President delivers inaugural Lecture of the John Kennedy Lecture Series

Wed 24th Apr, 2024 | 18:00
location: University of Manchester, Manchester, England

“Of the consciousness our times need in responding to interacting crises and the role of Universities as spaces of discourse in facilitating it” Inaugural Lecture of the John Kennedy Lecture Series

University of Manchester, 24 April 2024



Distinguished guests,

Ladies and gentlemen,

A cháirde,

I thank Registrar Patrick Hackett for your kind words of introduction. May I say that I appreciate the honour that it is to have been asked to give the inaugural lecture of this series sponsored by a great friend of the University, John Kennedy, a series that is celebrating 200 years of scholarship.

I last spoke at this University in 2012 when I gave a lecture entitled, “Thinking of Manchester and Its Irish Connection”.

It is a great honour to return again to this university, as President of Ireland, and to have been conferred yesterday with an honorary Doctorate of Letters for which I am deeply honoured. The invitation to deliver the inaugural lecture of the John Kennedy Lecture Series this evening is a privilege that takes on an even more special significance for me having studied at Manchester more than 50 years ago.

I recall from my time at the University of Manchester a list of distinguished names, be it students or academic staff. I think of such scholars as J. Clyde Mitchell who became Manchester’s first professor of social anthropology in 1949, Max Gluckman, Bruce Kapferer, Valdo Pons, Norman Long, known for his work on the sociology of international development and his seminal critique of modernisation theory. Such scholars were preceded by fine scholarship, and have been succeeded by fine scholars, such as James Nazroo, current Professor of Sociology well-known for his important work on inequality and social justice.

Today, Manchester University, with a student body of over 46,000, and with approximately 5,300 faculty staff, constitutes an impressive seat of knowledge with an illustrious past.

I take the occasion to acknowledge the many Irish who work here at the University, including Dr John McAuliffe, Professor of Poetry at the Centre for New Writing, who I am delighted is with us here this evening.

As to my own personal experience here, the first direct connection with Manchester was circa 1960 when I was about 19 years’ old. We were, as a family, about to begin what I have referred to as our “scattering”. As a boy I lived near a railway station, Ballycar, Newmarket-on-Fergus in County Clare, from which so many would depart to England to work as navvies, to train as nurses, or indeed take any job that was offered.

British Rail offered a train ticket and accommodation to those working in their cafeterias, an offer taken by my twin sisters at 19 years of age.

In the lecture I gave here in 2012 and which Professor McAuliffe published inThe Manchester Review, I have spoken of the Irish connection with Manchester through the centuries.

I came as a postgraduate student to Manchester University in 1968, staying on and off for three years, moving regularly between two worlds, that of an Irish construction worker’s family in Manchester and that of the teaching and research of British anthropologists recently returned from Africa and a Sociology Department of just a few years’ old with which it interacted.

I was most immersed in the social anthropology of contemporary urban life. From Corby Street I travelled daily to Dover Street where the Departments of Sociology, Anthropology and Government were crowded into a red-brick building built in another century for purposes other than academic lectures.

As to the atmosphere of the time, at the end of the 1960s, British anthropologists having had come home from Africa from such places as the Rhodes Livingstone Institute were now setting about studying their own people, particularly those in urban settings.

Such work would lead later to studies of networks among urban dwellers and such publications as Social Networks in Urban Situations from Manchester University Press. Thus, a methodology crafted to study the Azande, the Xhosa and the Barotse came to be applied to the industrial settings and urban communities in the Midlands as sites for research.

The early work in Africa was extensive, and it was influenced by the legal background of many of the practitioners. It recognised the use of the extended site interview and nodes of connection that would lead to application of Barnes’s work on network analysis and that of J. Clyde Mitchell.

All of this coming home and reorientation of anthropology was occurring at a time of decolonisation, ceremonies that constituted an “amnesia at midnight”, as Erskine Childers put it – of the lowering of the British flag at independence ceremonies in darkened stadiums at midnight.

From this period, I developed an ever-deeper interest in urban sociology, above all in migration, and I was indebted for years as a university teacher for the literature and research to which the late Professor J. Clyde Mitchell, Valdo Pons, Peter Worsley, David Morgan, and others had introduced me, both in terms of theoretical models derived from migration studies in Africa and their own research of the experience of migrants from tribal settings in towns, be it Clyde Mitchell’s beautiful study Kalela Dance and his later Causes of Labour Migration, or Valdo Pons’s study Stanleyville, or his later Contemporary Interpretation of Manchester of the 1830s and 1840s which included a critique of Engels J.P. Kay, C.W. Cooke Taylor, and Richard Parkinson’s comments on Manchester’s life and industrialism, including the position of the Irish in those narratives, their conditions and characteristics.

