Post-truth: “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”.  Oxford Dictionary

“Evidence-based” and “Science-based”: two expressions explicitly prohibited in official budget documents of the Federal government by President Trump in 2018

Scholars and experts are aware of the limits of their knowledge, as doubt is part of scientific reasoning. As the cognitive bias known in psychology as the Dunning-Kruger Effect shows, for scientists, “the more you know, the more likely you are to see how little you know”. The opposite is of course also true. The less you know, the less able you are to recognize how little you know, so the less likely you are to recognize your errors and shortcomings. Or, as Bertrand Russell said: “the whole problem of the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts.”

Unfortunately, the world seems to be increasingly populated by “fools and fanatics”. In a time of blogging, tweeting and instant messages, everybody’s views are assumed to be equally valid and worth considering. Thus, we experience constant “information war”, with the proliferation of fake news, hoaxes, rumors, conspiracy theories and, last but not least, alternative facts. As we know, the latter expression was originally coined by President Trump’s spokesperson after the release of the photos comparing the turnout at his Inauguration in January 2017 with Obama’s in January 2009.

Conspiracy theories have always existed. Conspiracy thinking arises when people faced with complex issues choose to believe a simple—but false—explanation of whom to blame. Often, conspiracy theories are more amusing than the honest, but often complicated truth. But today’s social media, with their algorithms based on artificial intelligence, create “echo chambers” that play an important role in spreading false rumors. In addition, professional fake news writers and disseminators are flourishing and can often be manipulated by foreign interests, as Russian meddling in the US presidential election has shown. Thus, the realization that two-thirds of adults living in the United States are on Facebook and 45% get their main news from it, is a matter of deep concern.

These trends affect democracies in an adverse manner. Fewer people are interested in participating in democratic elections, either by voting or running for office. Faced with a maelstrom of fake news and contradictory information, voters are unsure of what to believe and make increasingly irrational decisions, following the exhortations of demagogues who appeal to their raw emotions rather than their reason. Misinformation undermines democracy and leads to dramatic policy shifts that may adversely affect the very people who have supported the policy changes. The Brexit vote in the United Kingdom, the negative vote in the peace referendum in Colombia and the election of President Trump are the most recent examples in that respect. One of the paradoxes of these situations, in the case of the United States, is that the measures taken by the Republican administration to curtail health care access and benefits are likely to affect, to a large extent, the voter base of the Grand Old Party.

Notwithstanding this post-truth context, World Class Universities (WCUs) still need to deal with pressing global challenges, such as climate change, migration, global epidemics, a turbulent world economy, financial instability, increased inequality, global trafficking and terrorism, to name only a few. They must also continue to assume their role model responsibility in the way they operate as institutions of higher learning. Unfortunately, the international rankings that identify which universities are in the top do not measure fundamental dimensions of the role of WCUs, such as the importance of instilling ethical principles, the ability to foster engaged learning experiences (critical thinking, connecting disciplines and applying knowledge to the real world), the need to be socially inclusive institutions, the extent to which research remains unbiased and intellectually independent from the political and business world that contributes to its funding, etc.

In a globalized, complex context, WCUs are facing growing risks. They are increasingly driven by the market and the never-ending search for additional funds, rather than by their own sense of higher purpose. Seen for a long time as a temple of knowledge where dedicated researchers are serving science, they have lost part of their standing. This has generated a decline in people’s trust in scholarly expertise.

Even more worrisome is the wariness that government authorities have shown towards universities. This has had two serious consequences. First, in several countries, top universities have experienced significantly reduced public funding. In the United States, for instance, under the dual influence of the financial crisis and the perception that universities are bastions of liberal thinkers, the Republican legislature in states as diverse as Arizona, Colorado, Oregon and Virginia has cut down the annual budgetary allocation to the state’s flagship university to no more than 10% of its annual revenue. Second, from Hungary to Turkey to China and Russia, authoritarian rulers are imposing growing restrictions on academic freedom to their public universities.

