Talk less and do more

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Universities need to establish a new narrative for themselves, in which clear choices must be made and concrete steps then taken, says the Rector, Bert van der Zwaan, after attending an international meeting of leading universities and a gathering with new professors at Utrecht University (UU).

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After all of the excitement of new students trying to find their way around the University at the start of the academic year, peace would seem to once again prevail. Unfortunately, appearances are deceptive: the situation is far from tranquil.

This first became clear to me at a meeting of the LERU universities in Lund, Sweden,  last week. The highlight of this meeting was a review of the last decade. The authors of the acclaimed 2008 publication ‘What are universities for?’ were present and enquired about the status of the promises and resolutions made all those years ago.

Geoffrey Boulton, the former Vice Principal of the University of Edinburgh and the primary author, was the clearest: he felt that the leading European universities present had increasingly abandoned their fundamental research and their education remit in particular over the last decade. In a typically British manner, he argued passionately for less applied research and, more in particular, for a far greater role for education.

Although everyone nodded reflectively, his plea only gained real substance after others dryly observed that universities should not only communicate this narrative, but also start to keep the promises made. For example, by actually rewarding teaching properly, but, above all else, by taking concrete steps towards becoming a different type of university. The rectors present felt that this will only be possible with a new and improved university narrative in place: the traditional narrative, which continually falls back on the university as a bastion of knowledge, must be updated.

What we need is a narrative that covers not just the traditional role of the university, but also its role in society today, a digital era in which the Googles and Amazon.coms of this world are rapidly taking over the role played by universities, but – unlike universities – only make data and knowledge available in return for payment. The view that any new narrative must include far more than just the traditional role of the university was also evident from the urgent call from many of the universities present for a clear contribution to be made to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations.

It was not long after returning home from the LERU meeting that I found myself at a very different gathering: one attended by approximately 90 of our newly appointed professors and their partners. Despite the great atmosphere amongst those present, discontent was bubbling under the surface there too. People were audibly complaining about the very limited appreciation of teaching at the Faculty of Medicine/academic hospital  in practice, and about the fact that the University is trying to have it both ways where sustainability and diversity are concerned. Here too, the need to take concrete steps towards the achievement of the further reformulation of the current narrative was sometimes expressed quite pointedly.

Both meetings illustrated the undercurrent present in the university community, which urges that concrete steps be taken to develop a new narrative – to replace the current narrative, which is still very much policy, not practice. What can we do to fulfil our teaching commitment better? How can we ‘put our money where our mouth is’ where inclusivity is concerned? What can we do to make sure we live up to the exemplary role we have in relation to sustainability? Naturally, the last of the points above involves far more than just buying green electrical power, which Greenpeace complimented us on this weekend. For example, what are we doing about the huge number of flights we make and all of the cars on campus and what about the meat we serve in our restaurants?

The urgency is tangible from every quarter: let’s talk less and do more!

 

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