The McGowans: IU and “the Magna Charta Universitatum”

January 27, 2023

by Richard J. McGowan and Tyler R. McGowan

What’s to become of American universities, including Indiana University? If we look across the pond, i.e., the Atlantic, we can see a reaffirmation of traditional ideas on what a university should be. Those ideas are rooted in history.

The University of Bologna, the oldest university in the Western world, celebrated its 900th anniversary in 1988. To mark its continuous operation for so many centuries, regents from many European universities gathered at Bologna and produced the Magna Charta Universitatum, a two-page document stating the principles at the core of university governance.

The preamble to the Charta provided several justifications for its creation. The university leaders said that “the future of mankind depends largely on cultural, scientific and technical development,” which involves “centres of culture, knowledge and research as represented by true universities.” Further, the “universities’ task” is “spreading knowledge among younger generations.” Finally, “Universities must give future generations education and training that will teach them, and through them, others, to respect the great harmonies of their natural environment and of life itself.” The preamble also said that the educational leaders of ‘European Universities’ were “looking forward to far-reaching co-operation between all European nations.” It noted an “increasingly international society.”

When the Charta was created, 388 institutional signatories affirmed the document. The Charta was revised in 2020 and today there are 947 signatory institutions, including Indiana University. IU is one of only 22 signatories in the United States. By comparison, Ukraine has over 50 signatories and Kazakhstan over 65 signatories.

The principles underlying universities were identified. “The first principle was independence: research and teaching must be intellectually and morally independent of all political influence and economic interests.” The second said “teaching and research should be inseparable, with students engaged in the search for knowledge and greater understanding.” The third principle identified “the university as a site for free enquiry and debate, distinguished by its openness to dialogue and rejection of intolerance.” Therefore, universities must reject “Intolerance and always be open to dialogue.”

The mottos of American universities reflect the Charta’s principles, especially the third principle. Harvard’s motto is simply Veritas, or truth. Yale’s is Lux et Veritas, or “light and truth.” IU’s motto, Lux et Veritas, copied Yale’s motto.

Students who shout down speakers violate the third principle, as do administrators who react to disruptive students with indifference. Administrators also fail to follow the third principle when they disinvite speakers after the speakers have accepted an invitation to appear on campus. To IU’s credit, controversial speakers Tom Woods in 2010, Pastor Douglas Wilson in 2012 and Charles Murray in 2017 were not disinvited by the school’s administrators.

The second principle states what is expected from students. They should be “engaged in the search for knowledge and greater understanding.” As articles in The Indiana Policy Review have shown, universities are changing, hiding and distorting history. However, the very conception of the Magna Charta Universitatum provides ample evidence that knowledge of history matters — and not just history since 1619. Critical Race Theory ignores the millennia prior to 1619, a time when slavery was ubiquitous. As well, the history of indigenous populations has been truly and wholly ignored. The historical plaque on Michigan’s Copper Peak ski flying jump states that the land was occupied by “the Hopewell Indians . . . later the Woodlands Indians, followed by the Ojibway. They were driven out . . . by the strong Iroquois Nation.”

In other words, history shows that warfare among the indigenous populations existed well before 1492, whether universities choose to shed light on this truth or not. Instead, universities like IU not merely ignore, but distort that history. IU’s First Nations Educational & Cultural Center and the Office of the Vice President for Diversity, Equity, and Multicultural Affairs promote a “land acknowledgement” statement at the beginning of public meetings. The land acknowledgement exhibits no knowledge of the combative history indigenous groups displayed.

What about “students engaged in the search for knowledge”? Would well-documented but contrary ideas and data be accepted or, minimally, be examined? Or would data that call popular narratives into question be ignored, dismissed or hidden? The answer to those questions gets to the heart of the first principle: “teaching must be intellectually and morally independent of all political influence and economic interests.”

As Indiana University’s mission suggests, the principle should apply not only to the classroom but throughout the campus, too. What is taught to students by having women’s studies but no men’s studies? Or women’s centers but no men’s centers? We suspect that students are taught that one sex is irrelevant.

The principles found in the Magna Charta Universitatum, if followed rigorously, would serve students well. When universities pick and choose which knowledge is transmitted, they are going against their edicts and dumbing down society.

They misplace trust and do a disservice to students. Maybe the motto should be Lux et Nisi Aliquam Veritas, “Light and Only Some Truth.”

Richard McGowan, Ph.D., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, has taught philosophy and ethics cores for more than 40 years, most recently at Butler University. Tyler McGowan, a civil engineer, grew up in Indianapolis.  He currently oversees the dismantling of Three Mile Island.


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