of Aotearoa New Zealand
Prof Chris Marshall
This article originally appeared in the Vice-Chancellor's column in Victoria News.
On July 9, as Chair in Restorative Justice at Victoria University, I will be hosting a day-long round table to explore the goal of becoming a “restorative university”. Co-sponsored with the University of Otago, the day will be opened by the Provost, Professor Wendy Larner, and has drawn registrations from around the country, as well as expressions of interest from Australia.
Victoria University is well placed to host such a conversation since we have already taken significant steps towards embedding restorative values and practices in our student conduct policies and Halls of Residence, and have begun discussing their potential for addressing workplace and employment relations as well.
Dr David Karp, Professor of Sociology and Associate Dean of Student Affairs at Skidmore College in New York, and a nationally known commentator in America on the use of restorative initiatives to address sexual violence and harassment on tertiary campuses, will provide expert commentary in what promises to be a highly interactive symposium.
As well as the issue of sexual harm, participants will consider the role of restorative processes in building inclusive and resilient communities on campus, resolving interpersonal conflicts and grievances, and responding to damaging behaviours in the workplace.
The proposition behind the day is that the relational philosophy and peacemaking practices of restorative justice have an invaluable, and potentially transformational, role to play in achieving positive change in organisational settings, so that, in Victoria University’s case, we can better achieve our declared ambition of becoming a “values-based university”.
The values in question here are the five ethical values listed in the Strategic Plan, those of “respect”, “responsibility”, “fairness”, “integrity” and “empathy”. These values are expected to permeate all the University does, including its strategic commitment to civic engagement, sustainability, inclusivity, equity, diversity and openness.
Significantly, these ethical values are precisely the same values that undergird and guide the practice of restorative justice--which means that a key mechanism for operationalising the values of the Strategic Plan and holding ourselves accountable to them in our day-to-day work is striving to function as a restorative university.
Many people will have heard of restorative justice, though their understanding of it is still limited. Essentially restorative justice refers to a relational way of responding to wrongdoing and conflict that seeks, above all else, to repair the harm suffered, and to do so, where possible, by actively involving the affected parties in facilitated dialogue and decision-making about their needs and obligations and how to bring about positive changes for all involved.
Compared to other, more standard approaches to justice, restorative justice is distinguished by its commitment to repair rather than punishment and to engaging those most directly affected by the harm in determining together how best to achieve this repair and prevent repetition.
The modern restorative justice movement emerged in Canada about 45 years ago and has since spread all around the globe. It is now considered to be one of the most significant innovations in the administration of justice to have arisen in the modern era.
As well as having a growing impact in the criminal justice sphere, restorative principles have migrated into a wide range of other social settings as well, particularly into the education and employment sectors.
When applied outside the justice system, such as in schools and workplaces, restorative practice has retained its distinctive emphasis on responding to episodes of misconduct or conflict by seeking to repair the harm caused and on using an inclusive dialogical process to do so. But it has also expanded its scope of concern beyond these negative or reactive measures to include positive relationship-building and communication strategies and efforts to achieve institutional change.
It is this combination of reactive and proactive measures that is central to the vision of being a restorative university. A genuinely restorative institution would be one that is committed, at a policy level, to responding to specific incidents of conflict, failure or misconduct by offering restorative options, where appropriate and wanted, to those involved, so that both the substantive and relational harms are addressed, and one that also uses restorative practices proactively to foster inclusive, equitable and empathetic relationships between those who live, work and study together.
One set of measures without the other is insufficient to achieve lasting change. It is not enough to respond to negative events in a restorative way, as valuable as that often is. It must be accompanied by a corresponding effort to invest in practices that forge respectful and caring connections between people and that create a meaningful sense of belonging in the university community.
If Victoria University conscientiously embraces both commitments, the result will surely be a more peaceful, supportive and productive environment to work in. And who does not want that for themselves?