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Academic Engagement in Public and Political Discourse

May 13-17, 2015

The University of Michigan addresses complex problems facing our world by encouraging collaboration among a diverse group of the world’s brightest students and faculty, offering academic rigor to our students both in the classroom and through real-world experiences, and creating a culture that focuses on the public good and changing the world with bold new ideas. On this latter point, a question is emerging about the role of public universities within society. Do public universities have a unique responsibility to become engaged within the discussions of the global challenges that are relevant to society, such as sustainability, health care, gun control, fiscal policy, international affair, etc.? Assuming that academic scholars have such a responsibility, how does one appropriately engage? How do scholars engage in a world in which knowledge is becoming democratized through social media and the proliferation of knowledge sources (both credible and biased) clouds public debate? In today’s world of public and political discourse, academic scholars cannot control their message and must therefore develop new rules of engagement that allow for more nuanced and fluid delivery of content.

This Michigan Meeting will be a culmination of an 18 month dialogue on an issue of interdisciplinary and global importance: the engagement of the academy in creating informed decision-making with the public and political realms. In particular, organizers are interested in stimulating a dialogue on faculty attitudes and best practices that cover a span of external engagement activities, including but not limited to: Congressional testimony, assistance to government agencies, board service, public presentations, media interviews, K-12 education, blogging, editorial writing, social media and political activism — all activities that lie outside the “standard” notions of scholarly pursuits.

Contact: Andrew Hoffman

Food Sovereignty: Construction of an International Sustainable Food Movement

May 27-31, 2015

The unprecedented quantity of food produced by our contemporary food and agricultural system generates well-known secondary negative effects. Obesity has become a major health problem
for some, even as hunger continues to plague others. Moreover, the modern agricultural system is increasingly recognized as environmentally unsustainable, in many cases causing environmental degradation and substantial losses in biological diversity. Finally, for consumers, food safety has emerged as a critical issue and for producers — farmers and farm workers — workplace safety and unfair compensation threaten the sustainability of their livelihoods. A global food system that simultaneously produces hunger and obesity, that generates significant collateral environmental degradation and that compromises the wellbeing of consumer and producer alike challenges the academic community to engage in serious analysis and action. The proposed Michigan Meeting seeks that engagement.

Although many frameworks have been proposed for dealing with this problem a new paradigm has recently emerged that emphasizes sustainability and social equity rather than production and profit at its core. Contributions to this new paradigm are emerging already from many sectors of society, especially at the grassroots level (e.g. local food systems, increased demand for organic and fair-trade products, reinvigoration of inner cities through urban agriculture, new business models such as “community supported agriculture”). One particular movement, recently emerged in the Global South, simultaneously challenges approaches proposed in the Global North while providing an alternative framing based on the needs of farmers and consumers. The idea is “food sovereignty,” a concept first developed and elaborated by the international grassroots umbrella organization La Via Campesina (LVC, “The Peasant Way”).

This meeting seeks to engage the Michigan scholarly community in this major new framework that encompasses technological change, sociopolitical action, and a reversal of the normal flow of intellectual conceptualization. The meeting will advance the dialogue on five fronts. It will 1) provide further reflection on and analysis of the nature of the intellectual discourse as a “flipped” discourse, originating in the Global South as a challenge to popular framings in the Global North; 2) enrich the analysis with a more biophysical/ecological component thus promoting a truly interdisciplinary dialogue; 3) add a health and nutrition component; 4) expand the analysis from its more traditional focus on the Americas to include Asia and Africa; and 5) bring the international debate to the Midwest, in particular to the varied elements of the food and agriculture discussions that are underway already.

Contact: John Vandermeer