Last week I started this reflection on the state of the university today by looking at the recent film, “Every Breath You Take.” As I said, “There are many ways one could think about this movie. Clearly, there are implications for those in the “helping professions.” But I have been wondering about this movie from the perspective of a university professor (with parallels for students as well).” Now I want to continue these reflections on the power dynamics of university today.

My university bears the motto, Veritas et Utilitas (our translation is, “Truth and Service”). This motto stems from our century-and-a-half history, back to a time when such things as “Truth” were believed to exist objectively, with a capital ‘t,’ and that knowing the truth makes public service possible.

Suffice it to say, our motto needs some serious updating. Universities have been radically transformed over just the last quarter century. Many are no longer institutions that serve the public good through critical scholarship under a unifying worldview (multiversities rather than universities). Instead, universities have become far more focussed on the growth of revenue through the proliferation of professional programs and student services which drive recruitment. One result of this is that universities function more and more as dispensers of vocational entrance tickets (Credential-Mart for future employees). Another result is that universities are more and more animated by the opposite of critical thinking: they now resemble ideological echo-chambers which cater to certain social/identity demographics.

While I find the values of equity, diversity, and inclusion to be laudable means for achieving a more just and compassionate society, too often today they function as unquestioned ends in themselves. They’ve been transformed into our religious dogma on campus, the reigning paradigm governing the university. And, unfortunately, once these values take on an ideological life of their own, they start to behave as a totalitarianism which they sought to counter in the first place. In the end, they function counter-intuitively: as the basis for exclusion rather than inclusion.

And this puts scholars in an awkward position. Are scholars seekers after truth for the purpose of public service? Or, are scholars the leading- or constructive-edge of social manipulation and mind control? What is a scholar to do now with “inconvenient truths” discovered in research? These are not just conspiracy theories anymore but the challenging questions scholars must face today if they are to be wise. And with the help of powerful tech companies (AI and algorithms), if society continues its drift into total surveillance, what will become of scholars committed to the ideal of free inquiry? Will they need to be on the lookout for powerful managerial ideologues equipped to monitor “every breath you take”? There is a venerable tradition that links truth with freedom (“the truth will set you free” as Jesus put it). As a friend put it to me, “Falsehood will bind us up in its coils since it does not speak truly about how the world really is, while seeking for truth is liberating since, if pursued in the way of Christ, we will increasingly understand how we should live faithfully coram Deo.” What happens, then, when the institution of society responsible for the relentless pursuit of truth for the sake of freedom becomes the primary purveyor of religious propaganda? Is it just me, or have we not been down this path before?

Michael Wagenman

Michael Wagenman

Michael Wagenman is Senior Research Fellow and Director of PhD Studies at the Kirby Laing Centre for Public Theology in Cambridge. He earned his PhD at the University of Bristol (Trinity College) and now teaches Christian theology and philosophy in Canada. His academic work focuses on the theological dimensions of institutionalized forms of power within culture and society. His most recent book is "The Power of the Church: The Sacramental Ecclesiology of Abraham Kuyper" (Pickwick, 2020).​