Unis must continue to defend truth and democracy

10 February 2021

The leader of Australia's national university and Nobel Laureate, Professor Brian Schmidt, says democracy and truth are under siege and universities have a vital role in meeting the challenge.

Delivering his annual State of the University address at ANU, Professor Schmidt will issue a rallying call, telling staff and students that universities have never been more vital to democracy.

"Extreme forms of populism, at times and in places approaching fascism, have gained a dangerous foothold in our world," the Vice-Chancellor of The Australian National University will say.

"They are leading to violence and autocracy, besieged parliaments and mass arrests, trade wars and fears for future peace. Perhaps most seriously, populism is stopping us from addressing the most existential problem of all - climate change.

"We are entering an era when populism will have severe consequences for the entire planet. It has to be combatted. To think it will just go away is to wilfully ignore the lessons of history.

"We have to ask: who is currently looking after the health of our democracy?"

Like much of the world, the US-Australian citizen has been watching recent events in the United States closely, including the storming of the Capitol - something Professor Schmidt says he could not believe happening five years ago.

Delivering his address to staff and students in Canberra, as well as globally via livestream, Professor Schmidt will reinforce the fundamental role universities play in ensuring truth triumphs over populism.

"Of the great institutions that have traditionally comprised the ramparts of Australian democracy, only the universities have retained the public's trust," Professor Schmidt will say.

"This gives us a special responsibility to show leadership.  

"The biggest problem in the world today is the undermining of the Enlightenment belief in the primacy of the truth.

"Because they exist to establish what is true, universities are needed like never before."

Professor Schmidt will also use his speech to reflect on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the University, as well as outline his strategic vision and four priorities for ANU in the coming years.

The bold program of work includes providing a student experience equal to the world's best, conducting research that transforms society, renewing the compact between ANU and the Australian Government, and ensuring ANU is an equitable and inclusive university of choice.

The 2021 State of the University address takes place from 2.30pm today. You can watch Professor Schmidt's speech live at https://youtu.be/mde7keZv0K8