This speech was delivered at the opening ceremony of the UNIC CityLabs Festival in Liège, 14 October 2021.
I’ve been invited by the organizers to say a few words on the role of the universities in the creation and dissemination of knowledge. It is an interesting question, especially in those times we live in.
If one considers the position of universities in a not-so-distant past, one quickly realizes that they had a privileged position in society. The discourse of universities was perhaps less prolific but certainly more respected. Now as is also the case for many emblematic places of symbolic power, universities are challenged by people who question their role as the ultimate source of knowledge and wisdom. In this, universities in a way experience what was the fate of the church in Europe’s history at least since the Age of Enlightenment.
Scholars are also confronted with people who, for different reasons, feel as legitimate to enter into the public debate. They of course cannot claim to have a particularly sharp technical experience, but they vigorously put forward the idea that knowledge can be constructed from different viewpoints, that is from different non-technical viewpoints. There is also a second group that is deeply critical of what scholars do, because scholars, according to their analysis, are compromised with what they simplistically call « the System ».
Complotist attitudes like these can very quickly compromise the role and the status of science in our society. Of course, to be honest, there are cases where scientists gradually lost the sense of limit between their own interest and the society interest, but it would be outrageously simplistic to generalize these cases that very hopefully remain marginal. In this respect, the pandemics is an extraordinary laboratory for those who are interested in how the public discourse takes form, develops and transforms itself. In this, the role of scholars was prominent for counseling the political deciders and explaining to the public what was happening. Such a situation was new for most scientists who quite instantly became kind of rock stars, popular figures with thousands of followers in the social media, becoming for some of them highly respected influencers. But there was also a dark side to this. Politicians and the general public have been increasingly critical on the experts’ role. According to them, the experts were crossing the line each time they did not stay in their advisory role and went public to challenge, criticize, and sometimes oppose the decisions made by the political deciders.
To its great surprise, the general public also discovered that scholars do not automatically agree on every point, that the scholarly debate is precisely the right to disagree. Of course, it would be more correct to say that scholars have the right to disagree, but according to the rules that regulate any scientific discussion. I’ll come back to this later.
The extraordinary diversity of perceptions on the role of the universities is probably nothing else than the mirror of the diversity of our modern societies. No one can any longer claim to have the ultimate legitimacy to say what is true and what is not. Look for instance at how information is created and disseminated nowadays. Everyone is now a potential producer of information. Everyone who has a modern phone and is connected to the internet can immediately reach to an audience that is potentially the planet, the whole world. And this, without any kind of filters.
In the last decade of the last century, it was already very easy to get information, but it remained difficult to disseminate information without having access to the traditional media: radio, tv, papers, publishers, and the like. You know what I have in mind. In a certain way, journalists are now in a position very similar to what I described for university scholars. They are no longer seen as the ultimate experts in how to handle information. As one can see at the time of the world cup, everyone is now an expert. In this ocean of true, half true, not so true, fake or deeply fake information, some media try to make what they call a fact checking. They of course do it with a pedagogical goal in mind. I mean it started with good intentions, but this is also questioned by a significant part of the readership who criticizes what they view as a self-proclaimed attitude of superiority in deciding who is wrong and who is right. Again a problem of legitimacy. The chaotic relations of Trump with the press and the social media are exemplative in this respect.
The UNIC alliance is one of the 48 alliances of European universities. What makes us truly unique is precisely how we want to take into account the superdiversity of our societies, not only to take into account, but to take advantage of it to create or better co-create with all actors who rightly feel legitimate to express their opinions in the public debate.
What is the particular role of the universities in this totally new process of creating knowledge? I previously said that scholars have the right to disagree on scientific matters, but certainly not in some chaotic way. To maintain the scientific discourse alive and the mutual respect between us, we disagree methodologically, according to a method we all agree upon. To say it with other words, we speak the same language.
The role of universities, as I see it, is probably no longer to dictate the truth (remember the parallelism I made with the Church), but to make sure that the discussions are connected to observable and demonstrable facts, and proceed according to the basic rules of the critical method. Our responsibility as university leaders is to promote the methods of science, its epistemology. It is far more important than trying to assert, in a top-down attitude, what we believe to be the scientific wisdom, the scientific truth. The unique way to reconcile the public with some kind of rationality is by exposing and explaining our methodology, and by including the different constituting parts of our societies in the process.
This is what the CityLabs experience is all about. I would not say that it combines the top-down and bottom-up approaches, because I do not very much like these vertical metaphors. I personally feel more comfortable with the word dialectic, an old world connected to the old habit of the disputatio. I like the dialectic approach, made of back and forth movements. It probably won’t make the process of decision quicker, because it obviously takes time, but it is definitely more respectful of what we are and of what we want to do collectively.
And with this hope for our future, I wish you, I wish us an excellent festival.