About the Author

Christian Matheis

Christian Matheis, Ph.D. in Ethical and Political Thought and M.A. in Applied Ethics, teaches in the departments of Philosophy and Political Science at Virginia Tech, and in the department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Radford University. He specializes in ethics, political philosophy, and philosophy of liberation with concentrations in feminism, race, and global justice. His research focuses on philosophical conceptions of solidarity in liberatory movements, problems of recognition and identity politics in models of social justice, moral criteria for regulating how state administrative agencies treat refugees, critiques of immigration and border policies, and the aesthetics of race. More about Christian...

Many of the dominant assumptions and values that undergird contemporary post-secondary education foreclose the kind of thinking that might allow universities to address the needs of PSRs [people seeking refuge]Christian

Can 21st century higher education respond proactively to the current and growing population of refugees?

Initially, my goals as a GPP participant involved learning about some of the ways faculty who work in different cultural and institutional contexts address factors such as nationalist xenophobia, cultural hegemony, and intolerance of migrants and refugees. In particular, I intended to research whether institutions of higher education engaged actively in responding to international migration, asylum debates, and people seeking refuge. Given ongoing changes in migration, labor conditions, economic patterns, technological innovations, and other factors altering contemporary societies, I particularly wanted to learn more about the role that educational institutions might play in fostering transnational solidarity. I refined my original research questions and narrowed the focus not just on migration in general, such as through official petitions for repatriation, but more specifically on the concerns of people seeking refuge (PSRs).

Many of the dominant assumptions and values that undergird contemporary post-secondary education foreclose the kind of thinking that might allow universities to address the needs of PSRs. For instance, consider whether scholars and researchers remain arbitrarily beholden to the normative conviction that public universities in particular geographic locations have educational missions tied solely or primarily to those locations. Must universities serve localized (nearby) populations in ways that preclude educating PSRs? Alternatively, do PSRs have a “claim” to social services and programs that can integrate them and their children into higher education?

Within the last few centuries, states, nations, and local governments of various sorts have replaced most monarchic rulers, taking on state sponsorship of universities (Thelin 2013). Under the mostly retired patrimonial monarchic system, universities served in the patronage of an elite class of rulers – a local class, it matters to note. Following the turn toward modern and contemporary liberal, democratic governance, amid the rise of mass human migration, I think it matters to ask whether universities remained committed to underlying beliefs about localization in ways that run against the interests and needs of PSRs.

At this time institutions of post-secondary education do not appear to operate on missions, values, and visions that can accommodate the current and rapidly growing populations of persons seeking refuge – PSRs. Those who flee their home societies/nations, often seeking refuge from war, famine, genocide, economic disenfranchisement, and other circumstances do not generally count among the ideal, or even outlier demographic of students. Their children, whether born and raised in transition or born following resettlement, count among the estimated 50,000,000+ who may at some point wish to pursue degrees (Bauder & Matheis 2016).

I participated in the Global Perspectives Program (GPP) in order to raise the aforementioned questions and concerns among students, faculty, and administrators in Switzerland and Italy – in places where, like the U.S.A., no domestic institutions appear to have a coherent plan for responding to refugee migration in the short-term or long-term. What resulted, and what I primarily describe here is not the plight of refugees – evident in many journalistic and research sources at-present – but, rather, reflections on my attempts to lobby faculty and administrators to more closely consider the consequences of the inevitable influx of refuge-seekers on educational institutions. Some consequences of the rising number of PSRs, even if difficult to substantively predict, may include the following:

  • Patriotic Backlash: the rise of new, never before observed forms of “settler” or “nationalistic” value biases among students, faculty, and administrators, and government officials involved in university guardianship.
  • Financial Infrastructure: PSRs and the first generation or two (or more) of their children may alter enrollment levels, prompting the unprecedented increase in operational costs for instruction, research, and support services, and in an unusually rapid (“overnight”) timeframe.
  • PSRs Encountering PSRs: intra-group interactions among post-asylum-seeking populations from different backgrounds coming into contact for the first time under unprecedented conditions (i.e. groups of PSRs from different backgrounds and circumstances encountering one another for the first time in university settings).
  • Administrative Insensitivity: pressure on administrative, bureaucratic systems to accommodate and adapt to the unique historical “shocks” (cross-generational traumas) that result from asylum-seeking.
  • Proliferation of Languages within a region: the expansion of populations with language and dialect diversity on orders of magnitude never before addressed by allegedly cosmopolitan universities.
  • Changing Traditional Forms of Participatory Governance: inasmuch as universities use participatory governance to influence operations, PSRs may challenge traditionally accepted and seemingly intractable strategies of procedural governance.

