Universidad del Rosario, University of Bath, Columbia, Glasgow, Harvard and The UWI are creating a new, clear purpose for universities in society.  Indeed, it may be that without that commitment to ‘directed action’ - as it is beautifully expressed in the Columbia University Task Force report - the very relevance and survival of the University could be at risk.

Posted in: activism, Education, Higher Education


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