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How should universities confront a post-truth world?

In a world characterised by increasing turbulence and conflict, and of inequities and dissatisfaction, academic freedom has come under siege. In some parts of the world, academic freedom is under brutal attack. In other parts of the world, academic freedom is under mounting pressure. Even in the Nordic countries, many scholars report that their academic freedom is diminishing.

Academics and universities have to be aware of this sad state of affairs and help safeguard academic freedom, not only in their own countries, but worldwide.

Let us start with the most heinous examples. Last year I was present when Robert Quinn, founding executive director of the Scholars at Risk network, presented his report Free to Think. The report of the Scholars at Risk Academic Freedom Monitoring Project describes 333 attacks on higher education communities, arising from 247 verified incidents in 65 countries between January 2011 and May 2015.

A new edition of the report, published last month, analysed 158 such attacks in 35 countries in 16 months, from May 2015 to August 2016.

Higher education institutions are attacked and threatened even in countries that have a democratic system in place or are held to be on the path to democracy. The Free to Think report makes us aware of the enormous scale of this problem and calls for collective action.

Collective action

How should we safeguard academic freedom? In Norway, as in many other countries, academic freedom is protected by law and our government’s ethical guidelines state that scholars should publish their results and conclusions “even if they run against adopted policy”.

Embedded in this statement lies the understanding that society benefits from critique and that progress is driven by academics and universities that challenge dogmas and ideologies. The idea is that society is strengthened and stabilised through constructive criticism founded on academic freedom and free exchange of opinions.

Sadly, this understanding does not pervade the world at large. It is enough to look at developments in Turkey, which have taken a turn for the worse. Just last month Gulay Barbarosoglu, who was elected rector of Bogaziçi University with an overwhelming majority this summer, was not allowed to take office. The Turkish president decided that a former vice-rector should be the principal instead.

A richness of perspectives and voices that speak truth to power are core elements of any recipe for social progress, but are not universally recognised as such. To return to the Free to Think report’s recommendations on collective action, we need to embed the norm that higher education institutions should enjoy the same protection as hospitals in times of conflict and unrest.

After all, education is a large intergenerational project at the core of every civilisation and is there to ensure that our entire intellectual, scientific and cultural heritage is passed on from one generation to the next.

Attacking or suppressing academic freedom impacts societies and halts progress to an extent that cannot easily be fathomed. It is unfortunate that it is often seen as a privilege for the few. The fact is that academic freedom is a good for the many – that is, for society at large.

Countering the post-truth society

For society to reap the full benefit of academic freedom, scientific evidence must be duly respected and acted upon by politicians and policy-makers. In this regard it is rather ominous that the Oxford Dictionaries recently selected ‘post-truth’ as the international word of the year.

The Washington Post wrote on 16 November that Oxford Dictionaries made their choice "after the contentious Brexit referendum and an equally divisive US presidential election caused usage of the adjective to skyrocket".

The dictionary defines post-truth as "relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief". As an example the dictionary uses the following sentence: "In this era of post-truth politics, it is easy to cherry-pick data and come to whatever conclusion you desire.”

In the background we hear British politician Michael Gove’s statement that: "The people of Britain have had enough of experts." The lack of confidence in academia is a great challenge. For, what role can a truth-seeking university play in an era characterised as "post-truth”?

I was reminded by a colleague recently of what the philosopher Richard Rorty wrote in 1998: "The non-suburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for – someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots...

"One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past 40 years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion... All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet."

This was written 18 years ago. An accurate prophecy indeed.

Faced with the prospect of a post-factual society, universities have to re-establish a respect for objective truth and powerful arguments – through our educational programmes and through our public outreach.

We have to create many more arenas for debate – arenas that are open and inclusive so as to give a voice to those who feel left behind too. Universities should be trust-building as well as truth-seeking. In our age of turbulence these two words – trust and truth – are inextricably intertwined.

Ole Petter Ottersen is rector of the University of Oslo, Norway. You can read about how the University of Oslo is working to help refugees with an academic background to enter academia here.

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