Universities have an urgent mission: Make lying wrong again

The current generation of university faculty and administrators does not fully grasp the myriad opportunities for social connection available nowadays nor the different ways that individuals engage with others – and each communication channel offers opportunity, risks and complexity.

The reach of video platforms is daunting. For instance, YouTube’s T-Series – featuring music and film trailers – has roughly 3.52 billion channel views, according to December 2021 figures. On other social media outlets, artists, sports celebrities and digital influencers collect millions of followers.

Most higher education institutions, even with thousands of alumni, do not come close to having a comparable digital impact.

According to a recent social media engagement report, the top university in terms of social media presence in the United States is the University of Iowa with around 125,000 followers on Twitter, 200,000 followers on Facebook and 100,000 followers on Instagram.

In many universities, there are many faculty members who have higher numbers individually, but still fall short of the reach of popular culture channels.

So many communication channels now compete for audience attention. Social media, messaging apps, managing systems and media platforms are the most visible aspects of this revolution, but apps and platforms are continuing to emerge at frightening speed while few university administrators or professors keep pace with audiences of their own.

Yet universities have an incredibly important mission in modern, democratic societies as the source of evidence-based truths. Our concern here is how universities can compete with all the ‘noise’ to ensure that facts are not only disseminated but that they are trusted. And this, when universities are struggling to defend their value to increasingly dubious societies.

They must do a better job of communicating their worth to both internal and external stakeholders.

Dealing with information disorders – ‘infodemics’

We are facing an increasingly vocal revolt against science and education, a movement supported by misinterpreted and misused data, along with information circulated by unverified sources.

The growing acceptance of ‘alternative facts’ is frightening. Social media ensures that bad information spreads at speed. So-called ‘information disorders’ have thrived with increased access to the internet, the lack of understanding about validated information or how scientific conclusions are reached, and the diminished influence of traditional media, among other factors.

Ironically, higher education may have contributed to the confusion between science, conjecture and falsehoods with the use of ‘preprints’, papers written in standard journal format but not yet peer-reviewed.

These preliminary reports can disperse new knowledge more quickly than research slowed by the peer review process. On the other hand, preprints may lead to the spread of information that is later refuted or further qualified.

While it can be difficult to interpret scientific research, preparing university graduates and the whole of society to consider new information and data both carefully and critically is an urgent mission. In fact, there is also a growing number of predatory journals and conferences of questionable quality that disguise themselves as ‘serious and reliable’ sources of information.

It is extremely hard to distinguish between good quality and bad quality sources of information, from scholarly journals to YouTube videos. This trend will be even worse with the advent of ‘deep fake’ technologies, which make it possible to put words in anyone’s mouth.

Coincident with the spread of fake news is the benefit that accrues to some political agendas from fuelling movements such as the anti-vaxxers, climate change deniers and even believers of a flat earth, just to mention a few examples. As such wild interpretations make their way into museums and textbooks, they gain credibility, eroding the ability of scientists to effectively refute them.

The internet has altered society profoundly, requiring a reimagining of the ethics for the transmission of information, particularly scientific evidence and knowledge.

Along with the potential for easily accessible information and fluid communication, the digital age, particularly social media, has also fragmented social cohesion. Objectivity, or even the idea that people can recognise the best available ‘truth’, has come increasingly into question.

The goal of giving balance to competing viewpoints can come at the expense of evidence, distorting the public debate.

An existential risk to humanity

The potential to disseminate disinformation on a large scale and undermine scientifically established facts represents an existential risk to humanity. While vigorously defending the right to freedom of expression everywhere, higher education institutions must also develop the capacity to reach a shared, empirically backed consensus based on facts, science and established knowledge.

Higher education institutions can offer a ‘reality check’ to societies, curbing disinformation and countering hate speech and online harassment. Universities need to strengthen efforts to produce and disseminate reliable and verified information but also to teach students how to distinguish fact from fiction, assumptions and beliefs.

In 2017, the University of Washington introduced a class titled ‘Calling Bullshit: Data reasoning in a digital world’ with the following learning objectives (from the course website):

• Remain vigilant for bullshit contaminating your information diet;

• Recognise said bullshit whenever and wherever you encounter it;

• Figure out for yourself precisely why a particular bit of bullshit is bullshit;

• Provide a statistician or fellow scientist with a technical explanation of why a claim is bullshit; and

• Provide your crystals-and-homeopathy aunt or casually racist uncle with an accessible and persuasive explanation of why a claim is bullshit.

