“Keep hold of a few plain truths, and make everything square with them. When I was young … there never was any question about right and wrong … Every respectable Church person had the same opinions. But now, if you speak out of the Prayer-book itself, you are liable to be contradicted.”
Those are the words spoken by Mrs. Farebrother in George Eliot’s Middlemarch as she haughtily rejects the opinion of Doctor Lydgate. The book is set in the early 19th century, and Mrs. Farebrother has just asserted that overeating is the primary reason people need medical attention. Dr. Lydgate, who knows better, has disagreed, but his expertise means little to Mrs. Farebrother who is content with her own plain truths.
The disconnect between the expertise of the academy and the common sense of broader society has always been a challenge for universities. In some ways, bridging this divide defines their mission: to develop new knowledge and expertise and to disseminate both as broadly as possible, through teaching and publication. That is why the recent rise in populism has been such a concern for faculty.
This issue of Academic Matters is about the populist challenge for universities. It is an immense topic and understanding the implications requires one to step back, take a broad view of the current political and academic landscape, and ask some hard questions. Luckily, we have an incredible group of intelligent and insightful scholars to guide us.
Steven Tufts and Mark Thomas argue that faculty need to recognize their privileged positions and work to extend better working conditions to everyone, while Mark Kingwell highlights the perception that universities do not represent opportunity or benefit for society. Harry Boyte speaks to the role universities should play in empowering citizens to work through their differences. Peter Scott calls for universities to assert themselves as public institutions where all have access to postsecondary education, while Steven Zhou pushes administrators to take responsibility for cultivating campuses as safe spaces for students and faculty of all backgrounds.
Taking an international perspective, Simon Marginson examines how the nationalist pressures of populism may affect the international circulation of knowledge, while Grace Karram Stephenson discusses its impact on the ebb and flow of international students. Finally, Minelle Mahtani tells her story of creating a space in the media where researchers feel respected, honoured, and heard.
Together, these contributors paint a compelling portrait of the populist challenge for universities. Not only do they provide a diversity of perspectives, but they reveal the many social and political tensions at play.
Populism has always been a political force. Most leaders, democratically elected or not, would argue that they listen to and represent the feelings of the majority. This assertion has become ingrained in the political rhetoric of democracies specifically.
However, there is generally an understanding of the important and constructive contributions experts offer for developing policy solutions. That is why it is so disturbing to see politicians take the position that experts are irrelevant, answers are obvious, and that questioning common sense assertions of the populist right is akin to sacrilege.
Trump’s argument for a return to simple, core values echoes Mrs. Farebrother’s arguments in favour of a simpler world where there is no question of right and wrong. Despite the inclination, it is best not to simply dismiss this populist turn as a trend, or as celebrity-induced ignorance. Putting aside the rhetoric, this surge in populism certainly seems to be driven by rational grievances. In the wake of globalization and the economic turmoil that ensued in 2008, maybe it is time to hold some of thes experts to account.
Certainly, it was the elite, equipped with expert economic opinions, driving the charge for more free trade and less regulation; although one could argue that many of these individuals did not call a university campus home. People feel left behind economically, ignored politically, and belittled culturally. They have lost trust in the opinions of experts and have begun to question the role of higher education in making their world a better place.
The challenge for universities is one of determining the degree to which those in the academy are complicit in allowing this to happen. This rise of populism provides us with a critical moment to reflect on the role of postsecondary education in society. Administrators and faculty have a responsibility to address the concerns of those struggling to make ends meet and have their voices heard. We should tackle this populist challenge enthusiastically, reach out empathetically, and collectively build stronger, more vibrant communities where knowledge, understanding, and diversity are valued.