When the Observant called with the question whether I wanted to be editor-in-chief for one special issue, I thought twice about it - since there needs to be a healthy distance between the executive board and our own independent newspaper. But when I heard that I also could influence the topic of the issue I immediately said yes. One of the things that keeps me busy is the role of universities in a changing society driven by fake news, polarization and populism. Suddenly twitter storms seem have become more relevant than laying out and understanding the facts; opinions without a knowledge base seem to get into the news more easily than carefully researched contents. Universities, therefore, need to be knowledge brokers with a strong focus on their mission: research, education and societal impact. My own upbringing in postwar Germany shaped my understanding that the best way to ensure a culture of freedom of opinion is searching for and understanding the facts. The slogan of The Washington Post, ‘Democracy dies in darkness’ illustrates quite well, why this is so important. Students should learn how to distinguish right from wrong, how to search for the truth and how to discuss and debate in a respectful manner. Creating such an academic platform for the exchange of ideas is more important than ever, particular in times of heated politics discussions. The university as an institution needs to be apolitical, but it has to provide a protected space to exchange different opinions; while it does not matter whether they are conservative or progressive, left or right, we have to make sure that they can be addressed in an inclusive manner, with respect for each other and by accepting the right to differ. In short, there needs to be a culture for dialogue, a culture based on truthfulness. Incidentally, this edition of Observant appears in the week of the European elections, at a time when the European idea is truly challenged. Although, I, like many, have also critical comments about Europe, I strongly believe being pro-Europe is the only way forward for us, in our national context but more specifically also for Maastricht University, where we differentiate ourselves as a Dutch University with a clear European and global perspective. Independently of the outcome of the elections, we will continue on this road, helping to shape and improve Europe, learning from the past but also making sure that the truth and knowledge are leading the way into the future.
Prof. Martin Paul, guest editor-in-chief and president of Maastricht University