Truth is our profession

Malcolm Gillies discusses the reality of university reputation

March 24, 2011

Nothing could have been more prophetic than Times Higher Education’s piece on “Eastern eminence” in its cover story on the World Reputation Rankings (“The name says it all”, 10 March). Featuring an illustration of a University of Tokyo building riding atop Hokusai’s The Great Wave off Kanagawa, it preceded by one day the real thing, when some Japanese universities a little north of Kanagawa did indeed ride a great wave to destruction.

The surfeit of baleful news from around the world these past few weeks reminds us why universities are here and what is most important about them. Culminating THE’s exploration of brand values, virtues and vices - with Harvard University coming between Coca-Cola and Pepsi in brand value and worth more than 10 times the University of Oxford - the article’s general conclusion is that there are “only a handful of globally recognised brands in higher education”. And thank God for that!

For the real value of a university lies not in the cashed-up value of its brand, but in something much more heroic: how it protects liberal intellectual values, how it promotes educational virtues and how it exposes research vices. These qualities are never found in the league tables because they cannot be trivialised into numbers, yet they are products of the university’s most distinctive characteristic: the neutral space it creates in which the truth can be professed without fear or favour, a space guarded by the commitment to academic freedom.

This is not just a characteristic of research-intensive universities, but of all institutions worthy of the university title. London Metropolitan University, for instance, with more aspiration, currently, than achievement in the league-table game, nonetheless has a proud tradition of fearless engagement in such fields as social justice, human rights and the lives of working people. These truths need to be heard in times of declining living standards and high unemployment, at times when we learn from the Bank of England in its February inflation report that for 12 years the consumer price index has been regularly understated, at a cumulative cost to citizens measured in the billions.

Whether from the triple disaster of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown in Japan or Mu’ammer Gaddafi’s attempts to kill his people before they or we kill him, the evidence has been clear and ever present on our television screens: modern society is wary of accepting the information and images presented to it. It sees spin and cover-up everywhere, whether from the mouths of corporate leaders, politicians, prelates or the media.

Were news reports from Libya showing endless shots of rebels joyfully firing in the air really just “happy snaps” disguising the truth of a nasty, sometimes hand-to-hand civil war from which we were being shielded? Can we possibly believe the assurances of senior Japanese politicians, bureaucrats and electric company officials about the minimal health risks posed by disintegrating nuclear reactors? Is the knee-jerk reaction of the world’s political leaders in announcing a retreat from nuclear power really based upon the dispassionate evidence of science and proper community debate about the consequences of relying on alternative sources of power?

Ultimately, the reputation of the university, as a key institution of society, lies in its fearless pursuit of the truth. That is why a commitment to academic freedom, with the protection from victimisation it offers to those pursuing new, unpopular or controversial views, is still so important. Those in government, industry, the Church and, often, the media have no such protection. So we see that at moments when real calamities occur, the world does look to its academic specialists for definitive evidence, opinion or authoritative testimonial.

The reciprocal side of this freedom is the defence that universities must mount against political, commercial or religious interference, particularly in relation to academic standards or research findings. As the protective envelope of “the public” dwindles, that defence becomes ever harder to organise.

The London School of Economics’ recent debacle over its multiple relationships with Libya and its ruling family show how easily that defence can slip. Like Caesar’s wife, universities must be beyond reproach. It is not even the facts - which at the LSE are now, following university tradition, under investigation - but merely the suspicion of, or the opportunity for, interference or corruption that can be most lethal to institutional reputation.

But let’s not get too “holier than thou”. The current media witch-hunt for any dealings with countries lacking in democratic attributes, press freedom or business transparency ignores the fact that it is through such contact that change has a chance of coming about. Our international students are often here to escape oppression at home and to witness better models for themselves, their families and their countries.

Of the top seven source countries for international students at my university, four come towards the bottom of the global league for press freedom and democracy, according to China, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Nigeria. Even the UK fails to score in the top dozen places for press freedom or democracy by the same audit, not to mention business trust or banking regulation. Now, then, is not the time to withdraw into self-righteous isolationism.

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