Truth and Reconciliation: A Trinity alum leads in the Solomons

Trinity alumnus the Very Reverend Samuel Ata, a priest of the Anglican Church of Melanesia, has just been appointed to chair the new Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the Solomon Islands. This is the latest of a number of such national tribunals which have brought the idea of "restorative justice" to bear on lingering pain and bitterness after long periods of violence and oppression within nations.

The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which functioned primarily between 1995 and 1998, brought to world attention not only the atrocities of the Apartheid era which it was constituted to address, but fundamental issues concerning the nature of justice and the conditions necessary for reconciliation. Although its origins and work were in some respects unique, the Commission’s activities embodied what has come to be called restorative justice, and has contributed to thinking in different settings about judicial processes and their effectiveness.

“Restorative justice” refers to a set of practices and principles now widely employed or tested in many parts of the world: in juvenile justice systems in numerous Western countries, in revived or renewed local systems for conflict resolution among indigenous peoples and in traditional cultures, and in public or national tribunals such as those concerned with the aftermath of Apartheid in South Africa, of civil unrest in Peru, and of the Rwandan genocide. The Canadian Government has created such a commission as part of the Indian Residential Schools Resolution process. This instance involves a potent and painful conjunction of racism and sexual and other forms of violence involving children, with particular reference to Church-run schools.

Common to most of these is a focus on the crime or injury as a breakdown of relationship within a social fabric, and consequent emphasis on the victim or victims and their needs and concerns. A characteristic element of that focus has been opportunities for those affected by crimes to speak publicly about their experience. The possibility of giving voice to the experience of suffering has proved significant in itself, as well as potentially an important step towards reconciliation or resolution. Offenders may also be given opportunities for action as participating subjects, rather than simply being made the object of either punitive or rehabilitative action. These processes have involved the telling and hearing of previously unknown stories of the crimes or injuries in question, as well as opportunities for making some form of restitution.

These may be contrasted, up to a point, with conventional or retributive criminal justice systems that view a crime as an offence against the law itself, and the state as the party with whom an accused person is engaged adversarially in a trial or tribunal, without necessary reference to victims. Where in the conventional case justice consists of determining and executing a sentence deemed appropriate to the offence, a “restorative” approach means that the needs and desires of the victim are inherently more significant than meting out a particular penalty on the offender, and that the damage to social relations is what must fundamentally be addressed and restored .

The contemporary movement for restorative justice has a variety of substantial, although by no means exclusive, connections with Christian tradition and theology. Principles comparable to those of restorative justice, emphasizing restitution and reconciliation, are identifiable across the canon of Scripture, from the Mosaic Law to the Gospels. Advocates and architects of restorative justice have included numerous Christians and Church-related bodies, including the Mennonite Central Committee and Prison Fellowship International. The roles taken by Church members and leaders in the South African tribunal are well-known, and its Chairman Desmond Tutu has referred in his memoir to the “heavily spiritual, and indeed Christian, emphasis of the Commission”.

Sam Ata's role is a further recognition of this important connection. We offer him our prayerful support


Crisis and Opportunity: Philanthropy and Australian Higher Education

Even before the global financial crisis, there was a growing awareness in Australian universities of the need to look past existing sources of funding. Given the impact of the crisis on the government’s capacity to carry out its desired funding ‘revolution’, educational leaders know that private money will become crucial to the ability of a university to do much more than eke out an existence. It may become necessary even for that.

With the demise (for the present) of domestic full-fee places and the pall cast over on-the-side revenue ventures like Melbourne University Private, philanthropy is attracting more and more attention. The growing number of senior appointments in the higher education sector intended largely or wholly to oversee fundraising is eloquent testimony to this trend.

There is some vestigial scepticism in Australia about massive fundraising campaigns like those familiar for colleges in the USA, but the evidence from Canada, the UK and now here too suggests that individuals, as well as trusts and foundations, will support higher education when a case can be made. This is the resumption of an Australian tradition rather than something entirely new. Despite the dominance of the public purse since the mid-twentieth century, universities like RMIT, Sydney and UWA owe a great deal to early benefactors like Francis Ormond, John Henry Challis and John Winthrop Hackett.

The real difficulties are subtler and more deep-seated than a mere unwillingness on the part of Australians to give. During the last half-century Australian universities have tended to portray themselves as schools for skills, driven and funded by taxpayers as essential services, like roads or pipes. Students participate not so much to change their own or others’ lives, but to take their place in an economy needing high levels of expertise and knowledge. This understanding is reflected in the bland economistic language of government policy, where no higher vision for universities is presumed than that of equipping graduates – if now a larger and more diverse set of graduates – to participate in the production of wealth.

This is not quite the stuff of dreaming spires, or even of the wider social good, and presents a difficulty for those who have to commend universities to philanthropy. Prospective donors might expect benefactions not merely to support a system under strain, but to make important differences for students and society itself.

This lack of vision also affects the unspectacular but important process of gaining support from a mass base of alumni. While in recent decades many graduates have left Australian universities with well-honed skills and critical abilities, fewer have left feeling debts of gratitude for inspiring or transformative experiences. Such a functional or transactional understanding has been exacerbated by the introduction of the HECS scheme; students who have or will make a fairly significant contribution to the cost of their education are even less likely to conceive of a moral debt to the institution, regarding the transaction as complete when the ATO has signed off.

The universities have often seemed content with this. The fact that many have recently had to start alumni programs from scratch illustrates how ephemeral the experience of study and of connection to a university was assumed to be. With its eye on the recurrent public funding that would accompany the hopes of students of the future, higher education has paid scant attention to beneficence from those of the past.

The existing pressure on resources in the sector is a Catch-22 for alumni programs and the sense of relationship with the institution that they require. With larger numbers of students, living and working under greater economic pressure, studying in less adequate facilities, and with poorer services, there has often been less and less about the university for which the graduate might be grateful. This is why the need is great, but a former student of recent decades may wonder about the newly-discovered causes for nostalgia that their alma mater suddenly wants to recall.

This problem arguably cuts deeper than the mere funding challenges of recent years. The former government’s VSU agenda, a contributing factor to the lack of student services, was viable precisely because the level of commitment or understanding in the university sector to student experiences beyond the classroom was at best uneven.

Without signs of a serious dialogue about what a university is for, the efforts of the new fundraisers will often be greeted with understandable scepticism by their targets. Yet this is an opportunity for universities to strengthen more than their balance-sheets. They will have to think more deeply about why higher education really ought to be supported beyond the reasons with which the public purse concerns itself. Perhaps they may still exist to change, and not merely supply, graduates. Perhaps they may exist to generate visions, and not only skills. Perhaps they can foster independent thought, and not merely competence. Fresh (yet very traditional) answers to these questions might be an even more important result than raising money, as well as a necessary condition of raising it.