"We are committed as a University to build a culture based on values of courage and creativity, openness and engagement, respect and integrity, and inclusion and diversity," says Dr Michael Spence, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Sydney.
I am sure that many of you, like me, spent some time over Christmas and New Year reflecting on the meaning of recent world events. In early January, I was part of a panel that chose the Macquarie Dictionary Word of the Year for 2016. Our choice was ‘fake news’, but another strong contender was ‘post-truth’. Each of these terms seems to bear something of the zeitgeist of the year that has just passed.
By contrast, in 2016 we committed as a University to build a culture based on values of courage and creativity, openness and engagement, respect and integrity, and inclusion and diversity: values that must guide how we interact as colleagues, how we teach our students, and how we engage in public life. But they could not be more at odds with a growing culture that is ‘post-truth’, and there has never been a more important time to affirm their importance in our role as a university.
In a world in which some political leaders openly question the role of experts in society, offer ‘alternative facts’ to inconvenient truths, or dismiss widely accepted peer-reviewed research without rigorously evinced arguments of their own, we need to stand firm in defending academic freedom: we should not be afraid of asking difficult questions, or pursuing our best understanding of truth, wherever that may lead.
Moreover, our role is not simply to contribute knowledge, but to do so in a way that is respectful. One of the aspects of recent political discourse that I have found most discomforting has been the tenor of the debate. This goes to the heart of a theme that emerged through our planning process in 2015–16: the importance of ‘disagreeing well’. In ‘disagreeing well’ our University community, and ideally society more broadly, acquires the capacity not only to live with disagreement, but to see that well-handled debates are more likely to help us to distinguish the true from the false.
Similarly, an inclusive and diverse intellectual community, one that is open and engaged with those whom it serves, is likely to be more intellectually rich, more creative, and more effective in its pursuit of truth. This is particularly important to emphasise at a time in which, for example, a commitment to diversity is under sustained political attack. Indeed, that attack has intensified further in the past few days, and I wanted to let you know that we will be contacting students and staff from countries affected by new US travel restrictions to offer the University’s support and advice.
So the work of our University has never been more important, and our shared values more important to affirm: they are not just a guide for our organisational life; they are central in giving life to our institutional purpose and to our aspirations to be among the world’s best.
All the best for 2017; for your teaching, your research and the work that supports it. This is a crucial year for the implementation of our new strategy, and a crucial year for defending and growing a culture built upon the values that we share.
Dr Michael Spence AC
Vice-Chancellor and Principal