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Dreams and hopes for the future of universities

29 February 2024

Yves Flückiger, Rector, University of Geneva

Often tested, increasingly facing multiple pressures, academic freedom and freedom of expression are essential foundations for the development of our universities, the pillars upon which intellectual progress, innovation, and mutual understanding rest. Today more than ever, it is imperative to defend and preserve them.

Academic freedom is the principle that researchers, teachers, and students have the right to pursue their studies, conduct their research, and express their ideas without external interference. This not only means the freedom to seek the truth and push the boundaries of knowledge but also the freedom to criticize, question, and even challenge established ideas. However academic freedom also entails responsibilities. It has to be exercised in compliance with laws, study regulations, professional duties, as well as competency frameworks.

Alongside academic freedom, freedom of expression is a fundamental right that ensures everyone the opportunity to share their opinions and ideas without fear of repression or censorship. It is the cornerstone of democracy and intellectual diversity, enabling open debate and constructive dissent. In the current context, marked by the terrorist acts of October 7, 2023, and the unprecedented violence they unleashed in the Gaza Strip, universities must reaffirm the importance of freedom of expression and the right of all to debate, present arguments, and embrace disagreements.

It is a necessary condition for academic thought and, more broadly, for the proper functioning of our democracies. Faced with tensions and the hardening of expressed positions, this freedom must be framed by clear principles that protect it: rejection of all forms of discrimination, calls for violence, or violations of ethical and professional principles.

Within the limits outlined above, all questions must be allowed at the university, even when they involve complex situations that require multiple perspectives. This freedom entails disagreements and discomfort that must be accepted. However, the form taken by events or expressions – as well as the context in which they occur – must take into account the sensitivities of members of the academic community, protecting their right to a healthy working and studying environment in which they can evolve without fears or threats.

Between freedom of expression and the respect due for all, the path is narrow. Projects must be evaluated, sometimes re-evaluated, in light of the disturbances they cause and the intentional or unintentional harm they may cause to the cohesion of the academic community, while resisting the deceptive comfort of censorship or self-censorship. Our ability to fulfill our missions and to comprehend the world depends on it.

Faced with these challenges, it is imperative that our universities remain vigilant, united, and committed. They must uncompromisingly defend the right of their community members to freely seek, teach, and discuss. By defending these freedoms, we not only safeguard the rights of individuals but also the very possibility of democratic debate and a collective quest for truth and justice.

As I prepare to step down from my position as rector of the University of Geneva, allow me to share my dreams and hopes for the future. Dreams of universities that foster creativity, ensuring academic freedom, the most fertile ground for fundamental research. Dreams of universities capable of staying ahead, willing to take risks in an uncertain yet opportunity-rich environment. Dreams of universities that constantly reinvent themselves to meet the challenges our societies must confront. Dreams of universities capable of envisioning new forms of knowledge access and transmission. All together, united through our long-standing cooperation in the Coimbra Group, we can turn these dreams into reality.