Universities as anchor institutions for democracy

Interview with Matthew Flinders, Professor of Politics at the University of Sheffield

‘You are not boring!’ Outside the toilets at Utrecht University Hall a lady grabs Matthew Flinders’ arm and loudly repeats her words referring to the lecture he just gave in the auditorium: ‘they are all so boring, but you were not boring at all’. It was a funny experience, Matthew’s recalls, and I’ll take it as a compliment.

Matthew Flinders
Matthew Flinders, photography: Ed van Rijswijk

Matthew Flinders is a Professor of Politics and Founding Director of the Sir Bernard Crick Centre at the University of Sheffield. In February he visited Utrecht University for the Institutions for Open Societies (IOS) Community Day on the future of democracy. And in March he will return to Utrecht to receive an Honorary Doctorate during the Dies Natalis.

How do you look back on your stay in Utrecht?

What stuck with me most about my visit to Utrecht University is the culture. I think it is very distinctive and inclusive. The IOS Community Day was particularly vibrant because of the collection of representatives from across the democratic ecosystem. I don’t think many universities would quite be able to pull it off in the same positive sense.

Utrecht seems to be very good at reaching out far beyond the formal institution. It is not just the same people talking to the same people about the same issues in their own little academic caves. There is an openness and inclusiveness that brings in other perspectives and insights. Not because the university is in any way compelled because of government policy or rankings or anything like that, but because they understand that including a broader definition of a research community generally delivers a much higher quality research. It takes a specific culture to allow that to happen and it is an ongoing process. You never finish, you have to sustain.

You held a keynote speech during the IOS Community Day. What was it about, in a nutshell?

My lecture - or conversation starter as I like to call it - was about the past, the present and the future of democracies. It was trying to make an argument that there are clearly problems around the world with the current health of democracy. But what is happening doesn’t need to be accepted as an inevitable fate. Actually, if you look at history, democracy has always been man made, has faced challenges and has gone through peaks and troughs.

However, I was also clear to say that we are currently at a global tipping point. A number of major democratic challenges is coming together almost as a perfect storm. Only as a collective we can try to promote an upswing, a positive revitalisation and change how we live together.

We get trapped in this negative worldview that fails to see how much democracy is delivering day in, day out

Overall you are optimistic?

Yes, I am and I think people generally got my upbeat message and liked a bit of positivity. But at the same time, one of the broader public issues is that we have become almost trapped in a negative spiral. ‘Politicians are not to be trusted, democracy fails and is in crisis, we are not treating the climate catastrophe, far-right migration populism is growing everywhere: we are all going to hell in a handcart.’ We get trapped in this negative worldview that fails to see how much democracy is delivering day in, day out and how bad it would be without democracy.

I also underlined that for me universities are not just places of education, they are anchor institutions for democracy itself. They are where people should be able to come together and listen to opposing viewpoints, learn to agree and disagree in a civil manner. But also places where you can learn about what works elsewhere and how you might design new ways of living to overcome certain challenges as society becomes more diverse, fluid and quicker paced. Universities need to, to some extent, be able to adapt and change with the broader social context.

How can universities also reach non-academics (they generally don’t step into a university of their own accord) and help to establish a wider, more informed and positive idea about democracy?

You are absolutely right. At the IOS-Community Day there were a couple of hundred self-selected people who were there because they are already interested in politics. However: I’ve done gigs, lectures, talks and presentations in different places, and usually I overwhelmingly find that the public is always interested in politics. But what they often struggle with is an opportunity to listen and to have a safe space in which they can talk.

So the challenge is to support and train our academics to have the confidence to go out and talk about tricky issues in accessible language. It even matters how you want to be referred to. When I go out, I don’t want anyone to call me Professor Flinders, I’ll say: my name is Matt. I won’t wear a tie and suit, and I won’t stand on a platform. You have to really think about the setting and make sure it feels comfortable for those you are engaging with. The most useful feedback I’ve ever had on my research is when I was engaging with school children, or policy makers or during a public event in the back room of a pub.

It is an opportunity for universities to really start valuing those members of their academic community that will get out of the library and office and will devote less time on academic papers, and more time on playing a visible role in their community. It should be seen as a democratic and pedagogic opportunity for how we think about the role of universities.

I am genuinely impressed with the calibre of staff you have and UU is an incredibly positive place

So, we’ll see you again at the end of March when you receive your Honorary Doctorate during the Dies Natalis?

Yes, I am always happy to go to Utrecht. I am genuinely impressed with the calibre of staff you have and it is an incredibly positive place. After my last visit I came back to the UK refreshed: new people, new ideas. I’ve already received loads of emails from people that I met, sending me work, asking me questions, continuing the relationship.

Hopefully, the Honorary Doctorate will further develop and strengthen the relationship and will particularly allow me to act as a gateway to bring a broader range of my research contacts into Utrecht. I feel that my role is really about supporting future generations and helping to build research infrastructures and platforms. So it goes beyond me.

I’m very inspired by the work of a sociologist called C. Wright Mills. He was a big Texan, American guy and was always associated with thinking big. So my message to Utrecht is: go for it, think big, be ambitious. One of the best things that happened during my last visit is that someone from the History Department came up to me, shook my hand and said: I just want to thank you; you’ve made me think big.