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No freedom without responsibility

Is society’s confidence in universities still stable and still high? In some parts of the world we are seeing an increasing mistrust of research and scientific results. There is a tendency to present pseudoscience as the truth and there is also denial of the findings of leading research groups. At the same time, trust is not something one can have forever; it is also about proving oneself worthy of people’s confidence.

One core value for academia is the concept of academic freedom, which, put simply, is about choosing your research question on your own. In some parts of the world the core of this is democratic rights and freedoms. It is about being able to express an opinion freely and being able to research a certain area without fear of reprisals.

But the concept of academic responsibility is equally important and something that academic leadership should take time to reflect upon.

To be critical and reflective when it comes to a new knowledge is part of the academic responsibility. But it is not enough; it is also necessary to develop new answers and solutions for these questions. Criticism must be based on scientific evidence and must be balanced. Part of the academic responsibility is to be an advocate of knowledge that is based on scientific results.

The researcher is seen as a role model inside and outside their university. As mentor or coach to younger colleagues you are also a role model. The culture and the values you have are passed on to younger colleagues as they develop into independent academic researchers and teachers.

Part of being an academic leader is taking full responsibility for the development of one’s university when it comes to relationships with colleagues. It may not always benefit the individual, but it contributes to their own university’s development, and over time it can lead to excellent education and research.

To be available as experts in different contexts internally and externally is another element of academic responsibility. Not all expert roles involve “peer review”, but they may involve participation in government investigations where the aim is to create changes in society. That in itself is an important aspect of being an academic leader.

The academic responsibility extends from the research group out into the community, with the aim of eventually contributing to everyone’s development. Which role each of us is to have requires reflection by each and every one of us; but society needs—without a doubt—more critical voices that can also come up with new solutions.

Suggested further reading: ‘Intellectual leadership in higher education. Renewing the role of the university professor’, Bruce Macfarlane, 2012.