As to the University life of the day, it was exciting. There were the usual divisions. I recall in the students’ union vigorous discussions. Some had read Althusser and found it difficult to talk to Labourites or the syndicalist-minded who were perceived to not deal adequately with the consequences of either ‘hegemony’ or ‘mode of production’, while at other times the two Communist Party factions faced off, with those supporting Berlinguer’s Italian Revisionism pitted against those who read the Daily Worker. Conversations were brightened by such questions as, ‘Who do you report to? and ‘Do you sell the paper?’.

Yet there were moments of great unity too. Everyone on the Left, I recall, combined on one occasion leaving the students’ union to go to Salford to protest at Enoch Powell’s appearance as the guest of the Tory Party. I recall, too, how Roy Hattersley’s political career was taking off in the constituency to which I had moved, Wythenshawe, and the ongoing debate as to the future direction of the Labour Party was a heated one, between Harold Wilson’s future built on the “white heat of technology” and the more historically referenced and ideologically minded Michael Foot who drew from a proud Labour tradition of organised labour and the unions.

Of course, 1968 was a formative year of hope in so many parts of the world, a moment of emancipation and liberation. Even in the Global North, in the atmosphere of Les Trente Glorieuses of the capitalist world and in the relative, if oppressive, stability of the Eastern Bloc, people, young and old, were imagining, writing and discussing, in private and public gatherings, new emancipatory possibilities.

In May 1968, student protests in the Sorbonne – dismissed by French ministers as the mere outburst of libertines – spread across France to become a two-week general strike as millions of workers seized their factories in an explosion of imagination and aspiration. In August 1968, the people of Prague took part in hundreds of acts of non-violent resistance against a Soviet invasion designed to crush the liberalising initiatives of the Czech government.

In all of this agitation, the organised labour of trade unions played a crucial role.

I myself have been a proud trade unionist since my teens and all through my adult life. I saw its role in university life. I was the founder in 1969 of the teaching section of the     Workers’ Union of Ireland, which later became part of SIPTU, one of Ireland’s largest trade unions. Trade unions have played an important role in history and continue to do so, delivering transformative societal change, including in our current circumstances.

In our contemporary times, it is good to recall the atmosphere and emancipatory potential of that year of 1968.

The utopian vision, and the belief in the capacity of non-violent political movements to achieve transformative change, are required now more than ever, not only to confront the residues, revival and invocation of racism, xenophobia, inequality, and injustice, not only to continue the stand for the dignity and rights of every human being, but also to confront the great new challenges and interacting crises of the coming century – the consequences of climate change, biodiversity loss and a redirection of economies towards sustainable development, for all peoples.

This requires the vindication of old rights and the articulation and winning of new ones. Above all, it requires a new spirit of global solidarity, such as the spirit demonstrated by the civil rights movement of over 50 years ago.

The times in which I studied in Manchester were exciting times of hope and promise, times of emancipatory scholarship and literature.

As I prepared this lecture, however, as a reminder to me it seemed of Thomas Merton’s version of the ‘Serendipity of Books’, the book that fell to me was not a political tract but a Fontana paperback, The Future of Man by Jesuit physicist Pierre Teilhard De Chardin, the great Christian humanist, somebody whom this university has honoured by naming a building after him.

That book of papers, delivered in the 1940s, published in French in 1959, and in English in 1964, spoke of the imaginative significance of some basic principles of physics, but above all to what a state human consciousness might evolve.

Teilhard’s concept of the ‘Omega Point’ – that of a universe evolving towards a maximum state of complexity and consciousness, towards a new point of balance that delivered, as he hoped and suggested, an inevitable peace – is an uplifting concept that has in its time been cited far and wide, including in literature –  Flannery O’Connor’s          Everything That Rises Must Converge is a reference to his work.

Are we to abandon the project of achieving peace in diversity? Is lasting peace achievable? Teilhard De Chardin answers in The Future of Man:

“Despite all appearances to the contrary, mankind is not only capable of living in peace but by its very structure cannot fail eventually to achieve peace […]. Peace, shows us two complementary faces […]: first a steep slope, only to be climbed by constant effort in the face of many setbacks;     and ultimately the point of balance to which the whole system must inevitably come.”

And he goes on to suggest that – the concord that must therefore, of necessity, eventually prevail on Earth will take the form of,

“some sort of tense cohesion pervaded and inspired with the same energies […] which were previously wasted in bloodshed: unanimity in search and conquest, sustained among us by the universal resolve to raise ourselves upwards, all straining shoulder to shoulder, towards even greater heights of consciousness and freedom?”

The literature to which De Chardin’s work gave such impetus suggests true peace invites to a fulfilling project for humankind, a realisation of its potential to become finally alive to realise the possibilities and demands of its evolution. It echoes an immense body of writing that can be found in the history of most cultures.

