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What Role Do and Should Universities Play in Democracy?

Celie Hanson

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What Role Do and Should Universities Play in Democracy?

About Prof. William Tierney and this TKS episode:

Prof. William G. Tierney is a University Professor Emeritus and the Founding Director of the Pullias Center for Higher Education at the University of Southern California. In this episode of The Know Show Podcast, we cover the importance of universities to democracy and freedom of speech. William also explores the political and economic sectors that affect the role of the universities can play here, and how academia should adapt to gain more public recognition.

 

A brief synopsis:

Prof. William Tierney begins by delving into his background to frame his current research interests. After graduating from university, he went to Morocco, where he was a volunteer. From there, he received his doctorate from Stanford University. William has since spent most of his research career at the University of Southern California and the Pennsylvania State University. His research spans worldwide, where he has looked at countries like Malaysia, India, and Hong Kong.

William highlights the spread of democracy in different countries and how today, democracy faces unprecedented challenges even in the most liberal and free states. 

William believes that universities are the number one entities that can form the right environment to cultivate and facilitate free and respectful speech between people. However, due to political and economic implications, he says that universities are far from realising this in practice. Ultimately, he argues that this means society loses its liberty, freedom, and democracy.

If people can't comment on a problem from different perspectives and are unable to find a form where we can talk about it, then walk away and have a coffee together, then higher education proves that dialogues are impossible. If we can't critique subjects with one another, we fail not only in what is the truth but even in having the conversation. And I think that universities remain the best hope in having that kind of tough dialogue.

Prof. William Tierney

 

William continues by pointing out how the universities have developed throughout history and in different cultures. A crucial element to this has been that universities have needed to create comfortable environments for people to express themselves and react adequately to any critique, so that an efficient and constructive dialogue can exist

William tells Hussain that government funding and public opinion on this influences the role of universities in society. He gives examples of the way different crises, like World War II and the pandemic of COVID-19 have seen universities struggle in the funds, and also revenue, they are able to secure. 

William also highlights the way that academics do not  receive enough attention and recognition. To tackle this, he suggests universities should focus their attention on new ways of engaging with the public, including social media and podcasts. He also makes it clear that within this, we need to make academic work consumable, i.e. to make it not only more widely accessible but to make it entertaining and appealing too. This way, more people are able to get involved in the discussion surrounding important research, and academics and universities gain greater recognition. 

I think that academia is a culture of caution. But, at the same time, we are in an environment where so much is under threat that we have to bend together and move forward rather than saying it's not my problem.

Prof. William Tierney

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TKS take home points:

In this TKS episode, Prof. William Tierney lays out the significant role universities play in sustaining the values of liberty and freedom of speech in society. With universities facing a lack of attention, coupled with the fallout from cuts to funding, he says that academia needs to develop a sort of courage and stand up for itself. Universities need to teach students to express their ideas and have a constructive dialogue. At the same time, universities have to reinvent themselves and find new and appealing ways of communicating efficiently.

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