Universities too often sound “self-serving” and must do a better job of communicating their value to society if they are to avoid being presented as part of a “distant and malevolent elite”, according to the incoming head of the London School of Economics and Political Science.
Writing for Times Higher Education on the eve of her first day as director, Dame Minouche Shafik presents a four-point plan for restoring public confidence in the academy in the UK and overseas.
The former deputy governor of the Bank of England warns that universities find themselves threatened by “populist politicians [who] peddle prejudice, paranoia and false promises”, a wider desire “for more isolation and less internationalism”, and the rise of social media, where “people with deep knowledge of issues are overshadowed in public debate in favour of those with large followings”.
“At best there is a greater indifference towards those who possess the knowledge and evidence to better inform policymaking on a national and international level,” writes Dame Minouche, a former deputy managing director of the International Monetary Fund. “At worst there is actual hostility expressed to ‘experts’ presented as part of a distant and malevolent elite.”
The four-point plan, released ahead of the THE World Academic Summit in London next week, calls on institutions to “raise awareness of and spread the well-established principles that govern what constitutes a valid intellectual contribution”, such as peer review, transparency about conflicts of interest, and openness of data. Thinktanks and the media should be encouraged to adopt such practices, Dame Minouche says.
Dame Minouche, who held academic appointments at the University of Pennsylvania and Georgetown University, says that messages coming out of universities too often “sound self-serving” and “neglect to emphasise the public goods that we produce”. Researchers must “strive to communicate clearly about our work, aiming to reach not only those who want to hear from us but, crucially, those to whom we are, more often than not, an irrelevance”, she adds.
Dame Minouche’s third priority is to instil in undergraduates “an appreciation for rigour and a commitment to engage with public debate as experts and as citizens”, expressing concern about students’ ability to identify so-called fake news and disinformation.
Universities must also “engage with views that are different, even if they are uncomfortable”, Dame Minouche says, adding that institutions are “well positioned” to provide “neutral spaces for real debate between different worldviews”, while “staying true to their values of respectful discourse and rigour”.
“At a time when many of the values that we hold dear are under threat, we need to do a better job of explaining our contribution to society and how essential rigour, clear communication, training in critical thinking and genuine academic debate are to the good that we do,” Dame Minouche concludes.