I write this over the Atlantic, returning to Canada after a brief visit to Queen’s Bader International Study Centre at Herstmonceux Castle in East Sussex, England. The purpose of this trip was to extend my conversation about the future of Queen’s to include our community there. While the centre may be geographically remote from Queen’s main campus in Kingston, its mission is of central importance to our university. We can make no claim to greatness as an institution without deliberately and strategically orienting ourselves to global challenges, both in our research and in the way in which we prepare students to take their place in the world. Thanks to Alfred and Isabel Bader’s vision 25 years ago, we are fortunate to have a toehold across the Atlantic, and it is critical that we use that advantage boldly to advance Queen’s as a Canadian university with global impact. This imperative would not have been so apparent a decade ago, but today – when, despite growing currents of nationalism, state and cultural boundaries are becoming irreversibly porous – the local mission of higher education must be continuous with the global.
Whether we understand ourselves to be serving the world or addressing the needs of our immediate communities, universities are fundamentally optimistic places. We seek answers through research for the same reason we educate students: we aspire to make this a better world, socially, culturally, and environmentally, for all who inhabit it today and those who will inhabit it in the future. In that respect, the first weeks of 2020 have been trying indeed. In today’s UK Times I notice that “The Last Word” has been given to the philosopher Bertrand Russell, who wrote in 1922 that “What is wanted is not the will to believe, but the wish to find out, which is its exact opposite.” In today’s “post-truth” climate, that observation could not be more apposite. “The wish to find out” is the raison d’être for institutions like ours, and around the world it is under threat as belief or mere opinion consorts increasingly with power.
The Tehran air tragedy was in many ways the product of an unthinking will to believe, on the part of soldiers on the ground as much as of national leaders. That so many of its victims were students or academics is a cruel irony, representing as they did not only the spirit of dispassionate inquiry but our hope for the future. The pain of that attack on the people and values of institutions like ours across Canada generally is incalculable, but in recent days Queen’s has paused to take stock of the immediate loss to our community of Amir Moradi. Amir’s death reminds us that the university is not isolated from geopolitical currents and that its optimistic, humane mission is not uncontested in the world at large. That is reason not to give up, but rather to strengthen our resolve to imagine and realize a future for Queen’s with far-reaching impact on the well-being of people both close to home and around the world.