As Time Goes By

Four thoughts on universities at the celebration of KTH´s 175th Anniversary, 2002
Bodil Jönsson, Certec, Lund University


Your majesties, honoured colleagues, ladies and gentlemen!

Given the opportunity to share with you some thoughts of importance for universities in the future, I want to stress four different perspectives:

1. Universities as communities

People do not need to be forced to co-operate. We do so spontaneously. We create natural alliances for different purposes, alliances that are dissolved and rebuilt on new grounds, all according to the demands of development. A university, no matter how formal it sometimes seems to be, is to the highest degree an aggregation of such natural alliances. And universities have proven to have the ability to survive through the centuries.

I find a sense of security and no sense of threat, in the human being's inherent power to constantly create new communities based on shared interests. In a world full of new questions that no one has the answers to (simply because the questions are too new), it is most reassuring that we demonstrate that we can actually think on our own, co-operate spontaneously, likewise on our own, and create the communities that are needed in the process of renewing and calling into question.

What is it that has made the universities such stable meeting places that they survive, century after century? The fundamental answer is simple: many experience that they benefit from the university. But what is it then that constitutes the "beneficial"? Perhaps that there is room for many specialized areas, many territories, many small principalities. Including new knowledge communities.

The laws governing universities in Sweden actually require that they shall be so open that a new knowledge community can find its place there. For example, the sixth paragraph of the Swedish Higher Education Act states:

It can hardly be expressed more clearly. And since it is always people who carry out research anyway, the Higher Education Act could just as well say that:

We all know that this is true only to a certain extent. In all areas within the university and its disciplines there are rules and regulations that curtail this freedom. But on such a special occasion as today's, it is well worthwhile to draw attention to the legislated openness that exists at the very heart of the university. This openness has to be continually safeguarded, also in the future.

 

2. Universities and the gift economy

It is not easy to find any other areas, outside of the religious, that have the right and the mission to give away its findings without any limitations, but the university is such an area. At its core, it is based on an explicit gift economy. Being able to give something away, and to be the first to do so, has been the prime mover and the legitimate means of qualifying, not just for the individual researcher or research group, but for the entire university and to a certain extent, for the entire nation. Tax revenues, research foundation funding, sponsoring, etc., have thus been used and continue to be used for financing the prerequisites needed for research and university education to be carried out. In other words, for hundreds of years now we have allowed the old economy to finance a university gift economy in the domains of knowledge and information.
The reward one receives as an academic for giving away something really new is recognition. Your articles or lectures are accepted, your work is sited, you are respected, you are seen as being somebody. And, important for the future, you are allowed to continue with what at times is quite resource-demanding work, not even though but due to the fact that you have given away your previous results. It is marvellous, this very special kind of feedback, and I sincerely hope that society as well av universities will be very careful not loosing this characteristic.

 

3. Rebuilding the internal university bridge

Universities have built the famous, traditional bridge between research and education. But a bridge between research and learning rather than between research and education could be even more successful, dealing with much more than just informing the students of the most recent research findings. A university education as a whole does not primarily aim to push students as quickly as possible along the path to either an undergraduate degree or into research out there on the frontiers of human knowledge. Instead of pushing, a university education should rather:

Actually, the growth of information technology forces the universities to focus on the student's learning rather than the teacher's teaching, the student's questions rather than the teacher's answers, the knowledge dialogue rather than the information. When, for instance, MIT decided to put all of its course materials out on the internet, freely accessible to all, the decision had an elaborated basis. MIT was completely aware that the Open Course Ware provided the content of, but was not a substitute for an MIT education. They knew that the most fundamental cornerstone of the learning process at a university is the interaction between faculty and students in the classroom, and amongst students themselves on campus.

Elaborating this perspective further is one of the challenges for universities today and in the future.  The bridge between research and learning ought to be a broad one.

 

4. Responsibility

The fox in The Little Prince stands as a continuously recurrent symbol - the fox who said that "you become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed." There is nothing that a person tames so profoundly as her or his thoughts and knowledge. Nothing that is both so private and so personal - up until the moment that one chooses to turn that knowledge into information and hand it over to others. Then it becomes public. Common. As a part of today's celebration, the Royal Swedish Institute of Technology has rewarded you, honoured professors, for your courage to share with us parts of your tamed knowledge. We thank you for that. But the responsibility for what you have tamed remains partly yours. When you turned over parts of your knowledge in the form of information and made it public, you did not part with that responsibility. And I am sure you do not want to either.
I hope the same will be true also in the future: that the personal responsibility for taming thoughts and developing new knowledge will be not only recognized and accepted but merely  seen as one of the noble marks of universities.