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Dignity of the University

Every year this day for twenty years, I ask myself the same question – “Why university?” What changes is the personal context of this question: “Why do I study here?,” “Why do I work here?,” or “Why do I manage it?” The answer, however, is always the same and it bases on the importance of a university, our University in particular, for the world. The detailed answers change each year because the world around us is changing and we are changing with it. But the building blocks of our community remain unchanged. We are here to guide them, especially our fellow citizens, into the future. We educate and equip our student with knowledge about what will steer the world in a moment, shorter or longer. We want to help them find themselves in this world. We support discussion and cooperation to strengthen the role of the universal way of reaching an agreement. Finally, adding all the commitments together, we are responsible not only for the popularisation and transfer of knowledge but also for updating the basic values of the European culture. Each of these goals is important. By forgetting any one of them in favour of short-term financial, political or social benefit, we not only devastate part of the University. First and foremost, we deprive our fellow citizens of the chance to understand themselves and the world, as well as to make wise and humanitarian decisions.

We can achieve this mission by building trust of society to science as a universal language helping people understand and have better life. But this goal will not be met if we forget that everything we do, we do not for ourselves but for those who trust us. We cannot ignore people’s emotions, memories and desires. Today, we can observe how negative implications ignoring culture, openness and rationality may have in countries that are technologically developed and based on global economics. We have to say it clearly: university is the only institution that can guarantee lasting and updating important ideas and values of the European culture in this changing reality – humanism that expresses itself in the power of human mind; honesty that gives primacy to the truth that is above emotions and beliefs; enlightened pragmatism emphasizing the relation between our efforts and the good of our fellow citizens. University is neither an ivory tower – a community of dreamers closed for the outside world – nor society of experts giving receipts for every single ill of the economy. Its mission is building that future that is based on pursuing the truth and endeavour to understand the world and the role of people in it, maintaining at the same time the universal humane values of the European culture, also in unfavourable times.

Are we in a crisis?

In the 90s, Boaventura de Sousa Santos wrote about the deep crisis of university. According to him, this crisis resulted in the difficulty of accommodating two roles – on one hand there was centre of excellence establishing the standards of high culture and scientific achievements, and on the other hand there were places were the practical knowledge and qualified workforce were produced. He indicated that by the technocratisation of social life, the role of a traditional university as a hegemon in the knowledge-production market was called into question. Santos saw the crisis of legitimisation of university as a highly-respected place of education. This crisis was born from the conflict between aiming at high-quality knowledge transfer and aiming at the democratisation of access to the academic community and pragmatic creation of the teaching content at the cost of its quality. Finally, the institutional crisis was caused by the conflict between the freedom of research and teaching, and the pressure on performance, productivity and pragmatism in the sense of working in the interest of the economy.

University and the digital revolution

The tone of sadness and pessimism in the description of functioning of universities seems to be burgeoning. The erosion of their traditional values is precipitated by the digital revolution that is happening before our eyes. Universities increasingly implement the new technologies for their management practice, research and teaching. But the consequences of being part of these digital changes are not unknown. Not always do we clearly see how far the access to information revaluates the role of university as a depositary of the highest-quality knowledge and cultural models. Communities that are absorbed by this revolution force universities to answer the question how they perceive their role in the world that is riddled with information and widespread access to high-quality publications, lectures and discussions. Are universities able to offer the surrounding world something exceptional and different from the content that is widely accessible online? This question is particularly important for the public universities. How do we justify using public tribute in the world where high-quality knowledge is just one click away?

These questions gained a new meaning today, when the pandemic forces and encourages us to reduce social contact. Remote learning weakens the role of social interaction between teachers and students, and between students themselves. In the world of digital education, being at a university comes down to emerging oneself in the flow of information that is depersonalised and detached from the common here and now. Worse still, the character and limitations of this type of communication allows only one-way, at best two-way communication, whereas in the traditional academic discourse there should be a synergy – a polyphony if different opinions that, through accommodation, experiments and negotiation, leads to reaching a common conclusion. This way, students discover themselves, learn how to coexist with other people, gain tools that then let them analyse the surrounding ocean of information in the atmosphere of cooperation and trust.

