Universities must rethink how they communicate in a post-truth world

Phil Baty reflects on the Times Higher Education World Reputation Forum, which took place in Harvard Square this month

June 21, 2017
Martin Schmidt addressing the THE World Reputation Forum, Harvard Square

Leave the bustle of Massachusetts Avenue and step into Harvard Yard, the historic heart of Harvard University, and you may notice an inscription above the gate. “Enter to grow in wisdom,” it reads. Stroll around the grounds and you cannot miss the famous Harvard coat of arms emblazoned with a single word: “Veritas”.

For centuries, our great research universities, epitomised by Harvard, have been the world’s bastions of wisdom and truth.

So it was appropriate that Times Higher Education held its inaugural World Reputation Forum at Harvard Square, Cambridge, earlier this month, bringing together senior leaders from Harvard and its neighbour the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as well as colleagues from the University of Oxford and another institution dedicated to the pursuit of truth, The Wall Street Journal. The meeting was convened to discuss “the role of truth-seekers in a post-truth world”.

The idea that we have entered a post-truth era has increasingly gained currency over the last 12 months.

It reflects a world in which the official spokesman for the president of the United States can speak with a straight face about “alternative facts”. It is a world in which a former UK secretary of state for education, Michael Gove, can complain that Britain “has had enough of experts”, and later find himself recalled to front-bench political life as the Secretary of State responsible for the environment and climate change.

It is a world in which so-called “fake news” can spread like wildfire on social media, and influence the outcome of democratic elections. It is a world in which the term “fake news” can itself be used to discredit legitimate journalism that people in power simply do not want you to believe.

For Martin Schmidt, the provost of MIT, the definitive proof that we are indeed living in a post-truth world came in May when the US president, Donald Trump, pulled the US out of the Paris Climate Agreement – badly misrepresenting MIT research to justify his decision.

President Trump quoted an MIT report, entitled “How much of a difference will the Paris Agreement make?”, to suggest that the agreement – even if implemented in full, with total compliance from all nations – would reduce global warming by only “a tiny, tiny amount”.

One of the authors of the study, John Reilly, the co-director of the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change, was quick to respond, telling the media that “the whole statement seemed to suggest a complete misunderstanding of the climate problem”. He added: “I think [the Trump administration] are probably immune to fact.”

MIT’s president L. Rafael Reif wrote to his community shortly after Trump’s Paris bombshell, stating clearly that “there is no negotiating with the scientific facts”. But no one seems to have told the White House.

Speaking at THE’s World Reputation Summit, Schmidt said that “if there was any doubt” that we are living in a post-truth world, “it certainly came clear when our scientists were incorrectly cited. It is clear that we do live in a post-truth world. For the academics it is hard to imagine that a scientific journal that has been peer reviewed is misrepresented.”

Results in full: World Reputation Rankings 2017

What does this mean for universities? One lesson, Schmidt said, is that they must urgently rethink how they communicate.

Ceri Thomas, director of communications at Oxford University, agreed. He warned that in the face of populists’ attacks on universities and their role, “it would be a dreadful mistake in my view for us to retreat to our core support and ignore the sections of society that see us part of a disconnected, globalised elite”.

“The people who think that are, in many ways, the most important for us to engage with,” he said. “Why? Because, in the end, our freedom to operate – and the influence we can have on the world – depend on us achieving broad public support.”

For Schmidt, this means finding new, popular communications channels for MIT messages – “we are now big fans of 30-90 second videos – they are incredibly effective,” he said. But it also means supporting MIT faculty through communications and media training.

“The joke is that the outgoing MIT graduate is the one who stares at your shoes when he’s talking to you rather staring at his own,” said Schmidt. “We spend a lot of time working with our faculty to coach them to help them get out their message. This is not what we would have done 10 years ago.”

Another lesson is that those who work in universities can find inspiration and energy from the challenges the world faces. Schmidt said that he is finding that faculty are “more inclined” to speak out about their work in today’s climate. “When our faculty felt that their results were not properly represented, they wanted to speak out. This is their life’s work. They’re committed to a better world. That passion compels them to want to get their message out and it is incumbent on us to support them.”

Paul Andrew, vice president for communications at Harvard, also said that his university had been “mobilised” by a sense of threat and challenge.

“There’s nothing like a good existential crisis to mobilise people,” he said. “It is unfortunate that it has to get to that point, but [faculty] recognise at the highest level, from the president through the entire administration, that we are in lock-step with them in supporting their work.”

“That goes well beyond scientific research funding,” he said. “That goes to funding for the humanities and the arts – the current [Trump] administration suggested it would eliminate all funding for the National Endowment for the Humanities and National Endowment for the Arts.”

There was significant optimism among participants at the event that universities would emerge stronger from the period of crisis.

Schmidt pointed out that he had just helped to preside over MIT’s 2017 commencement festivities. “On Friday I shook 1,500 hands – that was half of the diplomas we handed out – and I was joking to our commencement speaker [Apple chief executive] Tim Cook: ‘We shipped a lot of excellent product on Friday’. Our students are inspirational and that will carry me through to next June.”

Jerry Seib, executive Washington editor of the Wall Street Journal, ended the day on a defiantly positive note: “I think that this post-truth environment is actually producing a movement back towards truth. Since the beginning of the year we have tens and tens of thousands of new subscribers and other news organisations are experiencing the same phenomenon.

“Some people are trapped in the fake news world and other people are recoiling from that and saying: ‘Lets run to quality and have a sane, fact-filled conversation’. In the end truth wins out.”

Phil Baty is editorial director, global rankings, at Times Higher Education.

Read next: Jon Marcus reports from the World Reputation Forum

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