We may hope that scientific and other forms of knowledge can drive, or at least shape, responsible public discourse on vital issues such as climate change, clean energy, sustainability, poverty, racism, and immigration. More generally, the promotion of rational thinking and policymaking.
There is a large canon on this concept and its essential role in developing and supporting democracies. Over decades, political observers have extolled the power of rational thinking and competent communication to bring about mutual understanding and social change for the good.
Never mind for now the many evils of social media and state-controlled narratives that supply Orwellian untruths practiced by Trump, Orbán, Putin, Xi, and other demagogues and autocrats. The concept of free and open communication as a mainstay for old and new democracies remains relevant.
In an age of increased threats to democracy and open societies, if we adhere to the idea and hope universities are essential sources of truth and knowledge, they need to expand their role and influence on society.
Sticking to a fanciful vision of the academy as some sort of ivory tower is old-school thinking. Universities need a more prominent role in shaping public discourse, even when it might, at times, infringe on their non-partisan ethos.
But how to improve their power of influential knowledge, credibility, and persuasion?
Although there is no meta-answer, universities need to explore new and more nuanced ways for greater engagement with the communities they intend to serve while improving the communication abilities of academics, students, and university leaders.
Global challenges almost always have a local dimension. Here lies a pathway for universities.
Overwhelmed by the mantra of global rankings and international citation indexes as quality indicators, universities and their academic communities need a partial pivot to improve their local impact and profile. They also need to think more scientifically (e.g., systematically) about their communication skill sets and their powers of persuasion.
A first and obvious task is to clarify who the stakeholders are for a university and the communities they wish to help and speak to, whether in Hamburg or Berkeley.
Second, universities and their hiring and advancement policies and practices need to place much greater value on research focused on local and regional challenges.
Correlated with a greater focus on regional or local challenges: How to elevate the societal value of science and university expertise?
One answer is a greater integration of local academics and university staff into local media, government proceedings, and public events, which encourage dialogue. They can translate research, scientific findings, knowledge, and resources to local needs and concerns. At the same time, faculty and universities, more generally, need to carefully navigate their role as researchers and creators of knowledge and expertise with their potential role as political advocates.
A second answer is all universities have campus-wide and sometimes discipline-based (e.g., medical centers) communication plans supported by professional staff. Some focus on government relations and integrating academic research into local and national policy discussions, and others on internal university communications.
These communications plans should always include alum relations, understanding how students are crucial for leveraging university support and elevating their credibility via curricular innovations like service-learning courses, student volunteering, and internships in local government, schools, and the private sector.
Public relations offices can assist with guiding researchers and administrators on relations with the media and the public and offer networks for publishing and reporting scientific findings and policy recommendations. Many universities welcome and arrange meetings with public officials and private sector stakeholders, offer media and public guides to faculty experts and speakers, and provide support for media training and academic staff.
Some academics have good instincts regarding making their research understandable to the public, but many still need to. Many need encouragement and assistance.
In my recent book Neo-Nationalism and Universities, THE NEW INSTITUTE’s Founding Director Wilhelm Krull and colleague Thomas Brunotte contributed a chapter outlining the challenges that academics face in elevating their voices in the public sphere. They observe that “universities are still committed to a linear sender-receiver model of communications” and advocate that “an open dialogue replace the traditional monologue.”
A recent paper published at my center at Berkeley by Marcelo Knobel and Liz Reisberg also points to a lack of recognition by universities, and their academic communities, about their often poor communication skills, including a slow adaption to the evolving world of social media. “Higher education has too often proven to be an easy target as they are often perceived as elitist and aloof from the concerns of daily living,” they note. “For both their own survival and for the survival of democratic societies, [they] must make better communication as one of their top priorities.”
In essence, the concept is to create a communication and marketing strategy that appropriately leverages and elevates in the public mind university resources, knowledge, and services (from university hospitals to university-operated and public botanical gardens and artistic events) and seeks to engage and better understand stakeholders.
Many universities are doing some version of this, but not at a scale necessary to have a more significant impact and raise the institution's profile and academic community.
The answer also includes a more systematic understanding of public opinion and evaluating possible pathways for persuasion – becoming more scientific, analytical, and reflective on the challenge. It means building a campus culture that values greater engagement with local communities.
How well or poorly academics communicate with the larger world was the subject of a recent study published by the National Academy of Sciences in the US. In short, universities need a greater understanding and appreciation for why some people are “anti-science” and distrust public institutions.
The report states universities should focus more of their research efforts and services (like consulting with local governments) on topics directly relevant to local and regional communities. Further, that local academic actors, including faculty and graduate students who live and are part of the community, have greater credibility and empathy when engaging with stakeholders.
The National Academy report also observes university actors need to consider the social identities and ways of thinking of the various communities they hope to influence (for example, climate change deniers). There is often a “mismatch between the delivery of the scientific message and the recipient’s epistemic style.” Academic communities should think in nuanced ways “pro-science messages can acknowledge,” notes one of the co-authors, “that there are valid concerns on the other side, but explain why the scientific position is preferable.”
Universities cannot be all things to all people; their power of persuasion has limits. For example, hard-core extremists on the left and the right have world views that are largely unshakable in the near- and perhaps long-term.
And part of the problem lies within the academy.
Right-wing devotees and many moderates see the academy as far-left bastions disconnected from the woes and challenges of their world. How can that image be modified? One answer is to ensure universities are inclusive, public squares for open and constructive debate via public events and in their teaching and research mission, and messaging this to the public as a central tenant. There is no easy fix, and the image is not entirely inaccurate.
Particularly in Europe, the very foundation of the university consisted of the mantra of independence and autonomy from the day-to-day world, for, in theory, unfettered exploration and generating new knowledge.
That world can and must co-exist with greater public engagement; to pursue knowledge transfer, not just for economic benefits like start-ups and licensing of intellectual property, but for addressing challenges locally.
Universities need to realize it’s a long-haul project to strengthen the voice and credibility of academia in public life.
John Aubrey Douglass is a recent Fellow at THE NEW INSTITUTE and Senior Research Fellow and Research Professor in Public Policy and Higher Education at the University of California - Berkeley. This essay is adopted from the book Neo-Nationalism and Universities: Populists, Autocrats and the Future of Higher Education published by Johns Hopkins University Press is an Open Access book accessible via Project Muse.