Katja Bär is CCO of the University of Jena and chair of the Federal Association of University Communication.

The end of neutrality?

A commentary by Katja Bär
Katja Bär is CCO of the University of Jena and chair of the Federal Association of University Communication.
Image: Jens Meyer (University of Jena)

Armed conflicts, climate change, displacement and migration—even after the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, our world continues to be marked by a wide variety of crises. Populists are taking advantage of the uncertainty, promising simple solutions that jeopardize social cohesion, or even democracy. In the search for direction and stability, universities are increasingly in the spotlight, challenged not only to communicate quickly and with scientific expertise, but also as organizations with a clear position.

In recent years, the University of Jena has been called upon repeatedly to position itself publicly: after the invasion of Ukraine by Russian troops, after the violent death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in Iran, after the earthquakes in Turkey and Syria and, last but not least, after the revelations at the beginning of the year by the investigative journalism newsroom Correctiv.

»Sind sie zu bunt, bist du zu braun«

The phenomenon is not new in communication science. »Haltungskommunikation« (»positioning communication«) is the name given to the strategy used by companies, brands or managers to position themselves on social, ethical or political issues. Fisherman’s Friend set an example for tolerance and diversity in Germany as early as 2015 with its campaign featuring the slogan »Sind sie zu bunt, bist du zu braun« (»If they’re too colourful, you’re too brown«, which can be interpreted as »If they’re too diverse, you’re too racist«).

From the Berlin public transport company BVG to drinks manufacturers such as Fritz Cola and supermarket chains such as Edeka, companies are increasingly seeing this positioning communication as part of their corporate strategy. A growing number of consumers not only expect quality from brands, but also a contribution to social or ecological goals. Encouraged to shoulder social responsibility, not only management but also employees are speaking out as »corporate influencers« on corporate values such as sustainability and diversity in line with their mission statement.

In contrast, universities have long chosen to remain without a mission statement and the political communication of researchers reflects their individual views, due to their academic freedom. »Isn’t the very premise unrealistic that an unwieldy entity such as the modern university system has to be permeated and sustained by the common way of thinking of its members?« asked Jürgen Habermas in 1986 on the occasion of the 600th anniversary of the University of Heidelberg [1]. The historical »idea of the university« remained as much a blank space as a position in the mission statements that emerged in past years via the circuitous route of »New Public Management«.

»Hippie-like«: the University's mission statement

However, the University of Jena’s mission statement stands out. The University has explicitly formulated its responsibility to get involved in public debates when its principles are attacked. Even though the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper mocked the University’s aspirations and values as “hippiesque” [2], they define a new idea of the university, which sees itself as a place of freedom, diversity, inclusion and tolerance, and takes political action in defence of its principles [3]. In the participatory process of developing the mission statement, it was decided to cite racist discrimination as an example where the University must position itself.

The Senate and Executive Board of the University of Jena were not alone in deciding to take part in initiatives supporting cosmopolitanism, such as »weltoffenes Thüringen«External link (open-minded Thuringia) or #Zusammenland (#Togetherland). Universities elsewhere are also championing the values of this new political university. University managements in Germany and Austria are calling for demonstrations in their cities and speaking out against xenophobia. At the University of Jena, management can be sure that their University does not confuse the party-political neutrality of the public institution with political abstinence.

University Communications and Marketing, which defends the values of the University and the free and democratic basic order on a daily basis in social media, can also refer to the mission statement. Nevertheless, the University’s stance must be found anew each time it positions itself. This sometimes requires the broadest possible dialogue, which rules out overly rapid responses in the case of complex issues. Furthermore, the mission statement does not confer a general political mandate. Instead, political speech and action must remain related to the University. One thing is clear: not only is it impossible for you not to communicate, but you cannot be without a position. Silence is also a position and needs to be carefully considered.

[1] Zeitschrift für Pädagogik 32 (1986) 5, S. 704
[2] FAZ, https://www.faz.net/-in9-ajgmhExternal link
[3] DUZ Wissenschaft & Management 07/2021