Why paying attention to your university’s values matters

When Sweden’s Stockholm University gathered staff for their first meeting for the new academic year this August, autonomy and academic freedom filled the agenda.

“We are living in challenging times for universities, both globally and locally,” President of Stockholm University Professor Astrid Söderbergh Widding said, according to a report in the university’s magazine, Universitetsnytt.

“Trust in science is fraying at the edges in certain circles and this is absolutely the greatest challenge,” added Agneta Bladh, a former secretary of state for higher education in Sweden (1998-2004), arguing that universities therefore need “high legitimacy”, which makes it “critical to talk about academic responsibilities and the importance of academic freedom”.

The meeting coincided with Stockholm University’s publication of a report into the university’s participation in the pilot of the “Living Values 2017-2019” project of the Magna Charta Observatory, of which Bladh is the vice president.

The Observatory exists to be the guardian of fundamental university values expressed in the Magna Charta Universitatum and to assist universities and higher education systems to operate effectively in accordance with them, Bladh says. “Aside from the fundamental values (institutional autonomy and academic freedom), other values are important for institutions (the institutional values),” she says.

The Stockholm University publication, Core Values – A continuous conversation, is a compilation of more than one hundred responses from faculties, departments and individual staff members.

The text has as a point of departure the general academic core values presented by the Magna Charta Observatory – autonomy, academic freedom, equity and integrity. But the process of collecting comments from the interested parties at Stockholm University led to a further examination of the value foundation of the university.

When the Observatory in 2017 launched the ‘Living Values’ pilot on the subject of academic values, inviting universities to participate, it said universities across the world were coming under greater pressure from a variety of sources for different reasons, requiring them to refocus on their values to ensure integrity.

“Economic and political circumstances can lead to pressure for the fundamental values of academic freedom and institutional autonomy to be compromised in a way which is not sustainable for the long-term health of universities nor of long-term benefit to their societies,” the Observatory said.

“A faster pace of change and greater unpredictability are making attention to values more important for universities as a basis for decision-making.”

The pilot is part of the Magna Charta Observatory’s efforts to realise its strategic plan, adopted in 2015, to ensure that by 2020 it would become the leading global organisation supporting fundamental values for higher education.

To achieve this, the Observatory aimed to:

  • • Obtain 1,000 or more signatories of the Magna Charta Universitatum by 2020;

  • • Hold an annual conference and three workshops each year in different regions of the world, particularly in situations where there is a will to promote fundamental values;

  • • Participate in a further four significant international conferences (or similar);

  • • Create a vibrant website that is regarded as the leading international resource on fundamental university values;

  • • Launch publications on specific aspects of the fundamental principles and the means of adhering to them;

  • • Create a supporting group of 25 ‘ambassadors’ in addition to council members who contribute to achieving the Observatory’s objectives and establish a sound financial base for its work.

The universities participating in the pilot were the Arab Academy for Science, Technology and Maritime Transport (Egypt); the University of Bologna (Italy); the Politehnica University of Bucharest (Romania); the University of Campinas (Brazil); Cardiff Metropolitan University (United Kingdom); Glasgow Caledonian University (UK); the University of Mauritius; the Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia; Stockholm University (Sweden) and the University of Tasmania (Australia).

Better anchored values

Stockholm University had three motives for joining the project:

  • • Ensuring that fundamental and institutional values become an integral part of the central strategy and become better anchored in the university as a whole.

  • • To get bottom-up input into the top-down process of forming a strategy.

  • • To serve as a way to benchmark internationally in the strategic work on fundamental and institutional values.

The participation was led by Widding, with the support of the whole senior management team and with dedicated administrative support.

The general idea has been to distribute the question of values by using already existing forums and meeting places, such as meetings for heads of departments or heads of administration, for the university leadership and deans etc, but also staff meetings in departments or in the student union, and to reserve sufficient time at these meetings to be able to discuss these questions in depth.

The project focused on the four fundamental values – autonomy, academic freedom, equity and integrity – and how to define them from the point of view of Stockholm University and how they can form a basis for the strategy, the project report says.

Participants discussed the three institutional values identified by the university – openness, innovation, willingness to cross boundaries – to see if they are adequate and anchored enough across the institution; and whether other values should be added or even replace the current values.

“The Living Values project was presented as a vision, a source of inspiration, a common return to the fundamental and more specific values that guide our work and ultimately serve to motivate us as a university,” the project report says.

A central part of the tool-kit is also a 15 minute video with Magna Charta Observatory Ambassador Professor Caroline Parker addressing her colleagues at Stockholm University and offering her personal reflections on the importance of the Living Values project and the process of implementing the work on values in different stages at Glasgow Caledonian University in Scotland.

This video was originally produced for three workshops with all heads of department and heads of administration, where it served as a source of inspiration for productive discussions and has since then been spread throughout the whole organisation.

Creative proposals

In an internal survey, Stockholm respondents offered a wide and creative range of values that they felt should be taken into account when establishing an institution’s core values.

The long list includes: academic approach, academic community, responsibility, accountability, attractiveness, learning, breadth and excellence, broadened diversity of opinion, civil courage, democracy, effectiveness, reflection, empathy, a university or knowledge as society’s focal point, a challenging university, flexibility, feedback, research quality, basic research, sustainability, integrated education and research, internationalisation and mobility, international solidarity, collegiality, communication, competence, ’conservative progressivity’, creativity, critical thinking, knowledge, quality, responsiveness, diversity, curiosity, independence, impartiality, professionalism, relevance, rationality, respect, legal certainty, truth, truth-seeking, scepticism, excellence and diversity, metropolitan university, reliability, trust, tolerance, credibility, cross/multicultural, interdisciplinary, enlightenment, development, authenticity, transparency.

Following the project discussions at the university, the proposed value set that the Observatory sought to focus on initially – autonomy, academic freedom, equity and integrity – was augmented by knowledge, enlightenment and the pursuit of truth.

Widding said the most valuable insight from the Living Values process is the “shared responsibility for the university as a whole, and how responsibility is formulated and shaped through both core values and strategies on all levels”, adding that this is a process that has to be passed on within the university.

Professor Terence Karran of the University of Lincoln in the UK told University World News that in reaction to the impact of marketisation of higher education there has been a desire to re-examine and protect academic values.

“This has occurred not only within the Magna Charta Observatory, but also (for example) within the Council of Europe,” he said.

Bladh, who is a speaker at the Magna Charta Observatory annual conference “University Freedoms and Responsibilities: Responding to the challenges of the future” at McMaster University, Ontario, Canada, on 16-17 October, told University World News that a conference in Glasgow in 2017 on “Fundamental and Institutional Values in Practice” showed that values were seen as “more important if they had mission impact rather than just intrinsic virtue and that it was not always clear whether the values were the most appropriate values to support the mission of an institution, nor how well they were being lived in practice”.

That is why the Observatory’s council launched the Living Values project, to enable universities to know whether they are living up to their values. Stockholm University was part of the first pilot group of universities.

“There are of course challenges with such a process – to achieve agreement on what the institutional values are, to engage staff and students and to know the extent to which values are lived,” Bladh said.

She said it was important for universities to undertake such discussions among staff and students for both the leadership and staff of an institution to understand their university in a deeper way and to facilitate working together in a way that enables the university’s values to have more impact.

“The implementation of reforms might be easier and operations to support the values chosen can be identified. The Magna Charta Observatory supports and advises such a process but does not lead – it is up to the universities themselves.”