Can a decolonizing university exist within the colonizing one?

by Marisa Lally, Boston College

I agree with la paperson’s (2017) provocation that “within the colonizing university also exists a decolonizing education.” la paperson offers the concept of a third university that, although it is created from the “scrap material” of the colonizing university, aims to decolonize and move toward Indigenous sovereignty. The author asserts that projects with decolonial desires “may be personal, even solitary; they may be small working groups of like-minded university workers, research centers, degree programs, departments, even colleges” (ch. A Third University Exists within the First). In this essay, I explore several contemporary scholars’ approaches to decolonizing higher education. Then, I provide several examples of what scholars consider to be decolonial practices or movements in higher education.

Conceptual Approaches to Decolonizing Higher Education

Tuck and Yang’s (2012) article “Decolonization is not a metaphor” prompted educators to reconsider their use of the word “decolonization.” They argue that educators had superficially adopted the term “decolonization” to describe other civil- and human-rights- based efforts within schools and societies without mentioning Indigenous peoples and their struggles for sovereignty. Rather than using the term decolonization to describe any and all tracks toward the liberation of oppressed peoples, Tuck and Yang (2012) assert that decolonizing must be “necessarily unsettling, especially across lines of solidarity” (p. 7). Furthermore, these scholars call attention to the concept of “settler moves to innocence” (p. 28), or, pursuing social justice to relieve feelings of guilt and divert from the idea of giving up land, power, and privilege.

Bhambra et al. (2018) complicate Tuck and Yang’s (2012) claim that decolonization is exclusively about the repatriation of Indigenous land by arguing that their perspective limits decolonization to be a project only legitimized in settler colonial contexts. In their 2018 book Decolonising the University, Bhambra et al. claim that colonialism should be understood as a global project beyond settler colonialism, inclusive of commercial imperialism and financialized neo-colonialism in contexts like South and Southeast Asia. They also assert that the Western university is a colonial institution because theories of racism were developed by colonial intellectuals and provided justifications for colonial domination. While they agree that the political project of decolonization must be active rather than metaphorical, these scholars extend their conceptualization of the goals of decolonization to include dismantling colonial and imperial logics within institutions of higher education around the world.

Mignolo and Walsh (2018) use Quijano’s (2000) foundational definition of coloniality to understand decolonization. Mignolo writes, “in my own decolonial conception, there is no proprietor or privileged master plan for decoloniality” (Mignolo & Walsh, 2018, p. 108). The idea that there are many approaches to decolonization further supports the argument that there is indeed a decolonizing education within the colonizing university since decolonizing efforts are not wholly agreed upon nor universal. Mignolo and Walsh (2018) describe the triad of concepts offered by Quijano of modernity/coloniality/decoloniality as an option to explore the question of decolonization because there is no need for decolonization without colonial logic nor the fictions offered by modernity. Coloniality refers to the systems of power that colonialism has purposefully created and maintained through knowledge production, labor, and culture, that manifest through constructions of race, gender, and class (Mignolo & Walsh, 2018; Quijano, 2000). The term coloniality demonstrates that modernity (a term that refers to the celebration of technological innovation and a certain “modern” way of thinking and governing society) does not exist without the coloniality of power and the systems of oppression that uphold power (Mignolo & Walsh, 2018). Therefore, in this triad, decolonization refers to an option for dismantling colonial logics and the fictions of modernity (Mignolo & Walsh, 2018). 

These scholars assert that many colonized nations have already endured the process of revolution and subsequent decolonization, yet colonial logics remain in their societies. Institutions of higher education around the world continue to privilege Eurocentric ways of knowing and often refuse to acknowledge the harm done to Indigenous and enslaved peoples under the guise of research and innovation (Mignolo & Walsh, 2018; Smith, 2012). Through this lens, Mignolo & Walsh (2018) advocate for “epistemic and emotional (and aesthetic) delinking” which describes the process of creating social formations that serve life rather than institutions. 

Decolonizing Education Within the Colonizing University

Student Movements: Rhodes Must Fall

The Rhodes Must Fall movement in South Africa began as an effort to remove a statue of Cecil Rhodes on the University of Cape Town’s campus, a statue that had been erected more than 100 years prior (Ahmed, 2017). By focusing on the statue, students demanded that the university acknowledge the sterilized way that Rhodes’s historical role in the university and the nation were represented (Gebrial, 2018). Movements like Rhodes Must Fall are worthy projects because they are an effort to dismantle the modern fiction (Mignolo & Walsh, 2018) that the White European values of reason and objective knowledge are sole and privileged truths. Although the Rhodes Must Fall movement at the University of Cape Town was rooted in local history, the movement spread to universities throughout South Africa and to Oxford University in the United Kingdom, where students also called for the removal of a Cecil Rhodes statue and an acknowledgement of the university’s role in colonialism (Ahmed, 2017; Gebrial, 2018). These movements often begin with a physical representation like a statue but gain momentum to demand some reforms such as curriculum reform and increased representation of Black students and faculty (Ahmed, 2017). 

