Political debates bring ‘blood on streets’ risk for universities

Dangers of universities being seen to shape public opinion highlighted in Pakistan, while Saudi leader warns of ‘slippery slope’

September 28, 2023
Panel at the World Academic Summit
Source: Michael Amendolia/University of Sydney

Universities face a “slippery slope” if they seek to shape public opinion, according to the leader of a Saudi Arabian university who formerly led a Hong Kong institution, while a Pakistani university faced threats of “blood on the street” for being perceived to do so.

A session at the Times Higher Education World Academic Summit, hosted by the University of Sydney, debated the “role of universities in shaping public opinion”.

That issue is relevant in Australia at present, where there is debate over whether universities should take institutional positions on the referendum on creating an indigenous “voice” to the Australian parliament. But the pressures around universities’ institutional stances on political issues are far greater in some other nations.

Tony Chan, president of King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Saudi Arabia, said: “I don’t think it’s a university’s role to shape public opinion. Because, really, it’s a slippery slope. You want to shape public opinion – public opinion will shape you.”

Professor Chan, who was president of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology during the pro-democracy, anti-Beijing Occupy Central protests, said: “The students came to me [asking], ‘President, what is your position?’

“That’s my personal business,” Professor Chan explained. “What we want to make sure is that my personal opinion does not influence the university.”

He added: “To the society, you as president, the university as an organisation should have a position. But that’s a slippery slope.

“I think the role for a university to shape public opinion is indirectly. You do research, you find out about the truth, you educate students…you do outreach, communication – and through that you actually influence public opinion.”

Arshad Ahmad, vice-chancellor of Lahore University of Management Sciences in Pakistan, said context was key to the question.

“It can be very different, say, sitting in a university in Canada to a university in Pakistan,” he added. “So when, for example, a faculty member decides to perhaps push the boundaries through an activist agenda, you might in your heart of hearts say that’s really the right thing to do; but then it might be at the risk of harming the university.”

Asked about examples of potential harm, Dr Ahmad said: “I can give you so many examples. Some of them are just phone calls that say: ‘There will be blood on the street if you have this conference.’”

Adding that gender issues are another topic often provoking extreme reactions against the university, he said: “Violence is in some cases unavoidable if you take a very hard stand on these issues.”

Dr Ahmad also said of the threats: “There were a group of humanities professors who decided to have a conference on genocide, in which the power group, the establishment, was being implicated.”

A “very inflammatory” tweet went out the day before the conference saying universities around the world were taking part in the conference, he said.

He went on: “That’s when the phone call came: ‘There shouldn’t have to be this conference. You’re going to have people die in front of your gates.’ It was an anonymous call, although there were some titles involved in who threatened us. The conference [was scheduled to happen] tomorrow: you have to decide – what are you going to do?”

Speaking about the wider issues, Oliver Günther, president of the University of Potsdam, said from the audience that, for universities, “shaping [public opinion] means we do research that forms the basis for public policy”, highlighting the example of Covid vaccines.

Libby Hackett, chief executive of the James Martin Institute for Public Policy, a partner of the New South Wales government, which works to bring academic experts into policymaking, said: “I do think we need to be careful about how we conceive of this idea of universities ‘shaping’ public opinion.”

She added: “For me there’s this baseline, in Australia, in that universities play an essential role in the fabric of our democracy, including playing an active role in strengthening the fabric of that democracy. That means contributing to public debate and dialogue – of course informing an evidence base.”

On the Australian referendum, Dr Hackett said she saw no problem with some universities taking an institutional position supporting a vote in favour of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice, and others choosing not to take any institutional position.

“There is no right or wrong answer. We do not have a monolithic sector…We should be celebrating the differences of opinions and approaches within that,” she added.


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