In dark days, universities must keep the lights on at home

Our age of unenlightenment demands that institutions share their intellectual and moral capital with the communities around them

February 9, 2017
Trump protester
Source: Getty

“Trust, but verify” was a dictum used by Ronald Reagan during the Cold War. His present-day successor has an alternative version: trust me, but on no account try to verify anything I say.

These are dark days for those who believe in the difference between fact and fiction, and who think the concept of reality is rather important. Universities, dedicated to seeking after truth, are particularly deep in the shadows.

Donald Trump took less than two weeks to turn his Twitter fire directly on universities, threatening to withdraw federal funding from the University of California, Berkeley after protests prompted the cancellation of a talk by a right-wing provocateur. Trump’s accusation was that UC Berkeley “does not allow free speech and practices violence on innocent people with a different point of view”. The fact that Berkeley is the home of the free speech movement, and that the university’s communications director expressed regret that the cancellation had been necessary on safety grounds, were overlooked.

Trump had doubtless been waiting for his moment to attack universities, those bastions of political correctness, and seized his first opportunity (incidentally, he attacked Iran and Australia in the same 6am flurry of tweets – such is his scattergun approach to picking fights).

It’s becoming impossible to cover news without returning endlessly to Trump, and that’s largely down to his reinvention of Twitter, the social media platform that was supposed to herald a new age of democratic enlightenment, but which Trump has co-opted as a news management tool that he wields with a combination of bluntness and precision. The truth is largely incidental in this, and news organisations are stuck between covering what amounts to a running battle in the knowledge that they are being manipulated, or ignoring the leader of the free world.

In this week’s THE, we explore trust and truth as fundamental tenets of academia from several different angles. In our opinion pages, we hear from Deborah Lipstadt, Dorot professor of modern Jewish and Holocaust studies at Emory University in the US, who was famously sued for libel by the Holocaust denier David Irving (and whose story is told in the David Hare-scripted film Denial).

She makes the point that we live in an age when “asserting that something is true even when the evidence exists to contradict it has become a point of honour for scores of prominent people”.

The question she asks is how on earth such people can be challenged, when reason gets nowhere and they thrive on attention. In the case of Irving (whose lawsuit she defeated in court back in the late 1990s), she writes that “I concluded that giving him some precious oxygen was the price I had to pay to reach those who might be swayed by him”.

In a second opinion piece this week, Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, discusses the existential threat facing universities in an age of unenlightenment.

“If our response is to retreat into campus and hope this all goes away, we may find the ivory tower razed,” she warns. “We must seize this opportunity to insist that higher education, with all its benefits, becomes rooted in its immediate communities.”

This argument that universities need to build from the ground by persuading and regaining trust in their own neighbourhoods is explored in detail in our cover story.

Re-crossing the Atlantic to spend time in Baltimore and Philadelphia, we examine how two hugely successful universities – Johns Hopkins University and the University of Pennsylvania – have developed strategies to embed themselves in their communities: cities with social and economic deprivation that is in stark contrast to the wealth of these elite institutions.

This ideal of the university as an anchor institution is one that universities must double down on in light of their apparent schism with a large section of society. As Johns Hopkins president Ron Daniels says, universities are “major repositories of intellectual and moral capital”. But if they’re to use that capital to change the world, the work must start at home, with the trust of those they live alongside.

Comparisons between Reagan and Trump can be overdone, but as I’ve got my dictionary of quotations out, allow me one more. Asked to do a radio microphone test before a broadcast in 1984, Reagan said: “My fellow Americans, I am pleased to tell you I just signed legislation which outlaws Russia forever. The bombing starts in five minutes.”

It was just a test, but could this count as one of the first instances of fake news?


Print headline: Keeping the lights on  

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