Being Universitas


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This paper considers what it is at stake in the idea of universitas – a community of masters and scholars – in the context of the shifting institutional and pedagogical landscape of higher education that the Covid-19 pandemic engendered. It looks to the etymological roots of the term ‘university’, and turns to the philosophy of Gabriel Marcel, to consider what it means to be together in the community of the university.
We begin by considering the impact of the pandemic on academics, particularly how shifts to online learning have altered practice and the ways in which student and staff relationships are negotiated and navigated. These shifts have naturally moved us away from the physical world, with the impacts of such a change not yet fully known. The paper then draws a distinction between the idea of ‘functioning’ as universitas and ‘being’ universitas We argue that, that while universities have continued to o function effectively (in terms of , for example, delivering teaching, validating new courses, recruiting new students, maintaining administrative functions, and ensuring financial security), something of what it means to be universitas has been much harder to maintain when staff and students have not had a physical presence at the heart of the institution.
By drawing on the philosophical and dramatic works of French existentialist, Gabriel Marcel, we consider his explorations of interpersonal relationships in the context of physical presence. We show how the Marcellian concepts of disponibilité and indisponibilité (availability and unavailability), as well as presence and communion, reveal insights into the types of interactions that form the basis of meaningful interpersonal relationships, and by extension, the creation of a meaningful academic community. Given the ineffability of in-person encounters (over online interactions), Marcel’s understanding of the self, and the ways in which we relate to each other, helps give substance to the difference, and exposes important and implications for how different behaviours and practices can foster richer relationships and interactions.
We conclude by drawing attention to these differences, through comparisons between religious and academic communities, and suggest that this is account of hope for how we might conceive of contemporary Higher Education communities. By drawing on the distinction between functioning as universitas and being universitas, we conclude that our physical presence with each other affords the possibilities of a rich encounter with others through relationships of plenitude that we argue are fundamental to being universitas.
Original languageEnglish
JournalEthics and Education
Early online date15 Mar 2023
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 15 Mar 2023


  • University
  • availability
  • functioning
  • being
  • togetherness
  • Marcel


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