Can Universities Live by Their Values?

Ten universities, from countries around the world, aim to try.

November 8, 2018

Can you name your university’s values? Do you know if it even has any?

Frustration with meaningless lists of institutional virtues -- think “openness,” “respect” or “excellence,” perhaps -- has boiled over into a global project to get universities to think more seriously about what is important to their staff and students.

The Living Values project, run by the Observatory Magna Charta Universitatum, a Bologna, Italy-based organization that monitors institutional autonomy and academic freedom, has over the past year or so run a series of pilots to help universities live up to their stated values.

“The whole thing was born from a view that values can be espoused … but unless they are put into practice, they are not very useful to organizations,” explained David Lock, secretary general of the observatory.

Some universities do think hard about their values, he said, and this feeds into their real-world planning. But at the other end of the spectrum, there are institutions whose “marketing department or whatever bits of the university are putting values on their website, which are very laudable but may not have traction in the institution.”

So far, 10 universities have taken part in pilots. They hail from Australia, Brazil, Britain, Egypt, Italy, Mauritius, Romania, Russia and Sweden.

The process, Lock stressed, cannot just be driven by managers -- staff have to feel involved in the creation of university values or they will fail to “live by them.”

The project works by sending in “ambassadors” from the observatory who meet with university managers, and in some cases broader staff groups. But there is no strict pathway to working out what a university’s values are; the institutions themselves are in charge of the process.

Proponents say that the project genuinely helped to change university behavior, steering institutions down a course more in tune with what they think is important.

As part of the project, the University of Tasmania had a “very deep” series of discussions about whether it should keep on expanding its student numbers, Lock said, and ultimately decided to stay at its current size. Although managers were having this discussion before joining the project, “you can argue that as a result of the process, they resisted the pressure to grow, grow, grow,” he explained.

The University of Bologna decided to get involved when a new rector took over, and a Ph.D. student suggested that the university should rethink what the institution stood for, explained Alessandra Scagliarini, vice rector for international relations. “When we started our self-evaluation, we realized we didn’t have any real statement of our identity,” she said.

Because of the university’s student population of about 85,000, “it was not easy to reach everybody,” but in the end, Bologna came up with 10 new values -- five of which are particularly important -- using a combination of online polling and discussions of senior managers. For example, it now has a working group on research integrity, she said. “Before, [concern over research integrity] was just a reaction to things that happened,” but now, the university is trying to be more proactive, she added.

At the University of Stockholm, staff jettisoned most of the existing university values and came up with new ones, Lock said, while the University of Mauritius has altered its student induction process.

Others think success constitutes more subtle changes. You will know that the project has worked by noticing a “myriad of small things” rather than a “big bang,” according to Ella Richie, former deputy vice chancellor of Newcastle University and an ambassador who worked with Bologna. For example, if diversity is selected as a value, the university might need to monitor changes in student attitudes.

In March this year, the Magna Charta ambassadors convened to discuss what worked and what did not (nine of the 10 universities have now submitted their final reports). One lesson was to try not to have too many values. “You can’t remember 15, but you can remember five,” Lock said. Although the participating universities are continuing their engagement with the project -- the idea is that change keeps happening -- “we’ve shown that you can get useful results out of this in a year,” he concluded.

Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


+ -

Expand commentsHide comments  —   Join the conversation!

Today’s News from Inside Higher Ed

Inside Higher Ed’s Quick Takes

Back to Top