At the same time, for a traditional university that not only provides knowledge but also raises students – remote teaching might be supportive. It reduces the risk of infection during pandemic and it will enable absent students to participate in the work group after that. Digital communication and the digital flow of documents facilitate, and today even enable, functioning of research teams, in particular international ones. But we have to be aware that there is still room for improvement when it comes to using technology and digital communication in teaching. The digital revolution does not threaten our University as long as we are looking at it critically. Quite the contrary – it might help us in the times of crisis, as it does today. It will threaten us only if we start prioritising our own – our students’ and employees’ – comfort over our vocation.

How then, in view of the university crisis, do we want to define the University of Wrocław in modern times? Do we want to, above all, cultivate our traditions and rituals or return to our habits hoping that the world around us does not change? I do not agree with such an approach. It would be the expression of closure, fear and surrender to the world. I have no doubt – the times of half-measures and modest goals are over. Only those who will combine the unique and unreplaceable by technology skills with their highest-quality support will survive this wave of change that is already heading towards us. The printing press replaced most of the monastery copyists and gave access to knowledge to the wide range of laymen. At the same time, however, it provided an opportunity for the dynamic development of the original work of thinkers and authors, which was not possible with the former type of information transfer. The digital revolution, by giving direct and cheap access to standardised and tailor-made knowledge, questions the sense of the existence of average education centres. As the quality of remote communication tools increases, this process will accelerate. Those who will set the tone for this communication and offer students something that the global digital network will not offer, will survive. This “something” is the experience of creation with effects visible in the real world, the possibility of reaching into the future under the guidance of people who are committed to the truth and learning from them a high quality life. The question is not which side of the wave of change we want to be on, but how do we want to adapt to the new challenges? Our problem is not the access to digital tools. The key question is how do we want to become the best. How do we want to communicate our core values to our environment? And how can we remain attractive to this environment?

University of Wrocław – Research University here and now

I do not want to join those who are announcing the end of science and the crisis of rational cognition, the triumph of the technocratic approach to the world of academia and, ultimately, the death of the university ethos. Quite the contrary – I believe that what we are going through today and what is visible just outside the doorstep, opens up an unprecedented opportunity. The world has forgotten how much depends on the development of science that is focused on understanding the world, how much depends on basic research and on building a pool of results to solve problems that are unapparent and unpredictable – and yet affecting us today. The epidemic proved the disbelief in the power of large corporations that avoid basic research and produce delusions. The climate crisis clearly shows our technological unreadiness to live in the post-industrial world of anthropocene. It shows our attachment to obsolete technologies that generate profit for the few, and suffering for the whole of humanity. The migration crisis has exposed the inability formulate social policies other than those based on confrontation and the immediate profit of the political elite. Here is the place for the university – in the middle of the biggest problems and challenges of today. By taking the doctoral oath, we have committed ourselves to addressing them wisely. We teach our students to live a rational and open life. The University of Wroclaw must be the centre of reflection on these issues. It must work towards solving them and it must actively participate in shaping social life in the spirit of humanistic culture of Europe. These are not empty words, they are a necessity if we want to survive.

When coordinating the preparation of our University’s application in the “Excellence Unitiative – Research University” competition and then as a project team leader, I had no doubts and I don’t have them now – our Alma Mater must transform into a strong research university with a clear presence in Central Europe. We need to become a university focused on the highest quality fundamental research, which translates into personalized, modern didactics and close relations with the environment benefiting from our expert knowledge. The university must clearly communicate its basic community values and promote them in our environment to be the basis of social life. We must become a community that takes pride in its past and present, without fear of looking to the future. A research university is an inclusive, sustainable development project for all those who want to share what is most important to us: honesty and openness and the resulting usefulness for our students and the world around us.

The prospect of change

The next four years will be a period of rapid development of our university in the new world. The aim of all my endeavors is to develop and support a work culture based on academic values. We must visibly reward those who take an active and above-average part in building our scientific and didactic position, who actively engage in cooperation with our international, national and regional environment. We will present their achievements to the whole community and our friends in order to clearly emphasize our gratitude to them, but also to show role models to our future and current colleagues. We will change the way we hire academic teachers in order to increase the potential and international impact of our community. We will support our young colleagues in developing their talents as widely as possible, while taking care of their professional and family life in a balanced way. It is a truism to say that employees are the greatest value of the university. But we must care for our employees and their development, support their ambitions, encourage initiatives – and at the same time enable them to fulfil them in accordance with our strategic goals. The university is a community of all learners and scholars. There is a place for each of us, in different roles, but always acting with concern for the community, for its benefit, and in harmony with its goals.

