Beyond research and teaching: on the role of universities in our society

(a thread on Mastodon U. Twente.)

In the essay The Fragmentation of Truth danah boyd makes the following important point: To combat increasing polarisation in our society, we need to rely on organisations that actively and intentionally let people with fundamental differences work alongside one another.

Boyd mentions the military as an example of an organisation that brings together people from different social backgrounds and political views to work on a common goal. To “intentionally bridge gaps in the social graph, to intentionally connect people and communities.”

I see schools and universities as another major power to combat polarisation in our society. Our university brings together people from different backgrounds, politcal views and cultures. Creating a sense of common purpose and a sense of a university community is important to fight polarisation and populism in our society.

That’s why our campus, our study associations, our sport, cultural and other student associations, are so important. That’s also why we need democratic institutions and self-government. They do not only shape our university now, they shape our future society.

We need to work harder to shape our universty as a community. If international students feel disconnected, then we completely failed as a university, no matter how excellent our educational programs are. This U-Today story, International bachelors: psychological and social problems, breaks my heart: (“One in three non-European bachelors had study problems in the previous academic year due to psychological, medical or social circumstances.”)

Danah boyd discusses in depth how platforms like Youtube and Facebook harm our society; how they directly threaten the important role that schools and universities play in creating a peaceful society. From this view point it is clear: Youtube should not be the primary channel for our online lectures; Facebook should not be the primary channel for our events.

Finally, services like search engines may be harmful, however well-intended and well-implemented. I find this hard to say as an Information Retrieval researcher, but search is easily manipulated, and you might not want powerful search in some applications. Boyd’s concept of ‘data voids’ is really insightful. Maybe we should teach students about search engine optimization in our courses too… #FIR

How Twente may lead the fight against global heating

(a thread on Mastodon U. Twente)

I signed the Klimaatbrief Universiteiten. Our university does not have an ambitious climate agenda. A common approach among universities is lacking. With this letter, we call upon university management to develop and implement policies to drastically reduce the universities’ carbon emissions.

Frankly speaking, the policies that this letter calls for should not be controversial at all. Universities have a moral duty to work on the big problems of the world, and a duty to advance approaches that may solve these problems. In fact, the University of Twente can build a campus that is CO2 neutral now. Let me give a few examples.

Let’s build, on campus, the state-of-the-art wind mills that use generators developed at the University of Twente. The superconductors developed by Marc Dhallé and colleagues, Lighter windmills thanks to superconductivity, replace the heavy magnets inside the generators of conventional wind mills. As a result, the weight and size of the new generator is significantly reduced while at the same time, it is capable of delivering the same output power. Another advantage is the minimal use of rare earth metals.

Let’s put solar panels on every roof and turn everyday objects on campus into solar panels using luminescent solar concentrator (LSC) photovoltaic technologies that Angèle Reinders and colleagues experiment with. The typical material properties of LSCs — low cost, colorful, bendable, and transparency — offer a lot of design freedom.

Let’s use the additional energy generated on campus to generate solar fuels. This involves the direct conversion of energy from sunlight into a usable fuel (in this case, hydrogen). Using only earth-abundant materials, Han Gardeniers, Jurriaan Huskens and colleagues developed the most efficient conversion method to date: UT boosts efficiency of solar fuels.

The high school children that are on strike for the climate now will be our future students. Let’s give them the world — and the campus — they protested for.

Vacation days for societal impact

by Joe Laufer, Mariëlle Winkler, Djoerd Hiemstra, and Susanne de Gooijer (Free Spirits UniTe)

Many employees of the University of Twente spend part of their free time on volunteer projects that are directly beneficial to society. They use their expertise and professional knowledge for instance by teaching children, by lecturing students in developing countries, by supporting elderly with new technology, or by rewriting an NGO's strategic plan. These employees struggle allocating enough free time for their volunteer work, whereas others might not need all their vacations days. Our proposal is simple: Employees can take their vacation days, and give them to employees that are in need because of their volunteer work. Our proposal extends the university's vision “the entrepreneurial university” to explicitly support projects with societal impact. We envision the following steps:

  • Employees initiate projects that have societal impact and ask support of the campus community;
  • Employees can donate one or more vacation days to become part of the community, and to form a pool of additional free time, to be used by the project initiators;
  • Project initiators pitch their ideas to the community, similiar to pitches for crowd funding platforms like Kickstarter;
  • The community can vote for the projects of their choice;
  • Once enough vacations days are donated to an initiative, the project initiator can use the extra time off to carry out their initiative (in addition to the time that the employee already puts in their initiative);
  • Students can participate in projects for credits (starting with building an on-line community platform);
  • Alumni can sponsor intiatives financially, share their network, and coach the project initiators;
  • Project initiators share their experience and accomplishments to the community, for instance by blogging about their project;
  • Initiatives should be done in cooperation with an NGO.

We are proud that our proposal is accepted as one of the Living Smart Campus projects.