Updated Magna Charta marks shift in universities’ thinking

Rectors, presidents or vice-chancellors of 58 universities formed a dignified procession in their colourful gowns and hats on their way into a solemn signing ceremony for the Magna Charta Universitatum 2020 (MCU 2020) held at the University of Bologna, the oldest university in the Western world, on 16 September 2022.

The signing was witnessed by more than 150 presidents and rectors of universities globally and brought the total number of Magna Charta signatories to 965 universities worldwide.

As the first universities to sign the 2020 version in person – due to previous meetings being postponed by the COVID-19 pandemic – the ceremony had additional symbolic value as the first public event to mark an important shift in universities’ thinking about why they exist.
David Lock, secretary general of the Magna Charta Observatory (MCO), told the audience that the MCU was originally signed by 388 rectors in 1988 on the 900th anniversary of the University of Bologna and the text reflected the fundamental values of the university tradition.

The initiative was in effect a predecessor movement to the European University Association. As hope emerged, during the latter days of the Cold War, of Europe reuniting, rectors thought there was a need for a strong statement on what science and higher education needed: autonomy, academic freedom, a space of toleration and protection by governments.

By 2020 the Magna Charta had supporters not just in Europe but globally. Universities had become more important but also more threatened, and the document was revised to reflect changes in society and the recognition that universities needed to take action to address them. The new text recognises that universities have to become responsive and take on responsibilities, but need academic freedom and autonomy as a precondition for fulfilling their role in society.

The new text says, for instance: “Universities acknowledge that they have a responsibility to engage with and respond to the aspirations and challenges of the world and to the communities they serve to benefit humanity and contribute to sustainability.”

President of MCO’s Governing Council Patrick Deane said: “By signing MCO2020, universities declare their commitment to the original declaration and to upholding the principles, values and responsibilities laid out in the document to strengthen the role of universities in promoting health, prosperity and enlightenment around the world. It is a very noble mission.”

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