Thursday, 1 December 2016

Universities in a post-fact political world

One of my colleagues in Trondheim admitted that as he gets older the tears seem to come more readily. They did on Friday 18 November. Perhaps I should explain.

NTNU, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, in Trondheim awarded me a doctorate honoris causa, their 91st. The ceremony was a wonderful mixture of Nordic pomp, clockwork precision and Norwegian informality. Apart from two honorary doctors, twice a year approximately 150 students get their doctorates. Impressive.

Like all graduations it was a moving occasion. Certainly, I was moved. My short acceptance speech was along the following lines:

I love graduations. You, dear doctoral graduates, have worked so hard and now you are to be rewarded. You will go out into the world and use your knowledge and skills to make the world a better place.

I find this this graduation occasion special for three reasons. The first, not so important, is that it makes us happy. I work at UCL. The auto-icon of Jeremy Bentham sits in box outside the office of the University President and Provost. Bentham emphasised that social progress should aim at the greatest good for the greatest number. By each of us graduates being happy we add to the world’s utility. But I am not really a Benthamite.

A second more important reason why today is special is because it is a wonderful celebration of what we do in Universities like this one. It stands in stark contrast with what is going on in the world of politics at the moment. With Brexit, far right parties in Norway, Sweden, Denmark and across Europe, the US election, some politicians have declared war on truth, logic, consistency, reason and social justice; not to mention the assault on statistics. What we stand for in universities is all those things: truth, logic, consistency, reason and social justice. We have a vital role to play in standing up for these civilised and civilising values.

The third reason for my valuing this occasion so highly is because I take the award to me as an award to the field in which I work: social justice and health. What I do relies on evidence-based policies and social justice. I am chairing a new Commission on Equity and Health Inequalities in the Americas. At a recent meeting in Washington DC I walked in the Mall and found myself in the area devoted to Martin Luther King Jr. Dr King said:

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.

The world’s problems are our problems, your problems, my dear new doctors.

My colleagues here in Trondheim asked me if I am optimistic, given all the bad things happening in the world, as I have just laid out. Yes, I am optimistic because I do believe that evidence-based policies and social justice will win out. Martin Luther King said it better.

I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.

Another Norwegian professor, as if accounting for his colleague’s tendency to shed a tear, said: you spoke from your heart to our hearts. I shed a tear.

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