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670th Anniversary of Charles University and the Role of Universities in Today's World

May 1, 2018

by Tomáš Zima, Rector Charles University

In April 2018, 670 years have passed since the Czech King and Roman Emperor Charles IV founded a university in Prague. He did so in the hope to uplift through it the Czech Kingdom, its capital and education in general. The newly founded university, first north of the Alps and east of the French border, was thus given a difficult target – to compete with the best contemporary universities in Bologna, Oxford and Paris. Only a successful university could have contributed to the firm anchoring of the Czech Kingdom in the European West where it belonged, as the sovereign was convinced.

Today, at the beginning of the 21st century, Charles University ranks among 1.5% of the world’s top universities, and has great scientific and pedagogical results. The universities in Leiden, Leuven, Zurich, and Jerusalem belong to its strategic partners and it has, together with the universities in Heidelberg, Warsaw and the Sorbonne in Paris, recently become a member of the new European University Alliance ‘4EU’. Thus, we can be satisfied with the fulfilment of Charles’ heritage.

In recent years, in addition to scientific research and teaching, the so-called ‘third role’ of universities, i.e. their social activities, has become increasingly important. This role is all the more important now that Europe is not experiencing easy times. There are ditches across the Western society dividing it in a number of respects and the project of European integration is at a crossroads. Great Britain is leaving the European Union, which, moreover, deals with rampant administration, embarrassing political correctness and limited ability to effectively address serious issues. There is growing arrogance and aggression in society and so is the desire to assert one’s belief at all costs; public opinion is manipulated by a number of hoaxes and fake news; people’s minds are poisoned with uncertainty and the feeling that the political and social elites have lost interest in them. From this point, it takes only a small step towards people’s susceptibility to political extremism, which is extremely dangerous.

Universities play – and they should play – a crucial role in the never-ending struggle for democracy and its added values. Members of academia must not be afraid to speak in public, they must be able to address the issues without exaggerated political correctness, and try and propose solutions to those. They must constantly communicate with the public and answer the complex questions of today’s world. This was also clearly formulated at the recent celebration of the 670th anniversary of the founding of Charles University. In his ‘keynote speech’, Professor Ludovic Thilly, Coimbra Group Executive Board chairman, stressed the principles of the Prague Declaration, which was signed by almost eighty representatives of major European universities in the capital of the Czech Republic on the occasion of the 700th anniversary of the birth of Charles IV in 2016: “Knowledge and education”, which, the Declaration reads, “represent inalienable values of immense importance… Universities are also places for gathering, free discussions and exchange of opinions, which led not just to new  scientific discoveries, but also to better understanding of ‘the other’, and thus to tolerance and cultivation of society as a whole.”

The responsibility of universities in today’s world is enormous. If we care about the future of Europe and about the times and conditions our students and our children will live in in twenty, thirty or fifty years’ time, we cannot give up on it. Neither can we stop fighting for the principles of democracy, humanism, political pluralism and freedom, for a peaceful and prosperous Europe and its values. We are very pleased that Coimbra Group, the oldest European university network, is committed to this responsibility and gives its full support to such efforts.