Universities can learn from Trump about how to inspire

What is the point of generating knowledge if universities cannot articulate it? asks Janice Kay

November 9, 2016
Donald Trump supporters holding placards
Source: Getty

There was an unnerving sense of déjà vu waking up in the early hours to hear that Donald Trump would win the US presidency; there were distinct echoes of Brexit.

As Trump himself said, his win would be like “Brexit plus, plus, plus”. Brexit and the Trump presidency – two of the most closely fought and divisive public votes in living memory. Heralded as a celebration for the average person, the overthrow of the intelligentsia. As Trump declared in February: “I love the poorly educated”. 

For practically every Brexit and Trump celebrant, we can conclude that there is someone feeling despondent, lost, incredulous. Heartbroken even. We know from Brexit the lines along which this divide can fall; 28 of the 30 areas with the fewest graduates voted for Brexit. Where has this rhetoric come from, this vitriol and, more importantly, how do we mend the divide?

Universities are the answer. 

If it is the fight against the intelligentsia and nasty politics that has galvanised these elections, you may ask how it can be that universities are the answer. Universities are institutions of learning and free speech, knowledge creation and of enabling individuals to reach their true potential. Higher education institutions are home to some of the brightest, best and most able minds in the world. 

It is the role of universities to understand these election results. To understand the deep divide and anger that has become apparent by applying the power of our combined knowledge. Intelligence is not a force for evil – Doctor Strange can tell us that. Knowledge is our resource, our best resource. We must use the combined knowledge in our institutions of learning to understand and to heal.  

It is universities in their modern and best sense that can provide the answer. Academics are no longer in ivory towers. I believe that there are three key areas where universities are now even more important than ever: promoting informed free speech; engaging the public with our research; and delivering inspiring education. 

Universities are the home of free speech. They provide the space in which views – and the evidence behind them – can be debated and challenged with rigour and fairness. We need this spirit of healthy and objective debate and challenge to extend and proliferate.

This is different to the smears and allegations that are entering political debates. Universities can be a guiding light in this regard. Only when we can be satisfied that there has been proper and true debate can we be satisfied with democratic outcomes – regardless of whether this was our voting choice or not.  

At the University of Exeter and in other universities, our challenge now is to better engage with our communities, to understand and to respond with rigour and integrity to find solutions. Through co-created and public engagement, we can reach and engage with all our communities. But here is where we can learn from Trump as well. He has proven himself able to energise and engage, especially those who are disenfranchised and sceptical of the Establishment.

As institutions and as a nation we must improve our communications by being accessible. There is no point in generating knowledge if we cannot articulate it. 

It has been too difficult for too long for young people from less advantaged backgrounds to access higher education. This isn’t fair. We know this and we are working to address this. Donald Trump in his victory speech promised for all Americans “the opportunity to realise his or her fullest potential”. Universities offer this experience.

Our social mobility and widening participation projects aim to reach more young people, and from an earlier age, to inspire them and engage them in higher education. We are working with schools and with the education system as a whole in our widening participation activities. These results are a call for us to go further and at a faster pace. 

Whether you are celebrating or commiserating today, the divide in our communities is becoming increasingly apparent. It is our responsibility to promote free speech, evidence-based views, to empower and engage with our communities.

If change is needed, then so be it. But let us all be fully informed and engaged. Universities are the answer.  

Professor Janice Kay is provost at the University of Exeter.

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Print headline: Trump victory underlines the importance of universities’ role

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