Te Whare Wānanga o Awanuiārangi

la paperson (2017) asserts that Te Whare Wānanga o Awanuiārangi “might be the clearest example of a decolonizing university formation” (ch. A Third University Exists Within the First) because of its explicitly decolonial aims. Te Whare Wānanga o Awanuiārangi is a university in Aoteroa (or New Zealand) that includes components of a Western or colonizing university (i.e., it collects fees from students, grants degrees, it is related to the nation-state through laws and funding) (la paperson, 2017), but also centers Māori knowledge in its educational programs (Smith, 2012). The Te Whare Wānanga o Awanuiārangi website describes a decolonial goal: “We take this journey of discover to reclaim our sovereignty, and to ensure that Māori intellectual tradition is seen as equal to the knowledge base of others” (Te Whare Wānanga o Awanuiārangi, 2022). This effort is especially evident as a building for a research center housed by the university was repatriated and reopened in 2011, “after over a hundred years of alienation from the iwi1” (Smith, 2012, p. 131). The goal also aligns with Mignolo and Walsh’s (2018) conceptualization of decolonization as delinking from colonial logics that privilege Eurocentric ways of knowing over all others. 


Contemporary scholars of universities conceptualize the practices of a “decolonizing education” in multiple ways. The examples presented in this essay demonstrate that a decolonizing education is possible within the colonizing university, especially when considering solitary or small formations that consider local histories (la paperson, 2017; Mignolo & Walsh, 2018). Therefore, I agree with la paperson’s assertion that a decolonizing education can exist simultaneously if decolonization is considered both a process and a goal. 

1 Iwi is a Māori term that describes Māori people’s “geopolitical, inter-generational indigenous institutions and relationships that are connected to place, history and shared cultural protocols” (Smith, 2012, p. 131)


Ahmed, A.K. (2017). #RhodesMustFall: Decolonization, praxis and disruption. Journal of Comparative & International Higher Education, 9, 8-13. 

Bhambra, G.K., Gebrial, D., & Nişancıoğlu, K. (2018). Introduction: Decolonising the
university? In G.K. Bhambra, D. Gebrail, & K. Nişancıoğlu (Eds.) Decolonising the University (pp. 1-18). Pluto Press. 

Gebrial, D. (2018). Rhodes Must Fall: Oxford and movements for change. In G.K. Bhambra, D. Gebrial, & K. Nişancıoğlu (Eds.) Decolonising the University (pp. 19-36). Pluto Press.

la paperson. (2017). A Third University Is Possible. University of Minnesota Press.

Mignolo, W., & Walsh, C. E. (2018). On decoloniality: Concepts, analytics, praxis. Duke University Press.

Quijano, A. (2000). Coloniality of power, Eurocentrism, and Latin America. Neplantla: Views from South, 1(3), 533–580.

Smith, L. T. (2012). Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. Zed Books.

Te Whare Wānanga o Awanuiārangi. (2022). Story of Awanuiārangi. Te Whare Wānanga o Awanuiārangi. Retrieved from:

Tuck, E., & Yang, K.W. (2012). Decolonization is not a metaphor. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, 1(1), 1-40. 

About the Author

Marisa Lally is a doctoral student at Boston College Lynch School of Education and Human Development. Her research interests include national identity, educational diplomacy, and history of education.

One Reply to “Can a decolonizing university exist within the colonizing one?”

  1. Dear Colleagues,

    As efforts to create, expand or reform the decolonising and multiculturalism agenda, universities co-exist with other standpoint epistemology. For instance, the epistemological works of Michel Foucault and Paulo Freier have led to centers being opened in some universities (please refer to their work and also my website). Michel Foucault is a Historian and Sociologist who has presented his great book entitled “The Archeology of Knowledge”, which is a conceptual work on Epistemology. The South American pedagogy expert Paulo Freier has referred to Foucault in his groundbreaking book “Pedagogy of The Oppressed”. There are logical arguments which state that these experts have laid the foundation for understanding other ways of knowing, without straightjacket frameworks, theories and narrativity paradigms. However, these can not be the only way for knowing differently, since other ways are also important. For instance, innovation in scholarly communication both in written or virtual exchange form, peer review processes and dissemination formats are also ways of addressing the matter.

    As a whole, the higher education sector can conduct such revolutionary work in order to withstand epistemicide, culturcide and historicide. Organizational Behavior as a discipline plays role on staff engagement, learning and innovation, not to mention the way that multistakeholder networks.

    The bottom line is for professional networks of special interest groups of higher education or universities to value the team formation processes and designate roles accordingly to people of color.


    Lul Admasachew


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