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Michael Ignatieff: The university stands in the middle of a howling gale

Michael Ignatieff

Michael Ignatieff is a university professor, writer and former politician. Between 2006 and 2011, he served as an MP in the Parliament of Canada and then as Leader of the Liberal Party of Canada and Leader of the Official Opposition. He is currently the Rector and President of Central European University in Budapest. Prior to speaking at FutureFest 2018, the professor discusses the impact of current politics on universities and the role of experts in democracies.

What do you think of the recent turn in events regarding Canada’s relationship with the Trump administration, and their response to US tariffs on steel?

It’s rather an astounding development. Every Canadian is finding it hard to believe that an American President would take actions that are bound to be harmful towards American and Canadian workers. Trump’s attack on free trade is a little like Brexit, as it demonstrates that national governments won’t be better off for building walls around their economy. This is a very dangerous global trend. America has traditionally understood that its national interests were best served by international free trade. But it has now decided that international free trade is harmful. It’s possible we’ll see this continue even if Trump loses in 2020.

You are Rector and President of the Central European University. Do you think it will still be in Budapest next year?

I would like it to be in Budapest permanently. We’ve been here for 26 years. We have a world class faculty and staff that want to stay here. We have spent fourteen months contesting the Orbán government’s attempts to shut us down and force us to move. It’s not an existential crisis since we have the means to continue elsewhere, but it’s a political crisis. We’ve been taken hostage by the government’s quarrel with our founder George Soros. We want to continue to be a free institution, so we’re not backing down.

Given rumours of corruption, do you think the EU should continue to provide funding to Hungary?

Well, that’s for the European Union to decide. But Europe is not just a market. It is a community of values and academic freedom. You can’t have a democracy unless you have free institutions. One of those free institutions is the university. Any attack on a university in Europe ought to concern everybody in Europe.

In this fight, have there been any channels of support that have been noticeably absent?

We’ve had great support from Brussels, Berlin and Washington. However, I wish the British government was louder in offering an expression of support. Why? Because Britain has the best universities in Europe. We’ve had a great deal of support from British universities. But one of the consequences of Brexit is that the British government seems to have simply walked away from Europe altogether.

In the run-up to the UK's Brexit referendum, pro-Brexit government minister Michael Gove captured the mood of many when he said the British people have 'had enough of experts'. This is a theme in your book, Ordinary Virtues, that you position in the context of increased globalism. To some extent, university professors epitomise the 'expert' or 'liberal elite' that people around the world are rejecting. Should universities be worried by this trend?

During the EU referendum, people resented experts telling them that the economy would be worse off, and that the Brexit case was flawed. People don’t like being talked down to and Gove picked up on that. But sometimes the experts are right. The deeper problem is that no democracy can make good choices unless it listens, however reluctantly, to people who know what they’re talking about.

University professors have no monopoly on knowledge. But the best universities care about finding the right answers and testing theories with facts and with evidence. Democracies need that type of knowledge desperately. So it’s vital for universities to stand their ground and say: you may not like what we’re saying, but it still pays to listen to expertise. On the other hand, universities also have an obligation to listen. Professors don’t like listening to anybody! But they should listen hard to their fellow citizens. Many university professors are cut off from their citizens. It’s a two-way street – professors need to listen more and citizens need to listen more.

How do you think the demands on universities are changing?

I think every university feels pressures of the digital revolution. On one hand, it’s democratising access to knowledge, which is terrific. But it is also empowering and accelerating ignorance, superstition, bigotry and racism. The university stands in the middle of a howling gale in which its claims to knowledge and authority are being questioned as never before.

Of course we should question it. But equally, universities live or die on their capacity to produce knowledge that is listened to and used to inform public decisions. If that knowledge is being swamped by a tide of paranoid fantasy and abuse directed at the vulnerable, it’s going to sweep democracy away. That’s the fundamental challenge, how universities re-establish their intellectual and scientific authority and how that authority helps guide a democracy to make the right choice.

FutureFest 2018 will take place on 6-7 July at Tobacco Dock, London. Find out more and get your tickets now.

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Lily Fish

Lily Fish

Lily Fish

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Lily was the Event Marketing Manager in the Communications team. She worked on the marketing for FutureFest and explored how we can grow the event in 2018.

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