I would like to emphasise this very strongly: we are one. The division into humanists, social scientists, experimental and strict researchers is secondary, as is the division into faculties, institutes and departments. We are one, we have one goal and we all work together for it. If we lose sight of this truth, if we ever allow ourselves to be divided into fractions and camps that question each other’s values, our University will cease to exist as a reference point for those who are thirsty for knowledge and innovation, and our values will lose their persuasive power.

Let us not forget that if we want to be a good research university, its administration must be efficient and it should support the main processes – scientific and didactic – and be responsible for successes as well as failures together with academic teachers. In particular, we must take care of our University Library in order to make it an attractive centre of the cultural life of the University on the scale not only of the city, but also of Central Europe. I would like the functioning of the University Publishing House to be modernized as soon as possible. It must actively promote the results of our research, but also strengthen their impact in the world of both professionals and amateurs of science. When thinking about the power of our brand, we cannot forget about our graduates. They are our natural allies, a source of information about social expectations, but also potential ambassadors of the University on a global scale. The multitude of tasks we are facing also requires a change in thinking about university finances – putting the service processes in order, redirecting funds to support strategic goals, diversifying sources of income.

The list of challenges can be easily extended. But we must be aware that we will not be able to face the upcoming global challenges alone. Not only universities face these challenges but the whole European culture of rationality and openness. I will do my best to make sure that “internationalisation” is not a marketing slogan, but a real direction of our development. Our natural scientific partners are our closest neighbours, universities from Germany, especially Saxony, and the Czech Republic, and more broadly – from Central Europe. But it is not geography that should determine our partners and the nature of our cooperation, but our strategic goals – solving the key problems of today and introducing our environment to the world of tomorrow. Wherever we can find partners for these tasks – We should be there.  Science knows no political boundaries, its impact must be global. From such a goal – the world quality science – there may emerge a didactic that should become increasingly more international, both in terms of content, form and place of origin of our students. Internationalisation is in practice a long and tedious process, depending on many – also political – factors. However, we have to participate in it more deeply than before. Without international students, lecturers and external stakeholder, we will not know the upcoming challenges and we will not be ready for change.

The University of the future

In the middle of the nineteenth century, Cardinal John Henry Newman, reflecting on the condition of the university at the time, advocated its classical model as an indivisible community of scholars deepening knowledge for the development of human beings. For Cardinal Newman, the value of knowledge was indisputable, and it was the goal in itself. But this vision of the university was already a thing of the past when it was said. The European modernization of the nineteenth century was based on new disciplines in learning about the world and on the rapid transfer of the fruits of cognition to both didactics and economy. The political changes that were taking place at the same time, expressed by the creation of nation states, gave birth to a new type of university. It specialized in experimental sciences and was run by professors enjoying great autonomy. At the same time, it was a university dedicated to the service of the state and the nation, shaping discourse in the humanities. Wilhelm von Humboldt, by creating an exemplary university of this kind in Berlin in 1809, initiated a great wave of modernization of European universities. In 1811, it came to Wrocław, turning the Leopoldinian University into a Humboldt-type university.

Half a century earlier, there were voices in the United States calling for the reform of classical, denominational universities. According to Benjamin Franklin, education should serve humanity and universities should draw students’ attention to the usefulness of their education. In this spirit, he strove to reform the University of Pennsylvania already in the middle of the 18th century. When funding the University of Virginia in 1824, Thomas Jefferson placed the emphasis on teaching mathematics and experimental sciences, and on full freedom for students to choose their courses of study. Also, he founded a university library with an enormous collection that had never before been seen on the continent. However, it was not until the establishment of John Hopkins University in the 1870s that learning on a large scale, cognition, and pragmatism began. Harvard, which was reformed in a similar spirit (the period of Charles W. Eliot’s management, 1869-1909), became a model for centres focused on the sciences supporting the development of the economy and educating the elites of social life in a spirit of benefit to society.  At the same time, they based their existence on private funds of students, their parents, graduates and benefactors. As a result, the elite of academic education in the United States was formed by universities that most closely linked their functioning to current economic life and social needs, but also gave the widest freedom of choice to students.

