“Universities acknowledge that they have a responsibility to engage with and respond to the aspirations and challenges of the world and to the communities they serve, to benefit humanity and contribute to sustainability.”

With these words, the Magna Charta Universitatum (MCU) 2020 takes note of a decisive shift in the mission of universities that has occurred since the start of the new millennium. Although highly significant, the shift is however not radical: that “the future of mankind depends largely on cultural, scientific and technical development” was after all a first consideration in the original Magna Charta Universitatum of 1988. But to say now that universities have a responsibility to actively engage with global challenges, to benefit humanity and advance sustainability, is to go much further. In the language of the MCU 2020 we hear not confidence in the timeless and apparently detached authority of the academy, but instead a sense of urgency, anxiety about the state of the world, and an acute awareness of the moral obligations that rest upon scholars everywhere.

Have universities carried such responsibility before? Some may have done, but not with the mainstream urgency that the greater number of their more varied stakeholders expect today. Also, only in an information age can institutions devoted to learning, discovery, and the global dissemination of knowledge expect to exert anything like a direct influence on society and on the future of the planet. Persisting, intractable disparities in wealth and wellbeing around the globe, as well as the accelerating degradation of the environment: such massive challenges one might say cannot help but make activists of all of us, along with the institutions to which we devote ourselves.

The very notion of an activist university is contested in some quarters, and there is certainly force to the argument that a doctrinaire university is a contradiction in terms. Indeed, MCU2020 uncompromisingly declares that “universities question dogmas and established doctrines and encourage critical thinking in all students and scholars.” Our point, though, is that the global situation—in which poverty, suffering, inequity and environmental catastrophe is ubiquitous—is fact rather than doctrine, and that when universities position themselves to lead in the cause of sustainable development they are fulfilling rather than compromising their essential mission. If universities align themselves with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), it does not follow that the principles of institutional autonomy and academic freedom are somehow in jeopardy.

At the institutional level, at least. A university can provide global leadership on SDG 4 (Quality Education) or SDG 13 (Climate Action), say, and still be in full compliance with the Fundamental Principles laid out in the original Magna Charta Universitatum. But for the individual who is charged with leadership of that university, nothing can be taken for granted. The effectiveness of the institution—its capacity to have real and meaningful impact in any chosen area—requires it to live according to academic values without compromise: to ensure that its research and teaching are morally and intellectually independent of all political authority and economic power, that teaching and research are inseparable, that freedom in research and training is scrupulously observed, and that all work is undertaken “ethically and with integrity, producing reliable, trustworthy and accessible results”

Academic leadership for sustainable development is therefore what academic leadership ever was: the enormously complex and nuanced business of balancing freedom with discipline, the rights of individuals with the needs of the whole, respect for what has been achieved with the restless desire to surpass it, and the promptings of curiosity and creativity with the needs of the contingent world. That always took skill, wider environmental social and political awareness and personal strength, but today, with the global stakes and the opportunity for universities to have impact so high, it will also require a strategic focus, special resolve and unprecedented courage. By demonstrating this, universities will indeed be showing their commitment to the original Magna Charta and to upholding and advancing the principles, values and responsibilities set out in the MCU 2020, to strengthening the role of universities in the preservation of the planet and promoting health, prosperity, and enlightenment around the world.

Originally published in the December 2021 issue of IAU Horizons.

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