Sijbrand De Jong
Sijbrand De Jong

What the university stands for - blog Sijbrand de Jong

In light of visible protests at universities, including our own university, I have been thinking in many ways about the role of universities in general and our university in particular. Traditionally, the university has been a place for free thinking, discovery, and forming opinions. The impact of university activities on society is significant. Naturally, society, in turn, influences what happens at the university.

The university as a societal player 

Does this mean that the university itself is or should become a societal player? It is often assumed that universities possess a wealth of knowledge across various fields, particularly to address societal issues. In my view, some modesty is in order. If we already had all the knowledge, we could cease research. Even academics must work with partial and fragmented information.

The university as a societal leader 

However, excessive modesty does not serve us well either. There is a wealth of scientific knowledge that, in my opinion, could be more actively used in public discourse. Additionally, other factors influence societal developments. Especially when societal considerations need to be made, scientific arguments alone are not always decisive. Is it wise then for a university to try to impose its insights on society?

The university and the academic community 

In this regard, it seems beneficial to distinguish between the university as an institution and the academic community formed within it. The university primarily consists of bricks, concrete, glass, experimental setups, numerous computers, and a few books here and there. Looking at it this way, this collection of objects cannot have opinions or provide direction. Knowledge and opinions reside within the academic community, which can indeed share knowledge and offer opinions and advice.

Where does university governance stand? 

So, where do we, as university administrators, fit into this distinction between the university as an institution and the academic community? We embody the institution and often are part of the academic community as well. We oscillate between these roles and sometimes blend them. In my view, the crucial differentiation lies in offering opinions and advice. As members of the academic community, we can certainly do that. However, as university administrators, we must primarily safeguard diverse and multi-voiced knowledge and opinion formation without imposing it, publicly or otherwise. If you find me in a tight spot next time, you can assume I am grappling with this internal conflict.

This blog was written by Sijbrand de Jong, Dean of the Faculty of Science.

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Faculty of Science