Academic Freedom in a Post-Truth World


The following is excerpted from a piece published earlier this month in University World News by Ole Petter Ottersen, rector of the University of Oslo, Norway.

How should universities confront a post-truth world?

By Ole Petter Ottersen

In a world characterised by increasing turbulence and conflict, and of inequities and dissatisfaction, academic freedom has come under siege. In some parts of the world, academic freedom is under brutal attack. In other parts of the world, academic freedom is under mounting pressure.. . .

Academics and universities have to be aware of this sad state of affairs and help safeguard academic freedom, not only in their own countries, but worldwide. . . .

How should we safeguard academic freedom? In Norway, as in many other countries, academic freedom is protected by law and our government’s ethical guidelines state that scholars should publish their results and conclusions “even if they run against adopted policy”.

Embedded in this statement lies the understanding that society benefits from critique and that progress is driven by academics and universities that challenge dogmas and ideologies. The idea is that society is strengthened and stabilised through constructive criticism founded on academic freedom and free exchange of opinions.

Sadly, this understanding does not pervade the world at large. It is enough to look at developments in Turkey, which have taken a turn for the worse. Just last month Gulay Barbarosoglu, who was elected rector of Bogaziçi University with an overwhelming majority this summer, was not allowed to take office. The Turkish president decided that a former vice-rector should be the principal instead.

A richness of perspectives and voices that speak truth to power are core elements of any recipe for social progress, but are not universally recognised as such. . . .

Attacking or suppressing academic freedom impacts societies and halts progress to an extent that cannot easily be fathomed. It is unfortunate that it is often seen as a privilege for the few. The fact is that academic freedom is a good for the many – that is, for society at large.

Countering the post-truth society

For society to reap the full benefit of academic freedom, scientific evidence must be duly respected and acted upon by politicians and policy-makers. In this regard it is rather ominous that the Oxford Dictionaries recently selected ‘post-truth’ as the international word of the year.

The Washington Post wrote on 16 November that Oxford Dictionaries made their choice “after the contentious Brexit referendum and an equally divisive US presidential election caused usage of the adjective to skyrocket”.

The dictionary defines post-truth as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”. As an example the dictionary uses the following sentence: “In this era of post-truth politics, it is easy to cherry-pick data and come to whatever conclusion you desire.” . . .

Faced with the prospect of a post-factual society, universities have to re-establish a respect for objective truth and powerful arguments – through our educational programmes and through our public outreach.

We have to create many more arenas for debate – arenas that are open and inclusive so as to give a voice to those who feel left behind too. Universities should be trust-building as well as truth-seeking. In our age of turbulence these two words – trust and truth – are inextricably intertwined.

To read the entire piece go to

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