Why is it then that we find ourselves at this very moment still so painfully incapable of agreeing among ourselves? Why does the threat and promulgation of war still appear so menacing and widespread? Why do we accept failure in diplomacy and regard war as a natural inevitability?

Is it because those who hold power and the institutions which serve them have still not purged themselves sufficiently of what De Chardin called the “demon of immobilism”?

Or could it be that the underlying antagonism which separates those at the conference tables represents, as De Chardin put it,

“the eternal conflict between motion and inertia, the cleavage between one part of the world that moves and another that does not seek to advance”?

How then might we muster a heightened consciousness to challenge a dangerous and divisive immobilism, enable in passing fulfilling relationships, enable resonance with each other, as Professor Hartmut Rosa of Jena University might argue? And what role does the university as an institution have in enabling such an evolution of consciousness?

I suggest that achieving our new point of equilibrium requires us to rekindle our faith in the possibilities not yet realised of humanity, in each other, our faith that good things can come, that peace is possible and is even our natural disposition.

Rather than competing in siren calls for an increasing defence budgets across the world, we might work to develop a greater consciousness of the existential plight facing humankind, of life as it is being lived and experienced, seek to provide an institutional framework that sees difference as not necessarily being threatening, but rather as an opportunity for an enriching co-operation towards shared goals.

As to the “immobilism” of which De Chardin spoke,  an example might be, of how an unquestioned block of scholarship, with its assumptions left untested, can be a source of not only immobilism but serves as rationalisation of a neo-classicalism in, for example, the social sciences, one that resists critique while being a hegemonic source of policy.

I recall how, in the 1960s when I was a young student at Indiana University, I was encouraged to concentrate on what was suggested as, seminal texts on development theory and practice, on a set of studies that were concentrated on industrialism as an end point of successful development. Thus began my encounter with modernisation theory, pillared as it was on such foundational texts as the Princeton Studies of Almond and Verba, Huntingdon,  Lucien Pye, McClelland and others.

Their shared model consisted of a simple division of the world between developed and backward countries and would be later extended to create a continuum where characteristics of modernising potential were contrasted with inhibiting traditional factors to an inevitable prosperous alternative industrial society. The balance found by the authors decided a people’s position in the continuum.

Through this culturally ethnocentric, linear and reductionist prism, so valuably critiqued later in one of his most widely used texts in The Princeton Studies by Norman Long, one was invited to study the sources of one’s people’s ‘backwardness’, as Orlando Fals Borda put it in a memorable paper at the time. Those seminal texts from Princeton University Press shaped sociological teaching for many years, particularly where sociology was being introduced as a new subject.

The existential challenges that face us today – be it global hunger, malnutrition and poverty, sustainability, biodiversity loss and climate change – they all require us to arrive at a new enhanced consciousness, a new point of balance, concord, resonance, an agreement as to the means to survival itself.

The writings to which I have referred earlier of which Teilhard de Chardin’s were part, that is on a consciousness that sought peace, recognised interdependence, all emanated shortly after the time of the foundation of the United Nations, of a seemed shared aspiration towards making war unnecessary, of global peaceful co-existence, a period of deep reflection that included on the evolution of human consciousness, of achieving a balance between individuation and the purpose of others, a subject that Gottfried Leibniz, Carl Jung, Friedrich Nietzsche and Arthur Schopenhauer, amongst others, all contributed so much in their differing approaches.

It was a time of burgeoning scientific and technological discovery, accompanied by a not inconsiderate hubris – the debate on how science and technology might impact on society very much a secondary consideration, if a consideration at all. Harold Wilson’s speech in Manchester University on the “white heat of technology” took such a hubristic tone. I was so often later to be struck by the similarities of tone in such hubris to that speech by Francis Bacon hundreds of years earlier on the conquering of nature, as part of the ‘Myth of Progress’:

“I lead to you Nature with all her children to bind her to your service and make her your slave.”

The legacies of an uncritical approach to the science-technology-society debate has led to desperate choices in societies where fear has replaced hope or possibility of        co-operation, to a competitive pursuit of ever more deadly instruments of war and mass destruction, indeed how the capacity of destruction of lives and settings without identification, and with impunity, the growing dominance of the military-industrial complex in parts of the global economy, itself a legacy of such surrender to technos, and the abandonment in the discourse of peace and non-violence as ideals and instruments of harmonious living.

Is there a possibility of achieving a consciousness to handle these issues, such as De Chardin’s work poses? Can we move past points of blockage, be they conscious or unconscious,   to real emancipatory progress in realising the possibilities of the fulfilment of our human potential? Can we move on from ideological biases so inherent in foundational works that informed hegemonic models in our scholarship, such as the Princeton Studies did in development economics?

