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Is university a political actor?

University must fearlessly value interconnectedness between different worlds and allow for opposing views by creating, writing, illustrating, acting, singing, and playing a pluriverse where many worlds can fit, write Tuulikki Laes and Taru Koivisto.

Amongst the current appalling political events in the world, higher education students, teachers, and leaders, including at Uniarts Helsinki, have discussed the freedom of expressing political opinions within their institutions. New questions emerge from these discussions: Should the students follow institutional norms or proactively change them? Should the teachers support students who want to promote social justice or climate action within their institutions? Should the leaders protect the institution from politics or instead promote political action? 

At a closer look, all academic, artistic, and pedagogical thinking and action unavoidably intertwine with the ecological, social, and political events outside the university, where the students live their everyday lives and where they will serve society as future professionals, citizens, and intellectuals. Higher education is, therefore, entirely relational and interdependent on surrounding social systems. Hence, its task is not only to provide the highest level of disciplinary education but also to connect education with societal, political, and global norms and tensions. 

Consequently, university students and teachers are often driven as much by their individual academic and artistic interests as by the moral responsibility of working towards a better world. Academic activist Noam Chomsky (1967) has argued that the responsibility of intellectuals, at least among the privileged minority in Western democracy, lies in the power that comes from political liberty, access to information, and freedom of expression. Higher education allows individuals to see contemporary problems from several perspectives, balance and challenge the narrow and polarised public debates. 

This responsibility makes the university and its actors inherently political. It obliges us academics to respond critically to different socio-political issues within the university and the public sphere by standing outside the institutions and actively disturb the status quo of society. Even in the most turbulent times, higher education institutions must accept a role as critic and conscience of society and be unafraid of confronting the dominant challenges of our time (Davids & Waghid, 2021). 

Considering the complexity of higher education as political

The blurred meanings of politics and political may obscure the societal role of universities. In its original Greek meaning, politics is how people make decisions and agreements to live together peacefully and with justice. Nowadays, politics is often understood as a power play between different political groups and their interests. Political refers to the ways power and values are enacted and expressed and can also occur through different artistic forms.  

The political in performance is not only limited to activism or struggles for social justice but also to how it may perpetuate hegemonies and power hierarchies. In this way, even when art work or performance is declared as apolitical, unintentional political dimensions may become visible when viewed in broader sociocultural contexts (Glucovich et al., 2021). 

In higher education, political neutrality has become the starting point and even professional virtue for educators to adhere to a practice of neutrality and balance and to resign from political debates and secure a neutral, mentally safe environment for everyone. 

However, can political neutrality warrant a risk of freeing academics from the responsibility of critical reflexivity and embracing different viewpoints in the struggle for ecological and social justice?

University building bridges between the different worlds

Considering the power of the arts to help see things differently, arts universities could be at the forefront of carrying the responsibility of intellectuals and building bridges between different and opposing worldviews. Many participatory approaches to arts can help opposing groups understand each other and foster radical interdependence

This interdependence can have positive and negative outcomes. Nevertheless, all individuals and social systems are intricately connected in ways that go beyond conventional understandings of how we perceive social cohesion, communication, and decision-making. Radical interdependency is a risk worth taking because it opens up hope for new possibilities. This hope lives in a vision of many worlds living together in a pluriverse (Escobar, 2017), suggesting that there are multiple, equally valid ways of understanding and experiencing the world. 

From university to pluriversity

University is a designer of the future. It educates professionals who maintain or challenge societal power hierarchies and political values. Considering the university as a political actor, it seems relevant to ask: Could it consciously move from the quasi-neutral, modernist separation between right and wrong towards a radically inclusive pluriversity?  

From this pluriversal perspective (Escobar, 2022), higher arts education cannot exist as a silo of exclusive thinking and restricted expression with an excuse for maintaining political neutrality. Instead, it must fearlessly value interconnectedness between different worlds and allow for opposing views by creating, writing, illustrating, acting, singing, and playing a pluriverse where many worlds can fit. 


Chomsky, N. (1967). The responsibility of intellectuals. New York Review of Books, 23.2.1967. Retrieved 29.11.2023 from https://www.nybooks.com/articles/1967/02/23/a-special-supplement-the-responsibility-of-intelle/

Davids, N. & Waghid, Y. (2021). Academic Activism in Higher Education. A Living Philosophy for Social Justice. Springer.

Escobar, A. (2017). Designs for the Pluriverse. Radical Interdependence, Autonomy, and the Making of Worlds. Duke University Press.

Escobar, A. (2022). Global higher education in 2050. An ontological design perspective. Critical Times, 5:1. https://doi.org/10.1215/26410478-9536551

Gluhovich, M., Jestrovic, S., Rai, S. & Saward, M. (2021). Introduction: Politics and/as performance, performance and/as politics. In S. Rai, M. Gluhovich, S. Jestrovic & M. Saward (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Politics and Performance (pp. 1–25). Oxford University Press.


Tuulikki Laes, Academy research fellow

Taru Koivisto, Postdoctoral researcher

Research Institute, Uniarts Helsinki

The writers are researchers in the project funded by the Finnish Research Council: Performing the Political: Public Pedagogy in Higher Music Education (2023–2027).

Art makes a difference

Taidekasvatuksen tutkimusverkosto CERADAn blogista löydät verkoston uutiset, tapahtumat ja puheenvuorot. Verkoston tutkijat kirjoittavat taidekasvatuksen tutkimuksesta sekä taidealan korkea-asteen koulutuksen tutkimusperustaisesta kehittämisestä. Tutkimusverkosto on osa Taideyliopiston Tutkimusinstituuttia.

Research network CERADA’s blog offers news and views about how research into arts education can have an impact on society. CERADA researchers at Uniarts Helsinki blog about their work. The research network is part of Uniarts Helsinki Research Institute.

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