Project: The Civic University

This month saw the launch of a new project that I am leading at Goldsmiths, University of London. I joined the university in late May 2021, and since then have been working on various initiatives related to the university’s new Civic Mission. This week saw the launch of a major component of that mission, in the form of a Civic University agreement co-designed and developed in partnership with 11 other key civic organisations in Lewisham, South East London.

Goldsmiths is a university with a strong and proud history of connections to its local communities and local context. Founded in the nineteenth century as a technical college dedicated to serving the communities of a particular corner of South East London, it has maintained a strong sense of itself over the years as an institution which is inherently connected to its locale, its place.

Radical university, radical borough

Writing in 1993, but reflecting on his time at the university in the 1970s and 80s, former Warden of the College Richard Hoggart wrote that:

‘The college belonged to its district, was making offerings to its district and assertions about elements of the good life – music, literature, art, history, philosophy – which it wanted to give its neighbours, which it believed they had the right of access to, and which they had over the decades responded to’ (181)

Much has changed since Hoggart’s time, of course. Goldsmiths is a radical institution, that sits in a part of London which itself has a particularly strong tradition of political and cultural radicalism. We might think of the Battle of Lewisham in 1977, where local people in New Cross clashed with a National Front rally attempting to March through the town centre, to the heyday of the Young British Artists of the 1990s and, more recently, protests around racial justice and climate action. New Cross, Deptford and Lewisham have been synonymous with both political radicalism and cultural effervesce.  

In the context of a modern return to notions of the ‘civic university’, as seen in the recent creation of a Civic Universities Network and development by multiple universities of new civic university agreements, this history of radicalism is one of the things that makes Goldsmiths a particularly interesting place to be.

Weird Civics

The status of Goldsmiths as radical, creative institution, and Lewisham as radical, creative borough, mean that there is huge potential to effect a rethinking and re-imagining of what a ‘civic university’ can be. At their best, civic universities evoke institutions closely linked to local communities, sharing resources and ideas in way that expands significantly on a narrowly defined pedagogical/ research mission. At their worst ‘civic universities’ can evoke paternalism, parochialism, and a nostalgic harking back to the age of charitable, philanthropic benevolence out of which many universities were indeed founded, but away from which we have rightly moved.

A return to idea of the ‘civic’ in 2021 requires a different angle. It requires, perhaps, a radical edge. It requires an engagement with new ideas about what both cities and universities can be, and an ongoing critical engagement with the wider politics, and historical baggage, that come with a return to ‘civics’. It requires, in other words, a form of engaged, questioning ‘creative civics’ or ‘radical civics’. Perhaps, even, a form of slightly awkward or ‘weird civics’.

Goldsmiths is, it seems to me, exactly the right context within to explore such ideas, and from which to launch such a project.  

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