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This world needs a university. Now, more than ever, argue the University of Copenhagen's rector and two prorectors in this featured comment.
It was the summer of the polycrisis. On 4 July this planet surpassed its temperature record. Two days later, the flight service Flightradar announced that there had never before been so many commercial flights airborne at the same time. A couple of weeks later, sun-starved Danes arrived in Rhodes as charter tourists, but left the burning island as climate refugees. Industry professionals and experts called for a halt to the development of artificial intelligence. Missiles hailed down on Ukraine. All this while waves of unhappy young people flooded an overburdened healthcare system in Denmark.
This world needs a university. Now, more than ever, we need to brag about the miracles of science, and the zeal that we see in our students every day. Not just to maintain the pride of all of us at universities who work with the most pressing tasks of society – research, education and innovation – but also to kindle hope among the general public. The university is a community dedicated to imagination and inventiveness. With space for quirky thoughts and offbeat ideas. Knowing that most experiments will end up being scrapped, and that only a few of these experiments will either save the planet or turn into a money maker.
Take the University of Copenhagen’s contribution to documenting climate change, which has also led to major political changes. Most recently, research by Professor Peter Ditlevsen from the Niels Bohr Institute and Professor Susanne Ditlevsen from the Department of Mathematics showed that the Atlantic Ocean’s current system can collapse as early as this century – with enormous consequences.
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And then there were the more solution-oriented discoveries. Professor Jens Juul Holst discovered already in the late 1980s a substance in the intestine that not only helped millions of people with diabetes and obesity, but also single-handedly improved the health of the Danish treasury. As the CEO of the top Danish pharmaceutical Novo Nordisk, Mads Krogsgaard Thomsen stated prophetically a few years ago: »I have to remind you that the fundamental discoveries from which we have become so extremely rich, all took place at universities.«
The university’s finest contribution to society is – and always has been – our students and graduates
The university is a community of values where curiosity is a virtue and where uncertainty is a fundamental premise. The best vaccine against pandemics turned out to be a wide-ranging preparedness in terms of research and knowledge. A preparedness that is not just a habitual following of the ranking of relevant research areas extrapolated from the current crises, but something that also maintains a research preparedness in other fields. The corona pandemic has hopefully taught us that lesson.
However, the university’s finest contribution to society is – and always has been – our students and graduates. It is you who have to turn the flame of knowledge into a belief in a better world — in the labour market, in society, and in people’s living rooms.
In this way, the community consists of both the youngest student and the most experienced researcher, and every UCPH student takes it with them throughout their lives. An intergenerational community, bound by rituals and traditions. Like the matriculation ceremony, where students enrol themselves as academic citizens, marked by a handshake of rector. Yes, it may seem pompous. But it is also a celebration of pride, and of respect for the good old university that this world needs so badly.