Again, these count among only a few of the potential challenges to anticipate and proactively address.

I think it fair to say that the topic posed a number of challenges. First, in most cases the matter of refuge-seekers and migration stimulated a range of discomforted responses among administrators, faculty, and some students. Second, many of the individuals with whom the Virginia Tech GPP participants interacted did not feel equipped to address what they considered a national governance issue, and not a research or educational matter to be addressed at the level of individual institutions of departments. Third, by taking liberties as a scholar-activist, I departed from the range of research questions common to the rest of the GPP group. Let me discuss each of these three challenges in turn.

Consistently, most (nearly all) attempts at discussing migration and refugees with students, faculty, and administrators provoked frustrated responses that ranged from overt irritation to avoidance to ponderous external processing (meandering through the topic, somewhat painstakingly, as if for the first time). The worst cases involved disclaimers by individuals who appeared incredulous at the subject matter (e.g. facial and bodily language indicating mild shock and incredulity, and comments such as, “I do not think I am qualified to speak on this subject”). The most robust and reflective responses came, quite surprisingly for me, from administrators and, generally, not from students or from faculty. Moreover, in only two cases did two different administrators at two different institutions openly acknowledge the growing “crises” and the outright lack of preparation by post-secondary educational and research institutions. One, a provost, acknowledged the problem and admitted to having recently lobbied senior, national officials on the matter. Another, a graduate school dean, quietly whispered about recent attempts to assist Palestinian researchers with their petitions for political asylum in order to escape the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli conflicts.

In a spirit of charity, I think it important to grant that those who responded as if unprepared or avoidant of the subject matter considered themselves just so – unqualified and unempowered to speak on the topic. The most generous reactions indicated that matters of migration, refuge, border politics, etc. belonged in the purview of national agencies and government officials ostensibly best-equipped to respond (e.g. “this is a matter for our national government to address, not a thing we can address as a faculty”). Responses from individuals who seemed almost aghast, offended, at the mere mention of the topic let me with unresolved questions (e.g. by sarcastically announcing, “perhaps after a brief break we can get discuss religion and migration again”). As it turns out, I sincerely do not know whether I violated some deeply held social norms by raising questions consistent with everyday news stories I noticed in television, radio, internet, and print media and relating them to the policies of their university.

In some ways, perhaps, my reflection here counts as a cautionary tale for others. I do wonder what would have better prepared my peer group and me for the kinds of irritations and the depth of discord the subject matter would raise among so many of our hosts. Broaching the topic may have worked better had I explained my intentions and interests more overtly prior to the trip. At the same time, I do not know who would have benefitted had I preventatively tried to buffer each interaction from the potential consequences of my activist interests.

Participation in the program has, undoubtedly, allowed me to simultaneously contribute to and benefit from the ongoing work to foster international relationships with the partner institutions. Thinking of myself as a recently-hooded Ph.D., the program afforded me opportunities to discuss my primary advocacy and research interests with individuals whom I would otherwise probably never have met. As a child of a refugee parent, I remain unsettled by and curious about the young adults and children living in refuge for whom post-secondary education will likely remain out of reach.

Let me return to the question at the outset, one over which I have lamented more than I have attempted to give an answer: can 21st century institutions of higher education respond proactively to the current and growing population of refugees? I believe universities, colleges, and research institutes can respond. Such institutions can play a pivotal role in advocating for policies and practices, cultural shifts in values and habits, and resource redistributions as educational and research organizations have license to do. That is, those of us involved in institutions of higher education have the means (e.g. resources, credibility, research programs, etc.) to do more than merely react after problems grow so complex as to become unmanageable. Rather, we can advocate now for the inevitable influx of migrating PSRs and their children. Those of us who benefit from the comparatively rich security of association with educational research institutions have the ability to adopt a commitment to advocacy for the emancipation and, when the best course of action, integration of PSRs and their descendants, in perpetuity. At minimum, scholars and researchers can do one thing: raise the question about preparing to address the needs of PSRs at your institution, among your colleagues, and in your network of peers. Whether we respond to the challenge posed by the ongoing refugee crisis in liberatory or exclusionary ways remains the next open question.