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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.

KTH is an engine of social development

It is very exciting to have the responsibility of being a new president. Is there any difference between leading a young, small university and an old, big one? With six years’ experience as head of the University of Skövde, and now as President of KTH, I am able to make a comparison.

All universities in Sweden have the same mission; namely education, research and collaboration. The highest academic leadership has the same job, whether leading a small university or a big university locally, nationally and internationally. What differentiates the universities are their requirements and their size.

Many presidents of Swedish universities are eagerly awaiting the government’s research bill, which is expected to change the way that research grants are allocated. How will the bill affect a young university compared with an old one? I hope there will not simply be a redistribution of resources from one to another. That would only increase the polarisation between the different universities, which would not be good for Sweden. You can hardly argue that resources are being evenly spread; not with the distribution we have today. Of course there is good postgraduate education, research and collaborative research happening at the young universities. But at the same time, it is very important to continue to strengthen education and research at the big universities. KTH is an internationally successful university, which means a lot for Sweden.

As the president of KTH, it feels good to be running a really, really good organisation. We have a solid foundation to build on in order to take KTH to the next level. Our operation will rest on three pillars: equality, internationalisation and sustainability. To continue building excellence we need extraordinary education; students need to have the best conditions to be engaged and to succeed in their studies. Furthermore, there needs to be first-class research; and we need to do some prioritising there.

Finally, KTH has to systematically and continuously show a commitment to society. This can be done by ensuring that as many people as possible know about our research. It can also be done through our researchers working with both the private and public sectors. For me personally, it is also important that KTH uses its good reputation to contribute to society locally, nationally and internationally. KTH is in a unique position that we need to use in the best way possible. Let’s use our position and work together to contribute to the development of society. This will make KTH even stronger!