The ‘universalism’ of human need and capacity, which might form part of that consciousness of which I speak as alternative is a contested term. It is one that has been the source of competing versions. I think for example of the version advocated by Richard Titmuss, the former     Professor of Social Policy at the London School of Economics and arguably one of the key intellectual theorists of Britain’s welfare state and National Health Service. His was one symbolised by a culture of social solidarity, one that was formed by institutions such as that great human achievement, that is the NHS, providing as it did publicly funded hospital care for soldiers returning from war. His vision included a public version of social insurance and pension security.

That version of universalism which Titmuss elucidated in his seminal 1970 book, The Gift Relationship, constituted a manifesto, inter alia, on the advantages of a free health system over a privatised version, on how altruism binds societies together, it served as an exposition of the tension between science-based medicine and the therapeutic importance of other aspects of healthcare which are more difficult to measure, for example people’s capacity to care for each other.

The Gift Relationship was but one of so many influential texts of the time that have proved powerful tools in the analysis of welfare provision. Titmuss’s analysis is even more relevant now in an age of financialised healthcare policy, at a time too when health and welfare systems are under sustained attack from many quarters.

In my lecture at Manchester University in 2012, I spoke of the experience of the Irish in Manchester in the mid to late 19th century, of the ‘eulogists’ of industrialism and their critics, of how the well-intentioned pamphlet of James Philips Kay on their condition came to be used as a tool against the poorest people in Manchester.

All of the experience of my own as a migrant studying migration at the end of the 1960s was long after the great tidal waves of Irish arrivals at midpoint and the end of the   19th century. Standing in the historical background too was the infamous Manchester Outrage in which three Irish Nationalists (William Philip Allen, Michael Larkin, and Michael O’Brien, known as the Manchester Martyrs) were hanged in 1867 following their conviction for murder of a police officer in Manchester.

There were terrible events to come which would be inflicted on the warm-hearted people of Manchester, including the IRA’s horrific Manchester bomb in 1996, and a people to whom experience later again hearts went out following the Manchester Arena bombings of May 2017. Thankfully we are now in better times.

Long before my years at Manchester University in the late 1960s, I had been familiar with the migration experience of the Irish in Britain. I had a particular interest from my summer work in Sussex, while I was at university in Galway, in how anti-Irish stereotypes continued through the centuries. My first letter to an English newspaper was in reply to such in the London Evening Standard in 1962.

Migrants have always been at particular risk from gross stereotyping, regarded as marginal people, insufficiently grateful, reluctant to acknowledge the virtues of the point of destination, forget their origins and practices, unwilling to assimilate.  The stereotyped stage depiction of the Irishman is as old as the first production of Sir Robert Howard’s The Committee produced in 1662 on the Restoration stage, and it is a stereotype that continued through the centuries thanks to racist, xenophobic Punch cartoons.

The structural functionalism within the social sciences would not alone suffer from a sedentary bias, but of a failure to allow migrant agency, and thus had a limited perspective that missed the transience that is at the heart of the act of migration.  The universality of the act of migration, of movement, has not been given due regard in either scholarship or policy.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, has spoken recently of the growing hostility towards people on the move. Reflecting on his nearly 40-year career he remarked,

“I have never seen such toxicity, such poison, in the language of politics, in the media, in social media and even in everyday discussions and conversations around this issue. This toxicity often focuses, sadly, tragically, on refugees, migrants and foreigners. That should be of concern to us all.”

That we have sunk to this level, that those with an authority and experience are driven to use language like this, represents a damning indictment of our present circumstances.

Regrettably, we are losing, be it through a consciousness rendered mute, broken, made weary, alienated, anomic,    and at times perhaps obsessed with the very struggle for survival in a world of spiralling inequality, controllable but uncontrolled capitalism. What is lost is one of the most fundamental tenets of our humanity: the capacity to share the vulnerability as well as the security of the ‘Other’ in conditions of transition in space and time.

The artistic response to migration, on the other hand, has shown an understanding which sociology has so often missed. Art is revelatory in what it can capture, of what formal studies can overlook. The exhibition in this University’s Whitworth Gallery on forced migration and displacement offers a nuanced, complex story driven by artists with lived experiences who have the insight, the creative imagination and the resilience with which to share their own stories. They open out the vision on migration and shift our collective thinking away from a fixation with ‘crisis’, boats, tents and mobile peoples, towards acknowledging histories that are incomplete.

We are all migrants in time. Migration has been the natural condition of humankind as long as historical facts have been recorded. The benefits of such migration in every age have been of such importance, not least to scholarship. The migratory soul is a curious soul, a creative one, as the writings of migrants show.

