Universities as agents of human and societal well-being

The Magna Charta Universitatum 2020 (or MCU 2020) was signed for the first time earlier this week in circumstances dramatically different from those which attended the signing of the original MCU document in Bologna, Italy, in 1988.

This was a virtual event, whereas the earlier occasion, on the Piazza Maggiore of the old city, – “four years before the definitive abolition of boundaries between the countries of the European Community” as the preamble to the document noted – was attended in person by hundreds of university leaders and officials from across Europe and other parts of the world, representing government, the church and industry.

Despite being written in Latin and by that means intimating the timeless value of its pronouncements, the 1988 document was very much about the role of universities in history.

It emerged not only out of currents that would lead to the Maastricht Treaty in 1993, but also out of a growing global dialogue on the relationship between universities and society.

That was in fact the theme of the Bologna conference in 1988, as the University of Bologna celebrated its 900th anniversary by focusing on the political function of the institution – its role in forming the intellectual frameworks that underpin society. It was on that platform that the MCU was launched.

Common themes

Two years earlier, European rectors had begun to talk about the desirability of a transatlantic dialogue with American and Canadian institutions; there had been similar discussions with Latin American rectors; and communications had been opened with universities in China.

That is the ferment that lies behind the reference in the MCU to “a changing and increasingly international society” and behind its first and fourth principles: the former noting that “the university is an autonomous institution at the heart of societies differently organised because of geography and historical heritage”; the latter affirming “the vital need for different cultures to know and influence each other”.

In 1988 the university was also, however, declared to be “the trustee of the European humanist tradition”, which suggests a smaller tolerance for cultural difference than other parts of the document might imply.

If that observation appears to effect a significant retraction – it implies that “universal knowledge” is to be equated with European knowledge – it is difficult to explain why, in the intervening years, institutions from all parts of the world have turned up at the anniversary conference in order to sign the MCU, and have embraced its values.

I, for example, have signed the original document on behalf of two separate North American universities, neither of which have seen the European roots and focus of the document as exclusionary.

The explanation is not that non-European academics are really Europeans without knowing it, but that the principles of the MCU are compelling in the way religious tenets, for example, are sometimes felt to be true, even by non-believers. The conception of the university as an agent for human and societal well-being enshrined in that document is functionally translatable from one culture to another.

For nations and communities to thrive, they do require places of learning and discovery where the pursuit and dissemination of knowledge is protected from interference and control, where teaching and research are mutually pursued, and where diverse opinions are brought together in respectful debate.

The global academy

MCU 2020 takes away nothing from the 1988 declaration, but it does address itself to the “global academy” where the earlier document focused on Europe; and it makes use of a discourse that is more descriptive than prescriptive, more engaged with history than with theory.

As in 1988, MCU 2020 begins by taking note of far-reaching changes – across the globe, this time, rather than only in Europe – that are both transforming, and being driven by, universities. There is no Latin version, because the purpose of the document is not to declare universities’ ownership of timeless prerogatives, but rather to talk about what should be done with them, or what is already being done with them.

“Intellectual and moral autonomy”, for example, “is the hallmark of any university”, but it is also “a precondition for the fulfilment of its responsibilities to society”.

In that sentence is captured the shift from 1988 to 2020. Those characteristics of universities which the original MCU was written to elevate and codify are now taken for granted in a document that is focused consistently on the responsibilities of institutions to civil society, to the life of the mind, to ethical research, to “global networks of scientific enquiry and scholarship” and to their “local communities and ecosystems”.

Social justice

These are all orientations of the university mission which were adumbrated to some degree in 1988, and in that way MCU 2020 is clearly continuous with the original document. What is new, however, and what vindicates the efforts of the drafting team and justifies the celebrations underway this week, is that in the final paragraphs of the document comes a lambent plea for social justice.

We are told that “education is a human right, a public good, and should be available to all”. Furthermore, “universities acknowledge that individuals and communities, often due to inequitable circumstances, have difficulty gaining access to higher education or influencing the modes and matter of academic study. To realise human potential everywhere, universities deliberately seek ways to welcome and engage with diverse voices and perspectives”.

COVID-19 delayed the release of this document which expands and extends the vision of an inclusive and diverse global academy that the original Magna Charta Universitatum envisaged. While it would obviously have been preferable to launch it by again convening the world in the Piazza Maggiore, as in 1988, the need to reassert that vision and to build on it could not wait.

Patrick Deane is principal and vice-chancellor of Queen’s University at Kingston, Canada, and chair of the Governing Council of the Magna Charta Observatory. He was a member of the drafting team for MCU 2020.