By Philip Vergauwen, Dean SBS-EM

I think it is clear that populism draws strength from public fear of and opposition to « mass » immigration, cultural liberalization, and a perceived surrender of national sovereignty and identity to distant and unresponsive international bodies. It is also a reaction to global trends and developments that are beyond our control.

Philip Vergauwen, Dean SBS-EM
Philip Vergauwen, Dean SBS-EM

Populism claims to speak for the « ordinary » people – the « forgotten » people. It therefore distinguishes itself by its opposition to the « establishment », by its distrust of facts and evidence and by its hostility to the « elites » that promote « establishment thinking » and « political correctness ». Populism harbours tendencies towards ultra-nationalism and racism, which not only shifts democratic political balances, but can have grave consequences for liberal democracy itself.

An important question is what implications populism has for universities and how academia can respond to growing global populism. This is a very delicate question, because when populists speak of « elites », you may be sure that they include universities and academic staff – overeducated, over-opinionated and overbearing, « liberal » in their views and remote from the concerns of « ordinary people ».

I think one thing is already clear: there has to be a balance between an institutional autonomy and public accountability that is at the core of the relationship among higher education institutions, and the government system. This balance is one of the strengths of our existing system: weakening the autonomy of institutions from the « system » makes universities more « establishment ». But more is required of our universities than vigilance in defence of autonomy and academic freedom. Higher education needs to engage proactively and energetically with the root causes of populism and with its propaganda.

It is wrong, and counterproductive, to dismiss those who vote for populist parties as uneducated backwoodsmen, or as Hillary Clinton called them, « deplorables ». It is misguided for the academic community to collectively hold their noses and keep their distance from these people and believe they will eventually come to their senses and all will be as before. It won’t. Populist voters have concerns that are objectively real and concerns that are real to them. Universities and colleges need to communicate more effectively and to understand the rational concerns of people and connect to them.

Higher education should respond on several levels. It should challenge what is presented as fact, enhance programmes for equality of access and build more coalitions of support among the regional communities. This is an exceptionally tough challenge: if the public’s distrust of experts continues to grow, and if « alternative facts » start to trump evidencebased research, then how can the world’s most prestigious seats of learning defend their reputations unless they reconnect with the population as a whole?

Philip Vergauwen


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