What if universities would support scholar-activism?

Blog: Climate University Express

Participants of GTA Assembly in Kenya

For decades, academics have expressed the urgency of the ecological crisis in academic journals and reports. But frustrated by the lack of impact, many are now changing tactics; scholar-activism is becoming more wide-spread. While blurring boundaries between academia and activism is not without risk, it may also give rise to new knowledge, networks and possibilities for social change. What if universities would recognize these opportunities and support scholar-activism?

Blog by Lisette van Beek, in conversation with Vasna Ramasar and other political ecologists

Let me start this blog post by saying that I am not advocating that all scholars should be activists. Scholar-activism is not without challenges and academics might have good reasons not to engage in activism. The term ‘scholar-activism’ also remains ill-defined and problematized. That said, in this blogpost I share some inspiring stories of encounters between academia and activism, and what this might mean for the role of universities.

The many forms of scholar-activism

Scholar-activism is not new. There are numerous historical examples of well-known scientists like Albert Einstein who actively advocated for social justice. Various strands of activist scholarship have emerged in the past decades such as popular education in the 1960s and critical geography in the 1970 [1]. Yet, in recent years, scholars are becoming increasingly vocal in demanding for climate justice. Scientists Rebellion is one of the most visible examples of this trend. But scholar-activism is much more than scholars engaging in protests; it also includes participatory action-oriented research and critical pedagogies. Why do scholars engage in activism or work with activist groups? And what emerges when the boundaries between academia and activism become blurred?

The academic as ‘weaver’ of alternatives

Participants of GTA Assembly in Kenya

For many researchers, the work on sustainability and justice inevitably leads them to become more politically engaged. While many activists engage in resistance, others are also actively building radically alternative futures. These collectives, groups and communities often remain disconnected as they focus on the urgency of their local priorities. The Global Tapestry of Alternatives (GTA) was initiated to connect these alternatives. Through the process of inter-weaving, communities from diverse parts of the world find common ground in learning and sharing about the basis of life. Inter-weaving happens through learning exchanges, documenting regenerative stories and webinars that are open to the public. One of its initiators is Vasna Ramasar, senior lecturer in the Division of Human Ecology at Lund University. Vasna is one of the ‘weavers’ of the GTA that connects movements by creating platforms for exchange, increasing their visibility and building solidarity. When meeting her in a café in Lund, she tells me how they frequently organize an Assembly where different movements and communities come together. Not only has this led to new collaborations between movements, it has also changed her perspective on the future: “It opens up our imaginations of what is possible”. Within the space of the GTA, Vasna finds herself constantly engaged in analytical thinking and conceptualization of praxis-elements that complement and contribute to her academic research on prefigurative politics; concrete utopias and pluriversal alternatives.

The academic conference as space for encounter

Key note at POLLEN 2024 by Marisol García Apagueño, President of the Federation of Kichwa Indigenous Peoples of Chazuta Amazonas

Vasna is also involved in organizing the Political Ecology Network conference (POLLEN). This biannual conference for political ecologists explicitly aims to spur cross-fertilization between academia/activism/art as well as between Global North and Global South. I had the privilege to join this year’s edition to observe the discussions at the conference and speak with political ecologists about their work. The plenaries were joint sessions between Lund, Lima and Dodoma. Among the key notes were Indigenous activists sharing their stories of ecological degradation, displacement and humiliation. Academic titles were seldomly mentioned; they simply seemed irrelevant. Many political ecologists at POLLEN stressed how much can be learned from movements and grassroot initiatives. These groups often understand the nature of the social and ecological problems in particular localities much better than academics do. In turn, activist groups can benefit from academic knowledge, such as knowledge about policy structures that activist groups can use in their strategies.

Thinking beyond existing categories

From these examples, it soon appears that scholar-activism cannot easily be captured within the conventional categories of ‘research’, ‘education’ and ‘outreach’. Vasna explains how she manages to reserve part of her funding grants for NGOs or local communities to organize meetings or engage in participatory action research. She involves NGOs and local communities as legitimate research partners, co-creating the research and thus deserving of funding and recognition. Some would argue that this “taints” the contribution of academia; the researcher can and must ensure rigour in the research. But as Vasna mentions, taking a feminist and decolonial approach to research also means acknowledging that there is no true objectivity and acknowledging different positionalities. She also involves these organizations in her education, for example by letting them engage with students during their master studies through internships, guest lectures and working with the cases in seminars. While research funding increasingly promotes transdisciplinary collaborations, scholar-activism is often not recognized as such. As Vasna notes: “It often takes some creativity to get around the funding, but there have been encouraging signals from the research councils in Sweden. A recent successful grant application had feedback from reviewers suggesting that outputs should also include writing grants to fund the community initiatives.”

A place for scholar-activism in academia?

Apart from funding structures, another key obstacle for scholar-activists is their lack of recognition. Academics are rewarded for their publications in high-ranking journals and obtaining grants. Engaging in activism can even jeopardize academic careers. Last year, a climate scientists was fired because of his refusal to fly [2]. Many more scientists got arrested in their course of activism. It is clear that academia is far from supporting scholar-activism. Recognition would arguably require systemic changes on the international level. But at POLLEN, many measures were mentioned that universities themselves could take. For instance, universities could recognize scholar-activism in rewarding metrics, establish institutional structures to secure jobs when their employees get arrested and make university spaces available for activist groups. Perhaps what is needed in pushing for these changes is breaking through the taboos of scholar-activism by sharing more inspiring stories - like the ones in this blog - of the opportunities that may arise.

  1. Bashiri, F. (2023) Conceptualizing scholar-activism through scholar-activist accounts. In: Mattsson et al. (eds.), Making Universities Matter. Collaboration, Engagement, Impact. George Washington University, Washington, DC, USA. Available at: https://link.springer.com/book/10.1007/978-3-031-48799-6 
  2. https://www.nytimes.com/2023/10/12/climate/climate-researcher-no-fly.html

The Climate University Express is a blog series in which postdoctoral researcher Lisette van Beek writes about inspiring examples of transformative research and education that she encounters on her train journey visiting European universities. The ecological crisis, growing climate anxiety and continued social injustices requires the university to rethink its role. Each month, Lisette explores a 'what if' question, an inspiring story of how the university could be otherwise. The blog series is part of the project The University in a Changing Climate and is funded by Pathways to Sustainability.