Offering a multi-disciplinary understanding of migration is an appropriate project within the consciousness of universities. After all, the consciousness for which universities were established to achieve, might cultivate, with a mix of reflection, reflexivity and concerned compassion, must be continually nurtured from an instinct grounded in the betterment of society, in sustaining not only humanity’s advance in addressing challenges, but in opening opportunities for a shared fulfilment of life for which good scholarship is critical to the ongoing pursuit of a more just, peaceful, inclusive and sustainable world.

I am well aware that universities have been undergoing enormous upheaval over a number of years as the assumed superiority of a neoliberal agenda, in the service of a suggested urgent neo-utilitarianism, has seeped into,  not just the administration and bureaucracy of higher education, but into what constituted the setting for teaching and the possibilities for fundamental research, the sharing of scholarship and inspirational teaching, indeed the very ethos of university life.  

This is a circumstance that is sourced in a profound acceptance of a neo-functionalism, one that has prioritised the commodification of the learning experience, a near-obsession with the necessity of demonstrating an empirically demonstrable efficiency (with scant regard for a more generally judged effectiveness, socially or more widely defined), productivity, value for money, and other metrics that have been narrowly defined and measured, too often at the expense of real, deep learning, of memorable teaching, that can be genuinely emancipatory for the student or scholar.

In reflecting on such developments, I have found myself referring back to Weber’s nightmare of a rationality that in time would counter the original purposes of institutions,   that would morph into an irrational form, incapable of adjustment to change internally or externally.  It is difficult to reject as an account of our contemporary period.

In periods of hegemonic domination, even those with high intellectual qualifications can act as the “immobilising force”, to which De Chardin made reference, One only has to recall the example I have offered of the influence of the     Princeton Studies in the area of the sociology of development or modernisation theory in general, that was so difficult to subject to dislodge.

What holds hegemony, often within an educational institution, is a set of influences, some uncritically taken for granted, some may be sourced externally and some internally.

The list of external influences on the academy, which have manifested as a series of profound concerns facing universities in recent times has been well enumerated by many, including Keith Thomas quite recently in the London Review of Books.   He pointed to issues such as, the discontinuance of free university education, the withdrawal of direct public funding for the teaching of the humanities and the social sciences, the subjection of universities to an intrusive regime of government regulation and inquisitorial audit, the crude attempt to measure and increase scholarly ‘output’, the requirement that all academic research have an ‘impact’ on the economy.

Then there may be also what I would call the internal constraints within the academy – further versions of De Chardin’s “immobilisers” – which is reflected in a bias towards the measurable and a creeping over-specialisation that serves what is the current demand rather than the full range of possibilities.

When it comes to university ethos, Edward Said offered the example of John Henry Newman as an argument against the consequences of over-specialisation. Indeed he suggested that the model of academic freedom should be the migrant or the traveller:

“[We should be free] to discover and travel among other selves, other identities, other varieties of the human adventure. But, most essentially, in this joint discovery of Self and Other, it is the role of the academy to transform what might be conflict, or contest, or assertion, into reconciliation, mutuality, recognition and creative interaction”.

Said’s model was founded on the concept of the scholar as explorer in pursuit of knowledge and freedom, allows for a contrast of the academic model of the professional who seeks to be “king and potentate”, with the traveller who is dependent, not on power, but motion, willing to enter different worlds,

“[to] use different idioms, and understand a variety of disguises, masks, and rhetorics.”

James C. Scott applied such a model in his theoretical work on Peasants’ Strategies of Defence.

The traveller, free in spirit and unshackled, embraces novelty, and avoids predetermined paths, crossing over to the space of the ‘Other’. Such a paradigm is the cultural idiom of academic freedom, but it also embodies the emancipatory essence of an inclusive and democratic society.

We are thus at a perilous juncture in the long history of the academy. Universities, as sites, sources and experiences of learning, have, for several decades now, been under continuous attack from a variety of sources, some overt, others covert.

Universities are reporting a sense of an attrition of range and depth, loss of interdisciplinary exchange, leading in many cases to a degradation of the very scholarship and teaching for which they were established.

Such adjustments, when accepted, have usually been rationalised to the public as an inevitable search for “relevance”, often as unavoidable responses to market forces. Such capitulation to perceived contemporary demands can miss much of what is possible as well as important.

As Geoffrey Boultan and Colin Lucas have noted, of an earlier time – the Thirties.

“A good example in this context, was Roosevelt’s 1937 [Foresight] Commission established to advise on the most likely innovations of the succeeding 30 years.”

The Commission not only identified many unrealised technologies, but also missed nuclear energy, lasers, computers, jet engines radar, sonar, antibiotics, pharmaceuticals, the genetic code and many more. In addition, the scientists who studied climate change in the 1970s were regarded as irrelevant at the time.

In our current circumstances of increasingly fractured polities, universities are also increasingly subjected to polarising criticism, even as they preserve spaces that protect free speech.

