“Ideas are far more powerful than guns. We don’t allow our enemies to have guns, why should we allow them to have ideas?” So said Stalin, sounding much like previous and subsequent dictators.

“Ideas are far more powerful than guns. We don’t allow our enemies to have guns, why should we allow them to have ideas?” So said Stalin, sounding much like previous and subsequent dictators.

It is no surprise, then, that some people have seen universities as dangerous places where, as Stalin might have put it, people are ‘armed’ with ideas that threaten those with their fingers on the levers of power.

One can, perhaps, detect faint echoes of such paranoia in the maxim ‘Don’t get ideas above your station’, which suggests that traditional hierarchies might not tolerate or survive too much pesky, non-deferential thinking. The saying ‘Too clever by half’ – surely one that would be meaningless in a society less rigidly tiered than ours – smacks of the same wariness of ideas and the intellect.

Universities can never be a wholly comfortable part of the Establishment. One of Bristol University’s formally stated values is ‘Independence: we encourage independent thinking and cherish academic and institutional autonomy’. It may sound like motherhood and apple pie, but in fact it’s fundamental to the place. Students must be encouraged to think for themselves and to challenge received wisdom. Academics rightly expect, as our Vice-Chancellor, Professor Eric Thomas, has said, ‘the freedom to fly’ – they must be supported in their ambition to pursue what’s new and what’s next. And both students and staff must find that their entrepreneurial tendencies are valued and nurtured. Orthodoxy is not universities’ default position.

If fresh thinking were not the lifeblood of the University, it is unlikely that four research projects in which Bristol is closely involved would have made TIME magazine’s Top 10 Medical Breakthroughs and Scientific Discoveries of 2008. In one of those projects, the first tissue-engineered trachea, utilising the patient’s own stem cells, was successfully transplanted into a young woman with a failing airway. As in so many other instances, pushing beyond previous norms and putting new ideas into practice made a difference not just in some abstract realm but in the here and now. A life was saved, new hope was given to many and attitudes to stem cell treatment were probably changed forever.

Ideas can only affect the world for the better if they are robust. And so it is that universities not only act as incubators for new thinking but also submit that thinking to rigorous testing, whether in the laboratory or the seminar room. That is why working at Bristol University can be a little scary – especially for a non-academic like me; one can expect one’s ideas to be scrutinised by some razor-sharp minds that thrive on what monks used to call ‘disputation’. At the same time, it is the thing that makes being on the University’s staff rather thrilling – the sense that ideas are taken seriously, both for their own sake and for where they might lead.

Of course, good ideas don’t arise only in the groves of academe. They can come from anywhere and it is incumbent on universities to work in partnership with other ideas-generators, whether in industry, the creative sector, government or elsewhere. Perhaps more than ever before, this is the age of the interdisciplinary, cross-sector, trans-national idea. It seems that some of the thorniest problems facing mankind will only be addressed through collaboration between specialists on an unprecedented scale, sometimes using tools that have not been available before. Bristol University’s £7 million supercomputer, which was launched in 2008 and can handle 37 trillion calculations a second, is used by everyone from climatologists to biochemists to aerospace engineers and by novel combinations of other experts.

Universities also have a duty to seek dialogue with the general public – to engage people in the consideration of ideas, research projects and plans. This is not so much a question of academics dispensing knowledge to passive audiences as of a genuine conversation between people with a shared interest in thinking, learning and debate – ‘disputation’, even.

The University’s centenary falls in 2009 – a great opportunity to reflect on what has been achieved in the first hundred years and what the future may hold, not just for the University but also for the wider world. Our centenary lecture series will touch on some of the big issues of our time, including safeguarding human rights, alleviating poverty, nurturing human creativity and restoring trust in politics. We hope the lectures will inspire ongoing work and discussion within the institution, outside it and in a variety of places between the two.

The American composer John Cage said: “I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I’m frightened of the old ones.” Universities are not frightened of either type, only of their absence. Our centenary will be an affirmation and a celebration of that fact.

About The Author/

Barry Taylor is Communications and Marketing Director at the University of Bristol.

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