The great medieval universities – Paris, Bologna, Oxford – were places far removed from the tribulations of daily life. Under the protection of the Church, scholars were free to pursue knowledge for its own sake without interference from the city fathers. They lived in near-literal ivory towers, soaring above the concerns of kings and peasants alike.

This separation could not last. First in Scotland, then in France, and then with Humboldt’s bold reforms to German universities, the academy began to attend to earthly affairs. But scholars continued to put distance between themselves and the world outside the university walls. In the Humboldtian institution – the template which many modern universities are based upon – being apolitical was seen as the price of academic freedom. The university could study society, provided it kept its distance.

But to paraphrase an old saying, if you stare too long at society, society begins to stare back. Higher education institutions have been pulled into the flow and sweep of history, and are now  deeply connected to political, economic, and social affairs – whether they like it or not.

Universities have always cast a critical eye on society. But throughout the violent disruptions that buffeted the 20th century, universities this criticism was often joined by dissent and confrontation. From the anti-war movement in the United States to the tumult of Latin American campuses, the university was the site of violence, of repression, and of defiance. In short, they demonstrated their capacity for anger. It’s an idea that would seem totally alien to the learned men of the 12th century, safely tucked into their cloisters.

The November issue of Academic Matters examines the capacity for anger in the modern university, and by extension, the increasing entanglement of universities with wider social conflict. We’ve dedicated much of this issue to one of the most startling recent example of academic unrest – the student protests in Quebec over proposed tuition fee increases. For months, Montreal was gripped by the student strike, which often saw tens of thousands of students expressing their anger in the streets. The protests polarized public opinion, and oceans of ink were spilled by those either praising or excoriating students for their anger.

Now that the protests have ended, Academic Matters asked those who experienced it firsthand to provide some perspective. Martin Robert explains the rationale of the protests as defined by CLASSE, the most active and powerful of the striking student associations. As a counterpoint, Arielle Grenier – founder of the ‘green square’ group that opposed the student strike – provides stark criticism of both the logic of the strike and the behavior of the striking students.

On the faculty side, Jacob T. Levy questions the tactics of the protestors, and suggests that their anger became an excuse to deny the rights of others. For his part, Daniel Weinstock examines the morality of the strike, a finds the rationale and the tactics justifiable. We leave it to the reader to decide who made the more persuasive case.

But academic anger is not confined to Quebec. Indeed, Latin America has a long history of student protest and intensely politicized universities. Andrés Bernasconi examines the 2011 Chilean student unrest – with the help of high school students – and asks what the protestors wanted and what they gained during their massive demonstrations in Santiago.

Finally, Ken Coates provides a eulogy for a brief moment in Canadian higher education when anger, dedication to social justice, and an unusual openness combined to make universities true places of change. He charts the reasons for the decline of university engagement with the wider world, and wonders why an eerie quiet has settled across our institutions. In a time of anger, when calls for change and action are heard from every corner, does the quiet university render itself irrelevant?

The days of the medieval university, separate and aloof from the cares and emotions of daily life, are well behind us. But as we look from Quebec, to Chile, to institutions across Canada, it is an open question whether we are trying to claw our way back into the past, or engage with the future.

When it comes to website, there are no ivory towers here.  We view each issue of Academic Matters as the starting point of a conversation, and we hope you’ll engage with the ideas and opinions presented in these pages. Tell us what you think— send us an email, or leave a comment on our website. You can also connect with us on Twitter and Facebook for news on web exclusive-articles, new blog posts, and other news from the magazine.

Thanks for reading.