However, any adequate discussion of our present circumstances must now consider not just the loss of academic freedom at the level of the individual scholar, but, I suggest, the loss of the institution of the ethos of a university itself, and of the space of university discourse.

Universities, in their creative, freethinking mode, are a vital resource for the future.

The crisis we face is an intellectual one within a moral context. It reflects how, for example, in the subjects now taught as economics, we have passed from moral economy through political economy to a technical training in measurement and evaluation for which we have neither adequate theory nor scholarly methodology.

I recall that it was in 1968 that the first movements for change in the teaching of economics allowing for normative perspectives started in Manchester, was shared in Oxford and Paris. This approach was not widespread, nor did it last.

We are coming out of that dark period, and it is welcome, when decades of Keynesianism in policy influence had given way to decades influenced by the theories such as those of    Friedrich Von Hayek, who favoured unrestrained market dominance. That largely uncontested paradigm, one that has emerged triumphant, is a paradigm that has had profound consequences for all institutions including universities. It was a paradigm that made assumptions and demands as to the connection between scholarship, politics, economy and society. It was deeply divisive and exclusionary in its consequences.

The public world is now again a space of contestation, as the great philosopher Jürgen Habermas has articulated so well, but less well served by public discourse than when he first wrote on this topic because of our further surrender to technos at the cost of anti-intellectualism.

It is a space that has set that which is democratic in its accountability is in unavoidable tension with that which is unaccountable in its power or consequences.  We are all challenged to engage with the recovery of democratic accountability.

So much ground has been lost in terms of what Habermas coined “the public sphere”, the public world, the shared essential space of an independent people free to participate and change their circumstances, to imagine their future.

The academy is morally challenged, I believe: whether to drift into, be part of, a consensus that accepts a failed narrow paradigm of existence, or to offer, or seek to recover, drawing on its rich scholarly tradition, at its best moments of disputation and discourse, alternatives that offer, with energy, a democratic, liberating, creative and sustainable future, with potential emancipatory outcomes, deeper consciousness and human flourishing.

Universities are challenged therefore, once again, and with energy displayed within and outside the walls, to embrace and even foster the role of critical citizen, drawing on a sense of history, encouragement and facilitating imagination, disputing taken-for-granted assumptions of competing hegemonic models of narrow utility.

What is now needed of universities is the seeking of the space, the capacity, the community of scholarship necessary to robustly defend the free, critical, scholarly university tradition, and challenge, for example, such reductive paradigms of connection between economy and society, ethics and morality, democratic discourse and authoritarian imposition that have failed so demonstrably.

I believe that universities can lead in privileging a new global consciousness that calls for new paradigms of engagement with the world, contribute meaningfully to the discourse on the pressing challenges of the day, be it the crisis of democracy, the ecological crisis, the humanitarian crisis, global hunger and poverty, or the privileging of war at the expense of peace and multilateral engagement.

May I suggest that all of these issues are fundamentally based on how we take each other into account, be it by averting our gaze or celebrating together our differences, vulnerabilities, joy and anxieties in interdependency – how we may seek to “resonate” with each other, to quote philosophy Professor Hartmut Rosa.

All of these suggestions are about reclaiming the university as a space for curiosity, and of energy, as a space that accommodates strangeness, and even eccentricity too, a space that is a source of ethics.

I myself recall the curiosity which fed the desire to be inside the walls of a university before I had the capacity to do so.      I recall the power of collective disputation and action within it as a student, the sheer privilege when it came of being a university teacher to curious students, so many of whom went on to remain friends, colleagues.

Am I hopeful then? I resist being driven back to Adornolesque pessimism. Yet, that seminal 1941 essay by Herbert Marcuse, ‘Some Social Implications of Modern Technology’, remains a cautionary and prophetic account of all those dimensions of technical reason open to repressive and ideological utilisation in the hands of authoritarian regimes. Too much of it has come to be.

Despite this, I believe that a university response, which is critically open to originality in theory and research, committed to humanistic values in teaching, is open to heterodoxy, has a unique opportunity to make a global contribution of substance to the great challenges we face;  that such a university will come to be celebrated by future generations as the hub of original, critical thought, and science and a promoter of their application through new models of interconnection between science, technology,   administration and society, and that also by using established tools of scholarship for new purposes, even in ways that can help make redress for the mistakes and damage of centuries.

Is it too late? I hope not. It will take such a release of emancipatory energy to turn matters around, to save the university experience as one of originality, wonder, performance, awe and the shared joy of scholarship and enhanced consciousness.

