Dear Scientists, Students, Doctoral Students, Employees of the University of Silesia!
1.“Let’s be serious – there is one world”, Olga Tokarczuk once wrote. This simple admonition comes back to me as we begin the new academic year.
The unity of the world in question is not based on the similarity of individuals, societies, cultures or histories, but on the shared problems that – despite these differences – we struggle with as people. Climate threats, the future of education, inequality and exclusion, migration, health care, and the state of the natural environment are problems that we know will never be solved for good. This awareness, combined with the global scale of these challenges, makes it easy to give in to a sense of helplessness, resignation or melancholy. The tendency of individuals and societies to push some problems beyond the limits of our realistic responsibility is also understandable.
There is, however, another attitude towards common human problems. It is the possibility of disregarding them, ridiculing them or, on the contrary, cynically intensifying our concerns so that they turn into fear, which can only be remedied by separating ourselves from the “bad” world. We live in times of rampant cynicism and clowning regarding the most important matters. When a meme, a laconic mockery, a hateful comment or an outright lie become the dominant form of public communication, the space for substantive and serious conversation shrinks, while a spasm of nervous laughter provides respite for a restless mind only for a fleeting moment.
In the face of these challenges, the role and importance of the university is growing. University is significant because of the importance of the task to the accomplishment of which it is established. As an idea and reality, it is faced with the task of understanding and describing the entire reality, divided into parts specific to individual disciplines, none of which, however, is more important than the others. Gathered “under one roof”, they constitute a public promise that work continues to explore and explain the world.
2. Having university understood in this way as a base is particularly important for our students, especially for those who will soon start the first year of their studies. For the mind of a young person, buzzing with excess information, university should be a place and time where calm reflection and conversation based on scientific knowledge will help establish a reliable image of reality and think about what we can and should do with the world. Shared time to think and talk is crucial to accomplishing this task. Here, together with the next generation of young people, we will spend several years dealing with issues and problems that are universal, but also very specialised. Our task is to show students how to connect them so that they can later, on their own, use their education to connect life and knowledge; what is individual and local with what is common and planetary.
One of the ways to archive that is the New Concept of Studies initiated in the summer semester – a great undertaking of rethinking and modifying university education at our University, which we carried out together, and now we are starting the first stage of its implementation. Regardless of systemic changes, the most difficult but unchanging goal of education is to prepare our students to solve problems that we cannot yet name. The introduction to this is to jointly ask questions to which there is no good answer – especially on the Internet. Let’s create conditions for students to ask us questions about the relationship between science and university education with the problems of the world we inhabit together. A student who asks questions is the teacher’s joy.
3. The university’s significance does not result from its self-determination. We are significant when others take us seriously. And this happens if the importance of our work arouses social understanding and recognition. This is why it is so important to communicate clearly and convincingly what the content of our scientific and educational work is. It gains real recognition when people outside the university know and feel that we share with them the burden of solving common problems.
This is the purpose of our University’s latest initiatives related to the European City of Science Katowice 2024, including: establishing a consortium of seven public universities, led by the University of Silesia; a programme for the revitalisation of the Rawa river and the creation of a social citizen science laboratory on its banks; the concept of the Network Science Centre based on exhibitions and programmes for the dissemination of science created at the Consortium’s universities; a scientific research programme for Silesia, which is intended to provide funds for financing research that is crucial for the future of the region; new investments in buildings, educational and research infrastructure for chemical and natural sciences; preparation of year-round events of the European City of Science together with the city of Katowice, the provincial government, and Metropolis GZM, led by university communities of the Consortium.
Through these activities, the University of Silesia undertakes a commitment to serious participation in the practical care of the local world to which it belongs. At the same time, as the historical value of the European community is increasingly undermined, universities are responsible for strengthening the integration of science and education within all the countries of this community. The Transform4Europe alliance of European universities, of which we are a part, and from this academic year we will lead it, is gaining particular importance.
4. University can also be funny. The current principles of evaluating disciplines, especially the ad hoc changes in the scoring of journals and publishing houses, do not raise our significance. It is dangerous when the perceived ridiculousness of creative scientific punctilio imperceptibly seeps into our everyday academic vocabulary. It happens that instead of talking about what we are working on, what scientific problem we have solved, where our publication will be published – we inform each other about the number of points obtained for the publication. This is a very dangerous process of erosion of the value of research work. We will most likely never avoid some measurable form of our scientific achievements, but we should not, even ironically, make points the only measure of research achievements. “It is as deadly for the spirit to have a system as to not have it. The spirit will certainly have to decide to combine the two”, wrote Friedrich Schlegel.
Before we find a satisfactory way of making such a combination, it is good to first realise the ridiculousness of absolutizing a point measure of scientific achievements. He is not significant who does not smile or puts on a stern face. “Only a wise man can laugh at himself”, remarked Baudelaire. Such laughter removes false seriousness, deemphasises superficial problems, and is a good introduction to a critical attitude. University is significant when, while conducting critical research, it does not ignore itself.
This is our most urgent critical task: to devise, in today’s reality, such conditions for conducting science, artistic activity and education which would give us a sense of meaning in our work and the time and peace necessary for its nature; conditions which would encourage each of us to undertake ambitious research and artistic endeavours; which would foster the desire to stand out by solving particularly difficult problems and to search for new ways of reviving students’ passion for learning.
5. It is increasingly clear that the irreplaceable role of the university today is civic education in the scope of everyday co-creation of a democratic public institution such as a university. At the University of Silesia, subject to civic education, consciously or unconsciously, is our entire community of twenty-four thousand people, residing in four cities, having a budget of several hundred million, electing the rector in free, democratic elections, having hundreds of collective entities – statutory, regulatory or freely created – from student research groups and associations, commissions, educational and scientific councils, colleges, faculty assemblies, up to the parliamentary body, which is the Senate of the University of Silesia.
Even though we are connected by science and education, we are not the same. Equal in terms of professional rights and obligations, we differ in many respects. And yet, as a university, we are proof that differences and disputes do not have to be destructive for the community, but creative and beneficial. As long as they are conducted with respect for the dignity of everyone and with appreciation for the substantive arguments provided by science. In this form of a university, we give ourselves as scholars, employees, students, but above all, as citizens, a priceless thing – a real, well-functioning, democratic public institution.
I wish you in the coming time a sense of strength, meaning and hope that are not based on naive optimism, but result from the causative significance of the University that we create together.
Rector of the University of Silesia
Prof. Ryszard Koziołek, Rector of the University of Silesia in Katowice | Photo by Julia Agnieszka Szymala