Universities in an Age of Populism Louise Richardson

In the past, universities were often at the vanguard of social movements – think of France in the 1960s – but no longer. The populist movements of today draw on long traditions of anti-intellectualism that consign universities to the ranks of the self-serving elite.

Populists hold that only one group is legitimate: the people, however defined. They may not expect to win all votes, but certainly believe they win all the votes of decent hardworking people who have been exploited by the establishment. The election of Donald Trump is seen as a victory for populism, but it is the anti-intellectual thread to Trump’s campaign which is most interesting here – think of him famously declaring at a campaign rally in Nevada: “I love the poorly educated”. A disdain for experts goes hand in hand with populism. For me, and I expect many others, the most memorable line of the Referendum campaign was Michael Gove’s: “We have had enough of experts”.

Populism feeds on this. Voters have disengaged from politics and in the absence of an informed citizenship, technocrats and experts become dominant, causing distance and distrust. It is striking that the single biggest predictor of a vote for Brexit and a vote for Trump was not income, age, or race but educational attainment. In the UK three quarters of university graduates voted Remain, whereas three quarters of those with no post-secondary qualifications voted Leave. Similarly, 75% of white people with no college degree voted for Donald Trump. These statistics are telling.

What would Senator Fulbright think if he were alive today? Whilst not all of his views or actions would find favour, it is to him I turn: Fulbright did not seek to accommodate populism, nor to retreat from it. Rather, he sought to create an alternative. He wanted his Fulbright Scholars to learn to “see the world as others see it”: his antidote to populism was to support a liberal, interconnected, model of global education. I believe we should do the same.

I believe that universities should respond by standing our ground and doing what we do best: pushing at the frontiers of knowledge and educating the next generation. I see the fact that the victories for the Brexit and Trump campaigns came as a surprise to most of us in universities as something of an indictment. We should not have been surprised. We must be deeply engaged in the world around us.

Many of our great universities, and certainly this one, make legitimate claim to be global institutions, yet we are also civic and national ones too. We must be engaged in our local community, sharing the benefits of our resources, like our libraries and museums, ensuring that ‘the people’ see us as their university too, and ensuring that they recognise the economic and cultural contributions we make. A recent study by Stephen Brint found that universities have contributed to 74% of ground-breaking inventions and had a leading role in 40% of inventions since the 1950s. Does the public know this? We need to make sure that they do.

Inside a university there is no such thing as an ‘alternative fact’. But populism feeds on misinformation and innuendo. Truth and opinion become deliberately blurred. What can universities do to counter this?

The first thing we can do is teach, teach our students respect for evidence, help them to distinguish between opinion and information, between information and knowledge, and between knowledge and wisdom, and hope that they take these skills out into the world beyond the university.

But we also need to push on. Public funding declines as policy decisions reflect the public’s lack of faith in universities on the one hand, and the exponential growth of commercially funded research on the other. The danger is a future where the only research is paid for by businesses. It is imperative that universities engage in blue skies research where the most important discoveries are often made, even if the commercial benefit is far from evident at the time.

The latest Edelman Trust Barometer found that 60% of academic experts were considered extremely or very credible, and we must keep the public’s trust. We must tell the truth and be prepared to say what others won’t. We should recognise that we occupy a very privileged position, but we should demonstrate that we deserve it. We must not only be prepared to speak out, we must figure out a way to be heard, not just by other members of the elite but by society at large.

What Senator Fulbright said of his exchange programme could well be said of universities today: “They are no panacea but they provide an avenue of hope.”

This article is based on the 2017 Fulbright Lecture delivered by the Vice-Chancellor in London, Edinburgh and Oxford.

Louise Richardson is Vice-Chancellor, University of Oxford


Photo Credit: Shutterstock

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