Participation at the Spanish Conference of University Deans in Arts and Humanities

On April 13th 2018 I was invited to take part in the XXVI Spanish Conference of Deans of Arts and Humanities organised by the University of Murcia. The program of the conference covered a broad range of topics around the situation of the Schools of Arts and Humanities in Spain.

I personally enjoyed all the program, but most especially the talk by Prof. Adela Cortina, an outstanding philosopher who has inspired some of the actions of the Social Impact Program of our María de Maeztu  Unit, with books such as “Aporofobia”.

I was specifically invited to the round table on employability and internationalisation, in order to share our view about the currents opportunities and threats to university departments, and especially the perspective from an ICT department about employability and mobility.

The talk addressed 4 main areas for discussion with the participants:

  • Technology as an opportunity for social sciences and humanities. It is a fact that many of the research topics addressed nowadays by an ICT department as ours are not of technological nature. Subsequently, the skills and knowledge needed to correctly tackle them are not the ones that engineers have, but the ones from other profiles and, mainly, from the humanities. Some examples of current work at DTIC-UPF included understanding the impact of artificial intelligence on human behaviour (such as the HUMAINT project led by Emilia Gómez), the impact of technology in diversity and multiculturality (with examples in the music or linguistic domains) or risks associated to algorithm transparency or privacy.

In this respect, all these new areas create a big field for employment for the graduates in arts and humanities (given the ubiquity of technology) that goes well beyond the simple use of technology in their fields. An issue that regularly appeared in the informal discussions was the different paces that the adoption of technology requires on the one hand, and the creation of philosophical and ethical knowledge does on the other. But this difference of rhythms does not stop the impact and uptake of the technology in our society, implying that many relevant societal decisions are being addressed mostly by engineers, who lack the needed background, and without an ethical framework that sets the basis for many of those decisions. This results in a potential "banalization" of many decisions which may be likely to have important societal impacts..

A specific proposal was the wider consideration of mobility programs across fields. Taking into account that many of the objectives of interchange programs such as Erasmus are nowadays partially met by (a part of) students in their daily lives - traveling and contact with other european countries and citizens is more frequent than it used to be decades ago - the intensity of interchanges for students across fields (including in their own university) could be relevant to expose student to other realities

  • Addressing fragmentation: A common issue faced by university departments of any field is the increased complexity of the daily lives of faculty members and departments. There is a growing pressure to run and innovate in regular activities (such as teaching and research, both their execution and their management), but also in aspects such as the communication and transfer of the knowledge, which in addition require a specialised knowledge. As a result, at least three issues were identified as challenges which are not sufficiently addressed:

i) the appearance of novel services across university focused on a specific issue but lacking the wider context of the department / research group / individual faculty, potentially generating an increase in interactions and work, but not always providing a benefit to the group. It some ocasions, the employees of these services are not necessarily specialised in that field, nor are sufficiently familiarised with the dynamics of the life of a department;

ii) the fact that this fragmentation is often not able to build on the individual activities and networks of collaborations. As a result, both researchers and students miss many opportunities for professional development;

iii) this increase of management and communication actions is generating new mixed roles, with the potential to generate tensions in the rigid structures of universities, but also in the career development at the different levels (such as the case of faculty members increasingly acting as administrative staff, and the contrary, which I illustrated as partially my case).

  • Addressing personalization: the trend of personalization in society in general reaches also university education. Some institutional initiatives such as the “Open Degree” at UPF were mentioned as part of this movement, as well as my personal contribution to teaching, which always has the objective of i) empowering students to create their own paths and projects, and ii) bringing existing resources at university level to them (partially to overcome aspects created by the previously mentioned fragmentation of activity). The course on management in the Biomedical Engineering degree, the PhD seminars, the setup of the MENTOS mentoring program or the initial launch of the HackLab were presented as examples following this philosophy at different formal and informal settings.
  • Taking profit of the whole university community: the fact that the dominant role that permanent staff have in the general decision-making processes and daily life of a department also generates a loss in one of the main assets of universities, which is the (still) central position in the transmission of knowledge, that goes well beyond the reduced number of permanent staff (current students and alumni, lecturers, current and past research staff, etc). This could be seen as an issue itself, or also as a consequence of the fragmentation mentioned above.

Thank you very much to the organisers for the opportunity to discuss about these and other topics, and especially Pascual Cantos for the invitation and warm welcome.