World-Class Universities are increasingly under threat in the post-truth world. With global visibility comes global responsibility. WCUs all over the world should work together as a network for the public good. They must succeed in meeting international standards while being deeply committed to their local environment. As they engage in socially useful learning and relevant knowledge creation, they should also preserve a space where free debate and dissent are welcome. The “Ivory Tower” could thus morph into a “Beacon of Hope” and contribute to diminishing the inequalities and the frustration they generate at the local and national level, while contributing to a fairer and more sustainable planet.

In that perspective, we propose a code of conduct for WCUs in the form of five “Shanghai Principles”, to commemorate the place where this proposal was made for the first time. The Shanghai principles are defined as follows:

  • Inclusiveness. Academic excellence should become more inclusive rather than continuing to be exclusive as a result of unnecessary selection mechanisms. Following the example of Arizona State University and some of the top universities throughout the world that have a needs-blind admission policy, WCUs must find ways of welcoming an increasingly diverse student population by removing the financial and non-monetary barriers that prevent qualified applicants from vulnerable groups from accessing and succeeding in WCUs. Many studies have shown that diversity among students and staff improves the teaching and learning experience and fosters tolerance and open-mindedness. 
  • Ethics. WCUs should place a strong emphasis on ethical values and behaviors to promote honesty, tolerance and solidarity. For this purpose, it is not sufficient to design a compulsory course on ethics that all students are expected to take. WCUs should do much more to instill ethical principles in students and faculty and to ensure that socially responsible values are built into the curriculum. Positive values should permeate all academic programs and become part of the DNA of the institutional culture of WCUs.
  • Objectivity. An essential responsibility of WCUs is to promote critical thinking. Therefore, teaching, learning and research must be conducted in a scientific way, with great emphasis on objective methods of reasoning and inquiry. WCUs must champion honest communication about what can be legitimately claimed as truthful. Inside the university, it is important to reinstate the academic tradition of free and fair debate that has been undermined by relativism and political correctness. WCUs are well placed to offer a safe space for assessing different views but also to engage outside of the university in public debates on complex issues. To deal with the latter, multi-disciplinary perspectives are often needed and universities are one of the few places that have the means to provide the expertise, to nourish reflection, and to influence policies on the basis of facts and scientific evidence. As van der Zwaan put it, “In the future, the university may well derive its most important form of legitimacy from its visibility and leadership in society. Despite the fact that public discourse is showing less and less interest in complexity, tackling complex problems is one of the university’s key strengths”.
  • Relevance. Research undertaken by WCUs must address global challenges, including but not limited to food, health, energy, climate change, the environment and security. WCUs are very good at conducting excellent “blue sky” research but they should focus more on promoting research that solves real problems and addresses global challenges. When looking at the seventeen Sustainable Development Goals adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations in September 2015, it is clear that WCUs can have a positive impact on almost every one of them.
  • Global Collaboration. The race to secure a higher position in the international rankings has pushed WCUs to compete with each other in a compulsive manner. Notwithstanding the competition exacerbated by the rankings, solidarity is a core value of university life. It is the essence of collegiality. Over the centuries, it has fostered the exchange of ideas, mobility of researchers and joint undertakings. The competition inherent in the rankings phenomenon should not come at the expense of collaboration among responsible universities. WCUs can equally promote excellence through cooperation and solidarity. WCUs should rather act as a community of institutions and scholars cooperating for the global good. In that way, they would be following the positive example of the Talloires Network, an international association of institutions committed to strengthening the civic roles and social responsibilities of universities.

* This blog was written together with Pierre de Maret, emeritus president of the Free University of Brussels.  It is based on a chapter by the authors in the following upcoming book Wu, Y., Wang, Q., and Liu, N.C. (eds.) (forthcoming). World-Class Universities: Towards a Global Common Good and Seeking National and Institutional Contributions. Rotterdam: Brill Publishers.  A shorter version was posted on Inside Higher Education‘s world view.

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