A Bold Push Toward Unity in Belfast

The appointment of Hillary Clinton as chancellor by Queen's University in Belfast is an example American colleges and universities should consider, writes Christopher R. Marsicano.

January 14, 2020
 
 
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Hillary Clinton at Queen's University Belfast receiving an honorary degree.

To kick off the new year, Queen's University in Belfast announced former U.S. senator and secretary of state Hillary Clinton would be its new chancellor. Clinton will be the first woman to ever hold the post. Queen's is a Russell Group university -- the British equivalent of the Association of American Universities -- and generally regarded as the most prestigious university in Northern Ireland.

The decision to name Clinton represents an example for American colleges and universities to follow. By taking this action, Queen's is doubling down on its principles and pushing for reconciliation in a difficult part of the world.

Unlike in the United States, where the title of chancellor most often refers to the chief executive of a university or university system, in the United Kingdom, other Commonwealth countries and some Anglophile American institutions like the College of William & Mary, the chancellor is mostly a figurehead with few responsibilities regarding the day-to-day governance of the institution. Members of the royal family, celebrities, musicians and famous actors have served as chancellors. With so many Anglo-Irish celebrities certainly available for the role, the decision to appoint an American politician may seem surprising. It represents, however, a shrewd political move on the part of a university attempting to foster democratic governance and civic unity in its country.

While Clinton is a divisive figure in the United States, her work in Northern Ireland makes her a hero to many in that country. Her selection for the role is a symbolic push toward unity for a country that has spent so long under the specter of violence. While Clinton is not universally loved in Belfast (some conservative evangelical politicians and pro-life interest groups decry her stance on abortion rights), she represents a time when an entire country set aside their differences in the name of peace and prosperity. Northern Ireland needs that kind of unifying push today.

After three years of government dysfunction, the major Northern Irish political parties have come to an agreement to reopen the government at Stormont, the country’s equivalent of Capitol Hill. While Northern Ireland is home to many political parties, all major ones except the center-left Alliance party fall into two categories: nationalist parties, which seek for Northern Ireland to join with the Republic of Ireland to the south, and unionist parties, which believe Northern Ireland should remain a constituent country of the United Kingdom. The Good Friday Agreement that ended four decades of violence known as “The Troubles” also requires that the largest nationalist and unionist parties enter into government together, while smaller parties serve as the opposition. In effect, the staunchest of the mainstream unionist and nationalist parties are forced to share power and policy goals. When the two largest nationalist and unionist parties cannot work together, the whole government collapses.

A scandal involving a renewable energy scheme without cost controls, the declining health and untimely death of IRA leader turned peaceful politician Martin McGuinness, the politics surrounding Brexit and stark partisanship across nationalist and unionist communities contributed to a state of government dysfunction at Stormont that makes the U.S. Congress look levelheaded and practical. Northern Ireland now holds the record for the nation with the longest peacetime period spent without a government.

Clinton, however, harkens back to a time when those in both communities set aside their differences to seek peace and prosperity. When her husband was president, she played a small role in the peace process. While some question the extent of her contributions to peace, McGuinness called her a “true friend” to Northern Ireland. No one disputes that she brought international attention to the role of women in the peace process and spent more time in Belfast than President Clinton in the run-up to the Good Friday Agreement. As secretary of state, she opened the newly refurbished Belfast City Hall.

In the years since, she has served as an advocate for reconciliation, most recently engaging in a discussion of how Brexit could reignite sectarian tensions. She once said in a speech to the now-defunct Northern Ireland government, “Northern Ireland stands as an example to the world of how even the staunchest adversaries can overcome difficulties to work for the common and greater good.”

There is no doubt that the decision to name Clinton as chancellor is a political one. While it bolsters the international profile of a top-tier university looking to recruit international students, choosing Clinton also sends a message loud and clear to country’s politicians that they need to commit to responsive and stable government. It represents a university attempting to hold the government to account. The decision is remarkable. When so many publicly funded institutions around the world try to shy away from politics, why is Queen's University jumping straight into the fray?

Jumping into the fray is quite simply part of the institutional character of Queen's. Along with Ulster University, an innovative comprehensive university in another part of Belfast known for its transitional justice programs, Queen's has long served as an incubator for cross-community engagement. For example, the work of its Centre for Shared Education recently received coveted honors from Queen Elizabeth II. The principles developed by that center are used in postconflict nations and areas of great segregation throughout the world -- including Tel Aviv, Los Angeles and the Balkans -- to bring students of disparate backgrounds together to learn. The selection of Clinton fits the ethos of the institution.

American colleges and universities have good reason to shy away from politics, as it could limit their abilities to achieve their dual purposes of teaching the next generation and pushing forward the frontiers of scientific research. With dwindling support among Republican voters and the threatened defunding of politically charged educational programs, many higher education institutions have taken the position that less overt political activity is the path to greater institutional security.

Yet at times the political moment and institutional capacity align in such a way that to stand on the sidelines limits a university’s ability to achieve an underrated third goal of world-class higher education institutions: to develop an educated citizenry for the purpose of democratic engagement. By simply naming Clinton as chancellor, the university has placed the global eye on the democratic peace process in Northern Ireland, without limiting the university’s ability to perform cutting-edge research or teach brilliant students. It serves as an example for all of higher education institutions to at least consider, if not follow.

Bio

Christopher R. Marsicano is a visiting assistant professor of educational studies at Davidson College and has traveled extensively to Northern Ireland. For four years, he managed the Sister City relationship between Belfast and Nashville, Tenn. In May 2019, he and four Davidson College faculty colleagues took 14 students on a study abroad program to Northern Ireland.

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