Annual Festivities 2017: Rector's speech at the Aula ceremony
This is an important and solemn day. We celebrate the establishment of our university; we celebrate academic achievements and outstanding efforts. So let me extend a warm welcome to our prize winners, the gold medal winners, and to the 16 new honorary doctors. Thank you so much for accepting our nomination.
Rector Svein Stølen in the University Aula
Over the past 115 years, the University of Oslo has appointed 478 honorary doctors. The tradition dates back to 1902, and the celebration of the centennial for the birth of the famous Norwegian mathematician Professor Niels Henrik Abel.
Today the nomination and creation of honorary doctors represent an important institutional celebration. Through your achievements and presence, here at this ceremony, we tie the world closer together. We form bonds with skilled scientists and scholars worldwide. We celebrate individual and collective efforts that allow us to strengthen the global collegium of knowledge.
Knowledge and the transfer of knowledge is more important than ever. Our lives have, of course, always been challenged by disruptive changes and large-scale conflicts. And even though the world of today in many ways is a calmer and more peaceful place than it has been in the past, some of the problems we face in our own era concern the very existence of future generations. The United Nation’s sustainable development goals clearly spell out the challenges linked to the survival of our common home – the Earth – but also the consequences we as humans face on a planet pushed to its edges.
I believe we have to meet this somewhat frightening reality together, with academic insight as our most powerful counterattack.
Since Antiquity, academia has been associated with images of plenty and of natural growth, sometimes symbolically represented as a pomegranate. Ancient Egyptians viewed the pomegranate as a symbol of prosperity and ambition. Two virtues also closely tied to academia: Prosperity because our common society prospers when our common pool of knowledge grows. Ambition because academia must at all times be ambitious to make the world a better place.
The image of academia as a pomegranate allows us to see scholarly and scientific activities as a rich and hidden life, ready to be opened up and the seeds inside shared. Within our respective institutions and in cooperation with our international partners, we are allowed to collect the seeds from our own and from other institutions and countries’ orchards. The result is that insight and academic development spreads throughout the world, just as the pomegranate.
For we know very well that in contemporary debates, academia is repeatedly expected to cross new frontiers – whether they are geographical, physical, cultural or social. One of the most acute border crossings discussions concerns “the three O’s”: Open innovation, Open Science and Open to the World.
Presently, we find ourselves only at the start of the race. We must put pressure on the fact that knowledge is a common good. It belongs to all people in all parts of the world and it is what may, in the end, save the foundation our lives are based on.
Academic freedom and autonomy is the fundament of any university and to the very idea of a university. Today, we see a development which gives cause for worry. For just as the pomegranate has been seen as the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden by some Jewish scholars, academia is perceived as a threat to some. The freedom of speech and the critical voice of scholars might be seen as a disruptive force, a threat to power, to social control or religious traditions. The situation in Turkey is a sad example. News reaches us weekly on how life becomes all the more difficult and even dangerous for Turkish academics and students.
In the Unites States we see that voices criticizing the Administration experience limitations in access to resources. Indeed a sad development in country which traditionally has enjoyed one of the world’s highest levels of trust in its scientific results. Former academic leaders have used the United States as a good example of how trust in politicians can be low, but trust in science from the same country can be high. It has been used as to show how we are dependent upon the strict divide between political power and academia. Now, it seems, this proud academic tradition is under pressure. Instead, knowledge seems to be perceived as a potential threat. Feelings govern politics. Stunts in social media become governing signals.
It is the duty of academia to fight this development. It falls upon us to be the critical voice which ensures policies are the result of insight and knowledge. Governing signals must be fact based and rational. Therefore, in a world where fact based action has never been more crucial to ensure future generation’s safety and prosperity, we as universities and scholars must stand together as a clear counterforce.
To be heard and to make a difference, we must be open to the outside world. Alongside of you I will strive to ensure this openness at our own university as well as for others. For academia to flourish its seeds must be spread. For insight and development of knowledge, isolation is lethal – cooperation is vital.
With cooperation, of course, come potential dilemmas. A global community will always be challenged by difference in interest; whether it is economic, political or maybe even ideological. Being an engaged, critical and constructive university in this global setting can be difficult. But I truly believe is has never been more decisive for us to stand up as a reactive force to what some call the post factual society.
We must create a better world through knowledge and – preferably – kindness, tolerance and trust. These are deeds a sustainable societal order must be built upon. The University of Oslo must lead the way alongside other academic institutions when striving for an even better future.
As some of you may know, I am quite new as rector of the University of Oslo. My team and I were elected on the basis of what for us has become a rule of interaction: In Norwegian we say “UiO i samspill”. It does not easily translate, but the essence is that the University of Oslo must be in close interaction internally and with society at large.
The University of Oslo should be gravitational force. We must pull other institutions of high quality and important stake holders towards us, not alienate them. We are going to be an important contributor for the coming generations and the society they will live in. I am pleased we do not stand alone in this task.
For we have our honorary doctors alongside us. We have the prize winners and the gold medalists. We have all of you who are here today, celebrating together with us. I feel humble by the privilege of leading such a remarkable institution. The academics we celebrate here are all outstanding examples of academia at its best. How extraordinary the results can be when the search for knowledge is combined with the quest for what is best for human kind.