Universities always had, and must retain, a crucial role in creating a society in which there is an openness to consideration, and critical exploration, of alternatives to any prevailing hegemony for the betterment of society. This requires academics to feel free to seize moments, to have the courage to provide suitable reaction, to be subversive of received thought, assumptions and fallacies, to have a shared consciousness to tackle the great issues facing us, to critique hegemony.

In developing an evolved consciousness, I suggest that must include offering a robust response to rising global hunger and global poverty, famine, avoidable pandemics. We must allow power to transfer to the peopled planet, allow their resources to serve them.

If I might suggest a practical project that I believe might have special relevance for Manchester University and its tradition, it is by making a return to the use of theoretical and applied anthropological fieldwork and scholarship to help redress the failures of transparency in current development practice.

For example, the current discussion that has opened up in Africa between those who want an increase in industrial agriculture within existing international trade models, versus alternative views, such as my own which I have expressed in papers I delivered at the World Food Summit in Rome and the Dakar Food Security Conference, both last year, which seek to break food dependency and privilege smallholders of land and allow for new innovations such as eco-agronomy, and keep African land in African ownership.  I oppose the  De Soto model knowing, as I do, its consequences.

I believe it would be a valuable exercise in consciousness for the university in its present circumstances to be on the side of the smallholder in the future of Africa, rather than the side of such as the unaccountable seed or fertiliser monopoly, or those abusing the land title system to buy vast tracts of land for export of crop or cattle feed, land that should be used for food sufficiency and nutrition.

I suggest that the powerful instrument of anthropology can be used to great effect. An emerging scholarship that is informed by evidence ‘from below’, emanating from a new, empirical and peer-reviewed anthropology practiced by African scholars, helped by those who support them, offers the tools required to empower Africans and help re-equip multilateral institutions.

Anthropology can re-people economics, considerately hear of essential needs, offer responses that are appropriately respectful of what is received wisdom, what is complex and local, help intergenerational cohesion, encourage practitioners, facilitate democratic institutional practice.

Then too given that food insecurity and hunger are key drivers behind migration, the pursuit of food sufficiency represents a significant contributory factor to tackling dangerous forced migratory flows. A reconstituted anthropology can, in its practices, promote a powerful connection between people and place. It can constitute a people-directed response to breaking dependency and poverty with the capacity for    state-building and the promotion of transitions to democracy.

In its being people-focused, anthropology can nurture capacities, in circumstances as envisaged in Amartya Sen’s Capabilities Approach, thus creating opportunities for everyone to fulfil their potential, utilising their talents and wisdoms.

Such a new anthropological scholarship can assist, I believe, in achieving real, emancipatory potential for new models of food production systems.

I can go further. I believe that failure to facilitate an inclusive, ground-based consciousness of the food security crisis, and to allow for a pluralism of approaches in teaching agricultural economics and development theory, and specifically food production, is a deprivation of students’ basic rights,     indeed citizen rights.

Surely it is necessary to know, and to understand, the ontology and epistemology that underpin development models that have been so influential over the past 40 years and which have determined the lives of so many.

Scholarship at its best is a shared achievement. The social disciplines have nothing to lose at all by working imaginatively in the “interstices”, as Edward Said put it in his foundational text Orientalism, between their disciplines.

May I suggest too that we return and privilege philosophy’s crucial role in our universities. Philosophy can assist in our reconsideration of ethical dimensions in so many areas – public accountability, war, trade, debt and food security,    inter alia.

Can universities provide the source of hope necessary, creating the discourse for tackling climate change, global hunger and enabling peace? Yes they can.

Academic freedom has never been a more important principle of the university ethos. It must be enshrined as a core enabling tenet of academia, a moral and legal protection underscoring the conviction that the freedom of enquiry by faculty members is essential to the mission and principles of the academy, and that scholars should have freedom to teach or communicate ideas or facts, including those that may be inconvenient to external political groups or funding authorities, without facing repercussions such as censorship, job loss, or even imprisonment.

Michael Polanyi, in his 1958 book, Personal Knowledge, stated that academic freedom was a fundamental necessity for the production of “true knowledge”, that a structure of liberty is essential for the advancement of science, and that the freedom to pursue scholarship for its own sake is a prerequisite for the production of knowledge through peer review and the scientific method.

However, when the freedom being lost is not just the individual scholar, but the concept of the university itself,   we are at a new level of threat. Could it be that scholars, threatened, insecure in their individual challenges, are failing to save the very institution itself beneath their feet?

I believe universities are challenged now, not only to recover the moral purpose of original thought, of deepening consciousness, of emancipatory scholarship, but not to lose the right or impulse to challenge those inevitabilities of thought and practice – such as that of conflict resolvable only by war – inevitabilities that need to be questioned, but which, in the changed circumstances of communication, are immune from accountability or critical engagement.