The professors who developed the class have published a book with the same main title that could serve as a course text elsewhere. Universities throughout the world should be considering similar classes as a graduation requirement.

If universities hope to graduate ‘digitally literate’ members of society, then the skills above should be cultivated in every student, regardless of field of study. Strategies that promote active learning also help students develop important critical thinking skills.

These skills can be the underpinnings of the ability to test facts later in life and to help to develop more rational and thoughtful members of society.

With the growing circulation of confusing and false ‘facts’ facilitated by the ubiquity of technology and the digital space, it is time to manage the digital commons as a global public good. Higher education institutions must work to make lying wrong again.

In fact, the response from the higher education sector has been weak, leaving a space for political interests to fill. It is going to be very difficult to catch up. Higher education institutions don’t fully realise the extreme importance of competent, thoughtful communication as a vital pillar of their mission – the fourth mission of the universities.

Communicating internally

Not only are universities failing to reach the larger society, but their internal public as well. It is impossible to generalise, because higher education systems are extremely heterogeneous, but some trends can be identified.

A particularly alarming issue is the growing evidence from US campuses of a ‘disengagement crisis’ among students as well as the increasing alienation of faculty. Confusion over institutional mission, priorities and purpose are, in part, a reflection of poor internal cohesion and communication.

Internal institutional communication would seem simpler, but it represents a challenge, especially to medium and large universities. It is hard to find an effective way to reach the campus community. There are myriad mechanisms, ranging from signs posted on campus (that seem somehow prehistoric) and a profusion of e-mails, to an extensive use of all available social media platforms.

This communication is crucial to keep the community informed of projects and programmes under development, to discuss internal policies and practices and to develop a sense of community, among others. The pandemic has shown just how critical internal communication is.

For students, staff and faculty, it is hard to keep up with the weekly surfeit of notices, events and opportunities directed at them, let alone sort through this bombardment to identify which information is most immediately relevant to them.

In response, there is a tendency to withdraw to a very small bubble, processing limited information from a limited number of sources leading to the risk of ‘confirmation bias’.

This constrains the university experience and exposure to ideas of all kinds. Too often, important discussions involve the participation of a limited number of members of internal groups and commissions.

This precludes the possibility for broader input and understanding to reach important decisions that might affect all aspects of academic life, not to mention the possibility of building consensus. As different groups retreat to information bubbles, internal divisions and tensions tend to grow.

The extent to which internal communication reaches the appropriate stakeholders is ultimately determined by the relationships built between administration and faculty, teachers and students and within disciplinary, departmental and even social boundaries.

When each party feels a commitment to the relationship, they are more likely to heed those communications. An understanding of how each sector engages with communication channels is also key. To reach students, it is fundamental to understand the way that the generation currently in the classroom communicates and uses technology.

Communicating externally

A great number of universities need to demonstrate their social and economic value in a complex landscape. In the case of public universities, it must be repeatedly demonstrated to the larger society that their existence depends on public support – political and financial. The diminishing public faith in higher education has worrisome implications for the future.

In countries where there is a culture of philanthropy, universities typically develop communication strategies directed at alumni, local companies and entrepreneurs for the purpose of fundraising, but these efforts target a specific audience for a specific purpose. The larger public is often oblivious to the contributions that universities make.

In a dramatic disavowal of the contribution that universities make to research, a recent survey of citizens in Australia, Canada, Japan, The Netherlands, the UK and the US indicated that 20% of the respondents felt that universities had been ‘unimportant’ in the global fight against COVID while 25% had no idea whether universities had made any contribution to addressing the pandemic at all.

Universities throughout the world have done the basic research that led to new vaccines (the collaboration of the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca represents only one example) and designed new technologies to provide better and more accessible healthcare, such as low-cost ventilators. Yet there is only the most limited awareness of these contributions and initiatives that helped to mediate the impact of the pandemic.

Universities frequently make important contributions to their communities, stepping up to solve social issues that are not being addressed by other entities. Service learning and outreach programmes have become a key element of many undergraduate experiences, involving students in social projects in the local, sometimes global, community.

