As the boid says, 'respect'.
ANALYSIS: LUMS, diversity and pluralism —Rasul Bakhsh Rais
LUMS is not a perfect institution; nor does it claim to be one. But on all issues, from religious practices to social attitudes, it does reflect a reasonably mature degree of pluralism
In recent weeks, we have seen a spate of comments and editorials in some English dailies on the issue of public displays of affection at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), where I have been working for the past seven years. Having lived on campus and been part of the LUMS community, which includes students, faculty and staff, I have some claim to knowing the place inside out, and feel obliged to comment on campus life at LUMS.
We can describe academic life at LUMS with two simple but very meaningful words — diversity and pluralism. LUMS is reflective of the diverse character of Pakistani society at large. There is hardly any region, ethnic and linguistic group, or religious stream that is not represented at the university. Also, LUMS, with its national and international reputation, has grown very rapidly over the last two decades in the number of academic programmes, students and faculty, including foreign faculty. This further places these values higher on the list of institutional priorities.
Naturally LUMS, and for that matter all academic institutions, have a particular academic culture and a campus life of their own. Patterns of academic life and culture become rooted in traditions that evolve over time and depend on the vision, values and internal processes of universities.
While diversity may be a universal characteristic of all universities of Pakistan, pluralism may not. We shouldn’t confuse diversity with pluralism, which is often done without understanding the latter in intellectual and sociological terms. Diversity essentially means people with different religious and ideological orientations living and working together.
What is important is that difference is something natural and is a universal characteristic of human societies. But that cannot be turned into ‘Us and Them’ or the basis for determining superiority or inferiority, as is the case in normal social situations. Every individual has a right to experience life the way he or she wants to, and each of us has a natural right to be what we want to be. This also extends to the realm of values, beliefs and the social choices we make as responsible and rational individuals.
This is the attitude that separates the modern world from the old one built on conformity, loyalty and deference to peers. Pakistan is a transitional society. As such, we are caught between the old world that pulls us towards conformity and the modern world that allows us freedom to think for ourselves and make independent choices.
The real difficulty however is how to cultivate pluralism in transitional society where the forces of the old order, with their social hierarchies and rigid beliefs and social attitudes, are strong. Tolerance of diversity and respect for an individual’s choice of values, though conditioned by the general norms of society, still leaves a big space for the individual to pursue an ideological line or make social choices away from the normal spectrum.
At a time when religious militancy surrounds us and identity issues dominate in a complex world contextualised by globalisation, individualism and liberty to pursue social goods or different ideological lines are obviously under threat in Pakistan. But one place where we can preserve a culture of pluralism and celebrate diversity is the university. We have lost a lot of social ground to extremist religious and ethnic groups in all public universities, where student bodies are controlled through sheer terror and fascist tactics.
I am glad to say that LUMS has escaped that fate. No student or faculty group has ever tried to capture LUMS and turn it to its little fiefdom, the fate unfortunately many public universities have met. The reason it continues to be a genuinely pluralistic place where all religious beliefs and social outlooks exist in mutual tolerance is strong roots in liberal values.
These values must not be taken to mean an absence of social norms, but more in the philosophical sense: the freedom of an individual student or a faculty member to pursue his or her own truth; and all truths and pursuit of religious beliefs and ideologies deserve equal respect.
The idea of a university is about being universal and holistic in exploring different ideas and judging them critically. Neither meaningful higher learning nor production of knowledge is possible without liberal values that place intellectual curiosity and cultivation of free, thinking individual quite high in the hierarchy.
Recent media comments have not captured the essence of diversity and pluralism in the debate among LUMS students on public displays of affection; rather, they have focused on ‘tension’ and ‘conflict’, which may imply an uneasy relationship among students with different cultural and religious orientations on campus. Debate and discussion, tolerance of opposite views and giving equal respect and social space to the self and the other are hallmarks of progressive thinking and forward looking societies.
LUMS, in this respect, is comparable with some of the best institutions in the world.
Academic life at LUMS is very different from popular misperceptions of it as a social island and a walled-in-life, standing in contrast to the more conservative society outside. Going by the optics of things may be deceptive and may take one’s attention away from the actual strengths of an academic institution like LUMS toward trivial or non-issues.
LUMS is truly a great institution of learning and a path-breaking experience in institution building not just for the reason that its graduates are accepted in some of the best universities around the world or they have better marketability, but also for its vision, values and pursuit of excellence.
But the work on institution building and further development never ends; it requires perpetual re-evaluation of where we are and how we can do better.
We are involved in an internal debate on how effectively we are pursuing our vision and how we can do better. LUMS is not a perfect institution; nor does it claim to be one. But on all issues, from religious practices to social attitudes, it does reflect a reasonably mature degree of pluralism.
LUMS should also solicit and welcome outside comments and evaluation from the society, media commentators and educationists. That would help us identify mistakes and things we may have overlooked. Universities grow with the rest of society and must have deep connections with the community outside. For this matter, we must receive with open hearts what others write about LUMS, but I wish it was about larger, more significant issues of academic culture, programmes and quality of instruction, and not just “pecks on the cheek”!
Dr Rasul Bakhsh Rais is author of Recovering the Frontier State: War, Ethnicity and State in Afghanistan (Oxford University Press, 2008) and a professor of Political Science at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.