Imagining the Unimaginable: Decolonizing Global University Rankings from Southern/Decolonial Perspectives
In the CHAE Report (Spring 2016), Dr. Shahjahan and his colleagues rethink global university rankings (GURs) from postcolonial and decolonial perspectives.
Written by Annabelle Estera, doctoral student
Through his work on equity and knowledge production, Assistant Professor Riyad Shahjahan asks questions that push the boundaries of current knowledge, often utilizing theories that challenge dominant ways of thinking. A recent Call for Papers (CFP) from the journal Comparative Education Review seeking work that explores the rethinking of social science from postcolonial and decolonial perspectives was the impetus for one of his most recent projects. The CFP was aimed at deeper inquiry around how the global north dominates the comparative education field. This domination, Shahjahan would argue, hinders our ability to imagine alternatives outside of mainstream modernity discourses.
Inspired by this opportunity, he undertook a project with colleagues Vanessa de Oliveira Andreotti from the University of British Columbia and Gerardo Blanco-Ramirez from the University of Massachusetts Boston. Specifically, their interests converged on the hotly debated topic of global university rankings (GURs), a phenomenon widely critiqued but not through postcolonial or decolonial lenses. Their paper, Imagining the unimaginable: Decolonizing global university rankings (GURs) from Southern/ Decolonial perspectives, interrogated the naturalized ways of theorizing higher education and argued the process of rankings imposes boundaries on the imaginary ways we conceptualize universities. In their review of the literature, they found the emergence of GURs coincides with the alignment of forces in higher education, such as the quantification of faculty effort, increased calls for accountability, and positioning of academics into hierarchical, competitive environments. Mainstream critiques of GURs fell into two general categories: (1) methodological critiques, and (2) critiques of the general hegemonic global politics of knowledge production. Within some critiques, alternative ranking systems were proposed. However, Shahjahan and his colleagues found these alternative rankings failed to challenge the underlying logic of rankings, which promote the naturalization of standardization and competition. Rather than seeking to provide “solutions” to a problem, they asked themselves:
- What would be possible to imagine using decolonial and Southern epistemologies;
- What would universities and education look like; and
- Would GURs still exist?
Looking through different lenses
For their writing, Shahjahan and his colleagues drew upon Somé’s Yielbongura (1994), Anzaldúa’s Nepantla (2002), and da Silva’s po-ethic perspectives (2014), and posed several questions: What kind of human beings are imagined through GURs? What forms and political economies of knowledge production are reproduced through GURs? How can we imagine higher education beyond the confines of modernity? In answering these questions, all authors brought different insights into the phenomena, which led to a more nuanced analysis of global rankings. Their analysis foregrounded their own lived experiences as transnational scholars of Color whose academic work is impacted by GURs.
Shahjahan explored indigenous Dagara philosophy in relation to GURs. Somé, a shaman healer from the Dagara nation, introduced the notion of Yielbongura—the idea of “the thing that knowledge can’t eat.” What follows from this idea, Shahjahan argued, is that knowledge production, the concept of learning, cannot be categorized. Rather, knowledge production would resist categorization, being stripped of its “spiritual nature” and turned into a “secular material thing” through rankings. From this interpretation, GURs would not exist, but be a distraction from addressing other root problems in higher education. His co-authors, Blanco-Ramirez and de Oliveira Andreotti, engaged the other perspectives presented in the project: Anzaldúa’s (1987) Nepantla and da Silva’s (2014) (Black feminist) po-ethics. Nepantla is an epistemology grounded in cross-border and cross-cultural encounter. Through this lens, Blanco-Ramirez drew attention to the higher education institutions rendered as outsiders by GURs, who must navigate the global system, “see double” (Anzaldúa, 2002, p. 349), and use creativity as a radical act of liberation. da Silva’s (2014) (Black feminist) po-ethics aims to compel those who are “othered” to “wonder about another praxis and to wander in the world with the ethical mandate of opening up other ways of knowing and doing” (p. 81). As a part of this collaborative project, de Oliveira Andreotti used po-ethics to write a poem calling for the reimagining of possibilities for co-existing in higher education.
With their combined perspectives, Shahjahan and his co-authors hope this analysis will invite others to explore innovative programs and practices that seek to construct educational alternatives to the dominant institutional models perpetuated by GURs. Future research can explore additional perspectives to counter colonial relations within education. Shahjahan and his colleagues believe scholars must continue to tell their stories and imagined alternatives. Such diversity of perspectives is necessary for a healthy global higher education system.
Anzaldúa, G. (2002). Now let us shift ... the path of conocimiento ... inner work, public acts. In G. Anzaldúa & A. Keating (Eds.), This Bridge We Call Home: Radical Visions for Transformation (pp. 540-578). New York, NY: Routledge.
da Silva, D.F. (2014). Toward a Black feminist poethics: The quest(ion) of Blackness toward the end of the world. The Black Scholar, 44(2), 81-97.
Somé, M.P. (1994). Of water and spirit: Ritual, magic, and initiation in the life of an African Shaman. New York, NY: Tarcher/Putnam.