It is through such sharing of scholarship, of ideas, that we may share the joy of intellectual discoveries that co-operation facilitates, even serendipitous discoveries, thus advancing the truly emancipatory potential of academia for society and for all of life, ensuring that the fruits of academia can contribute solutions to the great global, social, economic and ecological challenges we face on our planet, seek to advance the possibilities of fulfilment for all that are there beyond the narrow provision of a source of wealth for any single individual or corporation.

I agree with those such as Professor Jennie Stephens who write that that another form of university is possible, one beyond any narrow functionalism. Rather than continuing to reinforce an individualistic approach to academic success, universities could be contributing to the public good by shifting human societies onto a path towards a more sustainable, peaceful and inclusive future.

By linking their scholarly missions with global solidarity and climate justice, universities can expand their impact and relevance by connecting more directly with a diversity of community needs.

I believe that the emancipatory potential of universities is enormous, but universities have become under-utilised as a driving force for societal change, for the public good, for their potential to support and hasten the transformative social, political, and economic changes required to maintain a society with human wellbeing and planetary health at its core.

There is an urgent need to resist the quiet capture of universities, overtly or covertly, by powerful elites and corporate interests, to abandon cultural complacency about growing political, economic, and environmental injustices associated with concentrated wealth and power, to consider how restructuring universities as institutions committed to redistributing and sharing knowledge, wealth and power, rather than perpetuating policies and practices that concentrate and constrain knowledge, wealth, and power, could yield transformational benefits.

Will universities find the necessary courage? Will they seek the space, the capacity, the community of scholarship necessary to challenge such paradigms of the connection between economy, ecology, society, ethics, democratic discourse and authoritarian imposition as have failed – will they, as necessary alternative, drawing on their rich university tradition, recover those necessary moments of disputation and discourse, seek to offer alternatives that propose a democratic, liberating and sustainable future?

The change of which I speak is about recovering the right to pose the important questions such as Immanuel Kant did through the development of his form of transcendental realism in his time:       

“What might we know? What should we do? What may we hope?”

It was Raymond Williams who said,

“To be truly radical is to make hope possible, rather than despair convincing”.

Universities are best when they are living communities of scholarship and critical change, when they are sites for reflection, creativity, participation, transformation and, yes,   a radicalism that can be invoked as better moments of their contribution to humanity.

For those of us who have had the privilege of being university teachers, and those who still are, the university is, I suggest,  a space from which new futures have always emerged, even utopian ideals for which the university community – teachers and students – have so often marched out together.

We must make all of this possible again with the greatest of urgency. It is time to recover the diversity of scholarship,    the unity of scholarly support, to strike out for originality,     to seek as comparative standards, and be open to, the great moments of intellectual work from around the world.

Out of a struggle for the recovery of the public world, the possibility of the emergence of truly emancipatory connected paradigms of policy and research are visible on the horizon.

In my mind I have been recalling my time as a student and as a young university teacher, a time when students and I so often at weekends shared a journey to a public space where we offered our views with anyone willing to listen. I believe strongly that this is a valuable aspect of universities in the public system. Such a spirit I sought to capture in one of the few poems I have written since I became President.  I wrote it in tribute to Mary McPartlan, singer, feminist, lecturer and trade-unionist, with whom I had shared many a stage before her passing. 

“Of Saturdays Made Holy”

The night is long and I awake

Recall the making of the march,

On those Saturdays made holy,

The beat of feet behind banners,

That bore the glory of the words,

The call for a life made equal,

Banners held steady for the speech,

Gold threaded, fringed, eyeleted


With care, for the carrying,

To defeat the opposing breeze,


Borne by arms made strong,

From work of mind, of heart and hand.


Those words, sent out to cheers

I search for now,

They are not gone,

Nor is the memory,

Of how they danced, without restraint,

Skipping back and forth to cheers,

In joyful subversion

Of the ordinary.


The echo of that beat of feet behind banners,

On Saturdays made holy

Is slow to come.

Can it be that it is lost,

Perhaps forgotten?

Surely not so.


For in the long sweep of history,

In the stories that will be told,

Others will hear of how behind banners

They marched, women and men

And children too, on Saturdays made holy,

It will be told of how they sometimes won,

And often lost, if never defeated

It will matter that they sometimes wept

On folding, for another day, those banners

That carried words, emancipatory


The night though long

And dawn so slow in breaking

Yet morning light, glorious,

Reveals how from those arrows fledged in history,

That missed their mark in darkness

Have sprung in light some frail fruit trees,

Of hope


In other times, an old planet weary finds new life,

Renewal, from the music of the heart.

And now a new song emerges,

From behind banners gold threaded, again made sacred,

On Saturdays made holy, with words emancipatory,

As voices rise in unison,

And sing of love,

And a new day,

For all humanity.


Go raibh míle maith agaibh. Beir beannacht.

Thank you.