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To preserve academic freedom, universities must invest in democracy

29 April 2022

Brian Bech Nielsen, Rector, Aarhus University

In the modern university, it is easy to be consumed by the questions of competition. Are we recruiting the best talent? Do our students attain the skills needed in tomorrow’s dynamic labor market? How are we positioned to attract major grants?

These questions are by no means unimportant. In reality they reflect our deep-seated ambitions to seek new knowledge, solve global challenges and improve the lives of our fellow citizens.

But once in a while, we are confronted with events which remind us that even though competition has become part of the natural order for universities, there are also many important issues we must address in unison.

The war in Ukraine is an example. Apart from the war itself, the Russian aggression could also be perceived as a symptom of a more fundamental ailment. Recent surveys – such as the Edelmann Trust Barometer – warn that as autocracies rise, public trust in institutions and political leaders diminishes in many Western democracies. Even before the Russian invasion, the EU Commission wrote in their Communication of a European Strategy for Universities,

Fundamental academic and democratic values are under pressure. Universities have voiced deep concern over threats to academic freedom and university autonomy. Numbers of scholars and researchers at risk in European neighbourhood are on the rise.

A functioning democracy is a prerequisite for academic freedom. Academic freedom is a prerequisite for universities fulfilling their potential and maximizing their impact on society.

If we are truly entering what could be called a democratic recession, we need to recognize our responsibility to act. Not just in our own interest, but in the interest of the societies we serve.

In Keynesian economics, the proper response to a recession is to invest. So that is what we should do. Invest in democracy. Invest in academic freedom.

At Aarhus University, we recently established two new research centers on inequality and digital citizenship. The centers are interdisciplinary, but are spearheaded by researchers from the social sciences and the humanities. This spring, we also adopted a declaration consolidating the right for students and staff to express themselves freely. It underlines that academic freedom entails the right to voice your disagreement as well as the need to tolerate when others do the same. It promotes intellectual curiosity and encourages students and staff to contribute to the public debate.

These are examples of local investments aiming to strengthen democracy both within and outside the university walls. However, they are merely small steps. The giant leaps can only be taken collectively. Through networks such as the Coimbra Group and in cooperation with the EU system as well as national governments.

Acknowledging our dependence on the freedom of thought and expression, we must seek to support and invigorate democracy in a variety of ways. Through our research and education as well as our public outreach. And we must seek to do this in collaboration without regard to the competition that otherwise is a prevalent characteristic of our sector.