Think about that: What are we good for?

On 17 November 2022 I attended the Knowledge Equity Network Summit (#KEN2022). Leeds University is taking this very seriously, that is take-away number one. Vice-Chancellor Simone Buitendijk and Deputy Vice Chancellor for Research and Innovation Nick Plant had already taken their stand in a blog, video and a draft declaration. But in the opening speech by Simone it was even more convincing. The best thing to do is to watch her opening speech yourself, it will probably appear in due notice here. In summarizing I put forward the two phrases that stood out from her presentation, and these are “radical collaboration” and generosity.

The network is an initiative that fits sustainable development goal 17 (partnerships for the goals) very well. To work on comprehensive, inter- (or trans-) disciplinary, evidence-based and inclusive solutions and thereby ending poverty (sdg 1), have zero hunger (sdg 2), achieve good health & wellbeing (sdg 3), and high quality education (sdg 4), just to name the first four. It is possible, claims Simone, to do good ánd well. This is reflected in the Leeds Values, where next to Inclusivity and Integrity, Collaboration and Compassion are listed as the first two. According to Simone we need to change the definition of success in research and teaching. Radical collaboration brings the world more (and gets us further) than relentless competition. And that requires us to redefine our core missions of education, research and societal “impact”.  From the around 50-60 participants, at least a third were from Leeds. However there were representatives from all continents, and the hybrid online facilities were wonderful (at least that’s how it felt for me, but I was attending physically).

What binds us is hope, not fear

After this kick-off three plenary presentations followed, from Tawana Kupe  (Vice-Chancellor/Principal University of Pretoria), Johan Rooryck (Executive Director cOAlition S) and Dawn Freshwater (Vice-Chancellor University of Auckland). Tawana emphasized that universities are great spaces for debate, and that we should show transformational and intentional leadership (“it is time to grow up, and be strong”). Universities function for the benefit of society, and the question is what we do to achieve this. The best phrase from his talk for me was that we should not take it for granted that we are doing good, but we should concentrate on what we are good for. It resonates with my belief that we should not so strongly talk about impact (that is about us), but about relevance (that is about the other). Johan, it was so nice to see him again after two years, introduced the audience to Plan / cOAlition S. Here the take-away for me was that it is not enough to talk about open access, it should be free, immediate and equitable access. Also his strong focus on (an institutional) rights retention strategy is a very valid one. Make sure that you as author / researcher / teacher know your rights before you make any sort of agreement with a third party. This is even more powerful than the funder mandates. Dawn made some valid critical notes, because if we talk about knowledge equity, what knowledge are we talking about? You need a multitude of knowledge systems, and how do you also get (other, alternative) knowledge in? All of the presenters gathered afterwards in a panel where they stressed that what binds us is hope, not fear. Working together really helps, not to be inward looking, but to reach out, and offer or ask for help. We have put ourselves as higher education institutes in a difficult / awkward situation e.g. with the publishers, but if we created something, we can also uncreate it; if we have done something, we can also undo it.

Focus on (re)use

With this rich start of the day, six break-out sessions followed in the afternoon, and I attended two. At the first one I had been asked to make an introductory note, together with Curt Rice from the Norwegian University of Life Sciences. The breakout session was named “Reward and recognition for an open culture”. Curt issued a few interesting additions for the draft declaration, i.e., to make sustainability more prominent (you can only “win” if others join in), and to go away from “excellence”, and rephrase this as capacity building or accessibility. Our session ended with a few actions, e.g. to engage all (also supporting) staff in our R&R discussions (I refer you to this article about the divide between academic and support staff), to see if we could recognize / reward leaders and leading institutes who set a good example, and to recognize the involved citizen. Here it became evident that if we take life-long learning on board, the words student / citizen are exchangeable (my take-away and own conclusion). The second break-out session was on Open Education. We had a good discussion, after the introductions by María Soledad Ramírez Montoya, Tecnológico de Monterrey, and Leoniek Wijngaards-de Meij from Utrecht University. We thought it would be essential to not only focus on availability, but also on (re)use, and how this could be stimulated. We need communities of practitioners, that work with educational materials, to be involved. And Open Education is more than making educational material “FAIR”, actually here you also need to engage the communities of learners and teachers and see what is needed and valued. As a follow-up of the day the results of all sessions will be shared, and the facilitators did a good job in the first summary they made and shared in the last plenary session. Perhaps just to name a few: fund teams (not projects), demystify what we do (as higher education institutes, as units within these), and find the voices that are not often heard.

My introduction during the break-out session:
I connected reward and recognition to open science, bringing in mind what I found to be so to the point in the book Open Science: the Very Idea, by Frank Miedema, and where I wrote a blog about a few months ago. Science must constantly engage with the public(s). Opening up of science should ideally promote equality, inclusion, and diversity of research agendas. This requires an open society, and open culture, with safe spaces for deliberations where a diversity of publics and their problems can be heard. And people working on this should be recognized and rewarded for that. Next to that I called out to (academic) leadership, that is where the true transition can take place. We need people such as Simone Buitendijk, Frank Miedema and Jeroen Geurts (Rector Magnificus Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam) to step forward and be fair and consistent in how they deal with rewarding and recognition.

I showed these pictures: The Ambitions Open Science of the Netherlands summarized; The Open Science buffet, created by former colleague TU Delft Library, Esther Plomp; What the VU Amsterdam is doing around Recognition and Rewards; How the University of Utrecht is moving to a future where we talk about team efforts, dynamic career paths, and narratives / social impact as output.

Unlock knowledge together

Finally, as Simone stated at the closing session, we really should unlock knowledge together, to create a fair future. We can’t go on this way, and (together) we can change the world, we can undo what we have done. For this we need radical collaboration, and generosity, and start via our network(s) and with ourselves. Let’s not be driven by fear, competition, anger, chaos and fighting, and realize that we are so much more similar than different.

So overall a very fruitful day, where we covered so many different topics around knowledge equity, with a dedicated and constructive group. I hope I am able to make a useful contribution to this network, and will advise our university to step in, though that will of course be a collective decision to make. We need to recover the public good, try to reconceptualize the idea of power, and really involve all stakeholders and hear all voices.

Background information

This is what the University of Leeds stated around the Knowledge Equity Network: “As a values-driven institution, the University of Leeds is committed to making a difference in the world by increasing access to knowledge and by working collaboratively to tackle inequalities, benefit society and drive change. The Knowledge Equity Network will drive this important work.”

The idea now is that the University will facilitate a mutually agreeable process of engagement with her partners and key signatories of the Declaration.  The Knowledge Equity Network will set up regular opportunities to convene through forums and discussions to advance and monitor progress, working towards openness as a global community. “Through the development and enactment of a global Declaration on Knowledge Equity, we will capture our collective commitment and aspirations to reduce inequalities through increased access to knowledge.”

During the Summit it was announced that the formal launch will take place end of March / beginning of April 2023.  

Wilma van Wezenbeek
18 November 2022


Simone Buitendijk

Thank you, Wilma, for your excellent contribution to the day and for this equally excellent synopsis. I have already forwarded your blog to a few colleagues who were unable to be at the day.
Simone Buitendijk

Antonio Martínez-Arboleda

Dear Wilma, this blog post is amazing. We really value your thinking, generosity and drive. Great things ahead await for us. Being values-driven is the key! The role of universities will evolve, proactively and with intent, in response to the needs of the communities that we serve. Thank you so much for being there with your contribution and that of your institution and colleagues. ☺
Antonio Martínez-Arboleda. University of Leeds

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