Continuing education makes opportunities available to adults to develop personal interests as well as to ‘upskill’ and make it possible for individuals to enhance their opportunities in the workforce.

In many countries, universities are fundamental to the region where they are located, providing essential job opportunities to a broad spectrum of the local population, from maintenance workers to senior officers. Colleges help cities while fulfilling their educational mission. They hire faculty and staff, develop new knowledge and produce learned and capable graduates.

They provide lifelong learning programmes, sports and cultural events that are open to the off-campus public. Higher education institutions spur local economies by leasing real estate to private entities, supporting research that leads to new and marketable technologies, and by investing in business incubators and start-ups.

Students, staff and faculty provide critical income to local restaurants and businesses as consumers. University hospitals and clinics are often the only health providers in an area, typically providing free or low-cost medical and dental services. There may be some coverage of this in local media, but there is little broad awareness of universities as ‘a sector’, making significant social and economic impact.

For their own survival, universities must work more diligently on strategies to make their connections (and contributions) more evident. While most universities have a public relations office, their reach and the range of information that they disseminate is limited.

Swimming against strong political tides

Sadly, governments throughout the world have been able to focus generalised social dissatisfaction and frustration on specific institutions. Higher education institutions have, too often, proven to be an easy target as they are often perceived as elitist and aloof from the concerns of daily living. And the contributions that higher education institutions make are not communicated broadly enough or in ways that are intelligible to the larger society.

As a result, popular opinion becomes dubious about the academic enterprise.

Governments as geographically distant as that of Hungary, led by Victor Orbán, and Brazil, led by Jair Bolsonaro, have cut funds for academic research and attempted to limit, and even eliminate, areas of study, with the consequence of seriously undermining academic freedom and the free circulation of ideas.

These political ploys appeal to many segments of society and have damaged the belief that the university can be relied on as a source of truth.

Complicating communication further is the increasingly partisan campus community, a reflection of the larger society. Campus debates are too often hindered by ideology, leading to issues like ‘cancel culture’ and intolerance of diverse perspectives.

Ideally, the university should function as a forum for the free communication of ideas and debate. Public communication is, too often, reduced to competing biases.

As universities consider the importance of ‘growth mindset’ as a strategic goal of undergraduate education, effective communication skills must be taught throughout the curriculum.

Confronting challenges to their legitimacy and importance in a global climate of extreme polarisation will not be easy. Universities have tended to focus their attention inward, allowing external actors to distort the perception of what these institutions do. Higher education institutions must find new and more effective ways to communicate their value and contributions.

Improving the value narrative

For both their own survival and for the survival of democratic societies higher education institutions must make better communication one of their top priorities. This communication must go well beyond marketing efforts directed at the recruitment of new students and faculty or fundraising.

A comprehensive communication plan must improve the narrative about the value of universities while also helping to create healthier societies.

Evidently, this strategy must encompass the fundamental role of social media in the contemporary world, and such communication must, therefore, explore unconventional and bold ways to reach a broader public to show the richness of science, the current scientific view of controversial issues and the key role of higher education institutions in a better future for all.

Improving internal communication at multiple levels must become a high priority, and that includes teaching communication skills as well as improving communication channels on campus. We hope that more and more education leaders will see their communications professionals as strategic thought partners and give them a seat at the decision-making table.

When an institution can align its communications strategies with institutional resources, infrastructure and goals, the benefits are extensive.

Both internal and external stakeholders benefit: staff members feel more engaged and empowered; students get a consistent message, experience a feeling of belonging and develop the critical skills necessary for sustaining healthy societies; alumni remain engaged; and society, as a whole, is more likely to recognise the immense value of our educational institutions.

And perhaps more effective communication emanating from the higher education sector might help our societies to sort through the confusing and misleading noise that surrounds us.

Marcelo Knobel was the 12th rector of the University of Campinas (Unicamp) in Brazil, where he is a full professor of physics. Liz Reisberg is an international higher education consultant at Reisberg & Associates, Boston, United States, and research fellow at the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, United States. This is an abridged version of the paper, ‘Effective Communication: The 4th mission of universities – a 21st-century challenge’, published this week by the Centre for Studies in Higher Education, University of California Berkeley, United States.