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In the University you can talk about politics, but the institution should not enter in the partisan debate

1 NOV 2019 – 00:00 CET

A picket line blocks the access of students to the Autonomous University of Barcelona. MASSIMILIANO MINOCRI EL PAÍS

One of the great values of the public University as an institution is to remain autonomous in the face of the world of partisan politics. If it retains neutrality, it serves all citizens; if it takes sides, it only serves one part. The fundamental premise is that academic authorities are institutional representatives of all members of the university community, and they are not representatives of any specific political option, since they are not in representative political positions. And that is precisely why, within the framework of a democratic society, they have the inexorable obligation to maintain the independence and institutional neutrality of the University as one of their main ethos.

It must also be remembered that the public University is part of the State, but it is not Government or Parliament, and hence, maintaining its institutional neutrality as part of the State helps to sustain social cohesion. Which is particularly important in times when the struggle in political life is beyond the acceptable, sometimes becoming stubbornly sectarian. And it is precisely the academic leaders who must sustain such neutrality, even when, at certain junctures, this implies problems and misunderstandings.

There are three arguments in support of the central thesis I have just posited. The first is that we, the university people, do not own the University. It is the taxes of all citizens, with different democratic political options, that assume most of the cost of the public University, while the rest is completed through the enrollment of each student. If the University as an institution were to take a stance on the party options that confront their ideas in the political arena, it would be as much as taking sides for some citizens to the detriment of others.

We as civil servants in the academic sector are delegated the management of the University, but only for the specific tasks society confers on us as an educational entity and producer of new knowledge that must be transferred to it. Overstepping or subverting the University’s own function is in danger of setting precedents that later should always be applied as a general rule, as the formal logic dictates. Why should the University-institution deal with a certain political problem and not with another? Who dictates which public matters are pertinent to be dealt with by the internal organs of the academy and which ones are not?

There is a second basic reason forcing university management teams to maintain their institutional neutrality: none of the university managing teams I know have ever presented themselves before their constituents with a political party program, but only with an academic program. They are not, therefore, authorized or legitimized to speak politically on behalf of the other university sectors, who form a diverse and plural voice; unless someone wants to live in a University of unique thought, I think this is a basic idea for coexistence among our staff. The question may seem obvious, but isn’t it true that no one imagines today that a candidate to a university management position comes under the acronym of a political party?

The third and final argument is that the public University must not invade the terrain of the representatives of popular sovereignty. It is they who have deserved the confidence of citizens to substantiate, in Parliament, all those actions aimed at improving the welfare of citizens. And that task of the legislative assemblies is not substitutable by any other institution, under penalty of ceasing to believe in both representative democracy and a separation of powers that gives each public body its own specific function in social life.

All of the above does not imply that the University should not be politicized in the sense of addressing the great problems of mankind; on the contrary, it should do so worrying about the common good through the powers of teaching and producing and transferring knowledge. But it must not be, instead, a space of confrontation of the parties that make up the ideological and political arc of a country. That is, that the University-institution is not a spokesperson for a particular option does not mean that the university community cannot express its ideas about social and political reality. The only condition is that it does so following the rules of the participatory game of each university and with respect towards all ideological options, of course, not violent.

In short, I do not say that the University-community does not talk about politics, but that the University-institution should not take part in the partisan debate out of respect for all citizens. It would be very bad news that the University-community would be indifferent to the problems of its environment or humanity, but it would also be so if, as a public entity dedicated to the knowledge and education of citizenship, it did not know how to jealously safeguard its independence and institutional neutrality to continue to serve the community.

Roberto Fernández is Professor of Modern History; he chaired the CRUE between 2017 and 2019.


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