UM professor appointed to UNESCO

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University of Massachusetts communications Professor Jan Servaes has joined an elite group of 19 Unites States chairs of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, also known as UNESCO. There are 715 chairs in total.

Of the 19 U.S. UNESCO chairs, three of them specialize in communications. Of these three, Servaes is the sole one formally trained in communications. According to him, the other chairs come from a background in journalism.

UNESCO is a U.N. agency that works to “contribute to peace and security in the world by promoting collaboration among nations through education, science, culture and communication in order to further universal respect for justice and the rule of law and for the human rights and fundamental freedoms which are affirmed for the peoples of the world, without distinction of race, sex, language or religion,” according to UNESCO’s constitution.

As a UNESCO chair of communication, Servaes will work towards this goal in collaboration with other UNESCO members. His focus will be on developing research that analyzes the way information permeates through a society and creates social change.

“I still think that if you look at world development and modernization, instead of assuming everything will come from the top it is much better to start from the bottom with the local people and local communities then see how that can be turned into movements, charities and recipes for change,” said Servaes.

As a result of this philosophy, Servaes has devoted much of his career to the practical applications of communication studies rather than theoretical approaches. He has worked within the Amherst community through to host the show “Encounters,” in addition to starting the Communication for Sustainable Social Change research center on campus and editing the “Telematics and Informatics” journal as well as several books.

“It’s part of what I think a public intellectual or academic should do,” said Servaes. “That may be controversial … but as a professor you also need to serve the community and open yourself to demands, request and issues that are out there. You need to not only teach but engage with the communities.”

Serveas, who has a long history with UNESCO, first applied for the position in the spring of 2009. He received a recommendation from Sen. John Kerry (D – Mass.). His application was screened in the United States, then at the head offices of UNESCO in Paris, France. Afterwards, UNESCO and UMass negotiated the details of the contract, a process which was slowed by changes in administrative positions.

By being a UNESCO chair, Servaes hopes to create more opportunities for his students to study communications at the international level by giving them access to more conferences as well as grant money.

“I have always had these kinds of international connections … [but] I hope it will gradually open more doors and bring more support to the university,” said Servaes.

While not that well-known in the United States due to a “love-hate” relationship with the U.N. and the U.S.’s withdrawal from the UNESCO during a portion of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, Servaes asserts that the organization is more widely recognized abroad.

“UNESCO has much more of an image, a reputation and status outside the U.S. than within,” Serveas said. “I think it is an important position and a privilege.”

UNESCO is currently focused on achieving the Millennium Development Goals, a plan set forth by the U.N. in 2000 to eradicate poverty and other global issues by 2015. The organization is most focused on Africa and gender equality.

Katie Landeck can be reached at [email protected]