Widen student access to tackle anti-science movement – Daniels

Ron Daniels told Times Higher Education summit that fears that elite universities remain inaccessible have hit trust in science

November 3, 2020
Ronald Daniels, Johns Hopkins University
Source: Johns Hopkins University
Ron Daniels, president of Johns Hopkins University

Trust in science and academia has been eroded because elite universities are perceived as inaccessible by marginalised groups who have become increasingly “critical, sceptical and sometimes antagonistic” towards these higher education institutions, a US sector leader has said.

Ron Daniels, who has led Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore since 2009, said the growing criticism of science and universities among some socio-economic groups was driven, in part, by the sense that leading universities were distant and out of reach to all parts of society.

“The truth is that whether they are public or private institutions, whether tuition is low or high, universities are, by and large, seen as bastions for the most privileged members of society and for their children,” explained Professor Daniels, who said this perception was applied to the US but also to Canada and western Europe.

“We have to make sure those people who are critical, sceptical and sometimes antagonistic towards universities see there is an opportunity for their kids to end up in these institutions,” added Professor Daniels, who was speaking at Times Higher Education’s Leadership and Management Summit, which was held online on 3 November.

Restoring trust in science, medical expertise and universities more generally would require universities to “earn the trust and confidence of those people who see themselves outside those [higher education] institutions”, said Professor Daniels, who believed elite universities had to “make it clear that there are pathways for their children” to take up places there.

“When these children do come to these institutions and bring a set of experiences and perspectives [that] is different to the majority view, it is important that those views are welcomed and engaged with,” he added.

Professor Daniels, whose tenure at Johns Hopkins has led to improved collaboration with the local community in Baltimore, said his institution had made efforts to increase the number of students eligible for Pell Grants, the federal subsidy provided to students from financially disadvantaged backgrounds.

If other elite institutions also did this, “that really gives us a great opportunity to tackle the divides in this country…and create a whole different community where different communities are forced to interact”, said Professor Daniels.

He added that the virtual platforms created by universities during the coronavirus crisis also provided an opportunity for them to engage social groups who might not otherwise interact with elite institutions. The Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, which includes its much-followed global coronavirus dashboard charting the trajectory of the virus across the world, had been accessed more than 1 billion times since it was created by engineering professor Lauren Gardner in January, Professor Daniels said.

That mix of engagement and inclusion was “how the university has to reach out [to tackle] claims about science and truth and make them accessible and engaging for the public at large”, he said.

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Perception of elitism has fuelled anti-science movement, says Johns Hopkins head

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