Are universities having an identity crisis?

Political purity is a badge of honour in the hashtag age. But the real world is nuanced and messy, as universities should know better than most

November 7, 2019
Barack Obama
Source: Getty

If you were asked to identify yourself, how would you do it? What combination of background, belief and occupation would you offer up? And how does your position in relation to others – particularly those you disagree with – contribute to your sense of who you are?

The latter question seems particularly current, and in a video shared widely on social media last week, the former US president Barack Obama put his finger on why.

Pointing out how unhelpful the retreat to black and white thinking in politics and public debate has been, we warned against the quest for political “purity”.

“The world is messy. There are ambiguities. People who do really good stuff have flaws,” he said. “One danger I see among young people, particularly on college campuses, is a sense…that the way of making change is to be as judgemental as I can about other people, and that’s enough. If I tweet or hashtag about how you didn’t do something right or used the wrong verb, then I can sit back and feel pretty good about myself…That’s not bringing about change.”

The debate that ensued focused on where progressive politics is going wrong: how the rise of “woke” is undermining the Left’s ability to get things done and fuelling our overheated politics.

But Obama also raised questions about what we think defines us in these polarised times and how significant our opposition to others has become in that equation.

What has this got to do with higher education?

Well, it’s undeniable that universities are places that help to forge identities. They are also institutions in which nuance continues to be important and where argument is conducted not to score points or signal virtue, but to further understanding, refine positions and achieve real ends.

Universities, like their students and staff, have identities too – and being liberal, as a rule, when winds are blowing the other way, opens them up to fierce scrutiny and attack.

The basis for much of this is phoney, like the campus free speech bandwagon, which has become a staple of the ongoing culture wars.

A classic of the genre appeared in The Times recently, when a Conservative student from the University of Cambridge wrote a piece complaining that Cambridge did not allow students to hold Conservative views.

But are there other dynamics or perceptions of universities’ identity that they should be more open to discussing and reconsidering?

In our news pages, the president of the European Universities Association, Michael Murphy, warns that universities are at risk of losing their vital links and influence with governments because they are seen as being in “perpetual opposition”.

Professor Murphy’s view is that universities are a “critical determinant of the likely success of [governments’] policies”, but that this significance is being overlooked because of the “diminished” relationship between the two.

This requires genuine engagement from both sides, although one response would be that universities have had much to oppose in the current political environment (just look at how the Central European University has been treated in Hungary).

Questions of national identity, success and failure are ultimately determined at the ballot box – at least they are in the UK, which faces a general election in just over a month’s time.

One of the ways universities can shape that is by helping students register to vote.

In our news pages, we report on the findings of a survey by the campaign group Vote For Your Future which finds significant variation in universities’ efforts to support voter registration.

Some have done a lot, some very little – and arguably not enough to meet guidance issued by the Office for Students.

It seems strange, in 2019, to think that not so long ago, the big worry was political apathy. Now it is that identities have become too acutely wedded to extreme positions.

It is not hard to see why. A sense of being disenfranchised, coupled with the intemperate tribalism and the loosening of ties to good faith, truth and convention encouraged by social media, have performed a sort of alchemy. The danger is that it’s producing fool’s gold rather than the real thing.

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