We can now see clearly that the digital revolution era requires a new definition of the university, but in close correlation with the experiences of its predecessors. Our answer today is a research university, strongly linked to the education of students in areas where we achieve scientific excellence and in a form as personalized as possible. Such a university must respond to the needs of the environment with innovations resulting from our research. At the heart of our research are the main problems of the world: the search for new medicines based on cellular research, the discovery of new materials by chemists and physicists, the study of artificial intelligence, but also the place of humans in the context of the ecological crisis, migration throughout the modern world, and finally the consequences of multiculturalism in the past and today. This does not exhaust the diversity of research conducted at the University, among which new areas of excellence will certainly be born. But by pointing out these areas of interest, we are helping our environment to understand what it gets from us every day.

I would like to stress this strongly – the mission of the University of Wroclaw is not to develop basic research for itself. The University takes its social responsibility seriously. A university of the future is not only a center of innovative research and didactics, it is also a visible and strongly influencing cultural centre, a living centre of social life, responding to the needs of our environment in a continuous, long-term way, not only locally, but also globally.Orszak ludzi ubranych w gronostaje idzie przez dziedziniec UWr

The size of University

Coming back to the dilemma of the first sentences of my speech – what, in my opinion, is the greatness of the University of Wrocław in today’s world to be based on? On the service to the whole humanity, and especially to our fellow citizens and inhabitants of our region. The service of cultivating and unambiguous promoting rationality and openness in public life, of conducting research that will support innovative and creative economic sectors, but above all on strengthening our relationship with the World Academy, especially with colleagues from the Czech Republic and Germany. Finally, we will educate our students in the spirit of academic values, and particularly to stimulate their creativity and cooperation skills based on rational dialogue. These goals are to be served by our growing commitment to the world of digital communication.

In four years’ time, I would like us to be able to speak without hesitation about the University of Wroclaw as a research university with high international recognition and a strong influence on the cultural and social life of its surroundings. I know that we are ready for it and I will do my best to release the energy needed for this. No epidemic will prevent us from doing so. Quite the contrary, I am convinced that it will awaken in us the spirit of innovation and care. Because we will be guided by these two values over the next few years – looking for new solutions to the important problems of today but always out of concern for the good of our world, our fellow citizens, our colleagues.

This is also the direction of change that our environment expects from us. The best expression of this is what has happened today – our honorary doctor, Professor Norbert Heisig, has established a new award at the University of Wroclaw. In a moment, we will witness the announcement of the winners of the Hedwig of Silesia’s prize, which has been awarded since 2004 to people who have contributed to building German-Polish cooperation. But next year, in addition to the winners of this award, the Norbert Heisig Prize for innovative research with a wide range and impact will be awarded for the first time. Candidates for the award will be nominated by the rectors of Polish universities, and the winner will receive, in addition to honorary attributes, a cheque worth of 200,000 PLN. So, if we are looking for a guideline for which direction our University should be heading – there is no better example.

Our task is to support world-quality research, to convey its results to society and to safeguard the value of rational European culture. However, this would be impossible without taking care of the traditional foundations of the university – freedom of thought, freedom of research, and freedom of expression – which come alive in a direct meeting between professor and students. Together, we will combine our traditions with the challenges of the present day to create a University for the future. There is nothing that can stop us from doing so. I am certain of that.

Be with us!

Inauguracja środowisko uczelni wrocławskich i opolskich
fot. Magdalena Marcula/UWr

Reference list

Beyond the Corporate University. Culture and Pedagogy in the New Millennium, red. Henry A. Giroux, Kostas Myrsiades, Lanham/Boulder/New York/Oxford, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2001.

Johan Henry Newman, The Idea of a University, 1858.

Boaventura de Sousa Santos, The University in the 21 Century: Toward a Democratic and Emancipatory Reform, w: The University, State, and Market. The Political Economy of Globalization in the Americas, red. Robert A . Rhoads, Carlos Alberto Torres, Stanford, Stanford University Press, 2006, pp. 60-100.

Clark Kerr, The Uses of University, Harvard, Harvard University Press, 1963.

Published by: Dariusz Tomaszczyk

1 Oct 2020

last modification: 21 Oct 2020