Not here to court populism

November 10, 2016

I am puzzled by the suggestion that the fact that academics are out of step with populist opinion indicates that universities need to “de-polarise” by moving in a more “moderate” direction (“The problems of populism: tactics for Western universities”, Features, 3 November). Moderation may entail dialogue and a willingness to act in a bipartisan manner, but it could not involve a repudiation of democratic values. Since the populism cited in the article is associated primarily with racist political parties, this is precisely what is being suggested.

Academics should engage with the public, but they must do so in the service of democratic knowledge. Polarisation is the product of the politics of the authoritarian and populist Right and universities should in no way accommodate it. The problem, perhaps, is less the “culture of the university” and more that government policies have maintained that the only public benefits of higher education are investment in human capital and economic growth.

There are fears mentioned in the article that, if universities do not bend towards populism, “they will only intensify the risks to their funding, their culture and their educative mission”. In truth, they have already risked their culture and educative mission by their single-minded pursuit of funding, and bending to populism would compromise it further.

John Holmwood
Professor of sociology
University of Nottingham

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