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Jón Atli Benediktsson, Rector of the University of Iceland, reflects on the future and why universities must protect their core values, while being open to re-evaluating all aspects of their work.

The primary role of universities is to create new knowledge and nurture young people, educating them to carry out the work of the future. The function of universities is therefore, by nature, ethical. Although the ethical principles of a university are, to a certain extent, timeless (the pursuit of truth and the development of the individual), we live in the real world, which is constantly changing, and we must therefore continuously rethink and revise the values of universities.

The University of Iceland is firmly rooted in the Nordic cultural tradition, which is clearly reflected in the university's core values: equality, professionalism and academic freedom. Equality is a guiding principle in everything the University of Iceland does and the basis of diversity and respect in the community.

Professionalism characterises the work of staff and students and is the basis for the position of trust the university enjoys in society. Finally, academic freedom is the cornerstone of all the work at the university, promoting critical thinking, the creative pursuit of knowledge, open-mindedness and forward thinking.

With these core values to guide us, the University of Iceland has established itself among the ranks of leading Nordic universities at the international level. And all over the world, Nordic societies are lauded as exemplary models. At the University of Iceland, we are truly proud of our active role in this development.

The mission of the University of Iceland from its start in 1911 has been twofold, i.e., to serve Icelandic society and be an internationally active institution. The university started very small, with only 45 domestic students and four faculties, but the intent was always to be a university among universities in the international context. International collaboration is vital for a university in a small island nation like Iceland. Currently, the university is an international research university, with five schools, 26 faculties and more than 13,000 students, of which 1,500 are international. The major transformation over the past decade and a half has been the emergence of doctoral education at the university. During this time, the number of doctorates awarded have more than quintupled and this year the university will award almost 100 PhDs. In this way, the University of Iceland best serves Icelandic society, by leading in the creation of cutting-edge scientific knowledge in collaboration with domestic and international partners.

But we must remember that we live in a changing world and the core values of universities are under attack on many fronts. A growing number of voices even doubt the value of scientific knowledge. At the same time, we are facing an unprecedented threat to the living conditions of humankind on Earth. How should the universities of the future respond? What vision should guide us? What ethical values should we impart to the next generation? How should we educate young people to carry out work that we cannot yet foresee?

Evidently, we must be open to re-evaluating all aspects of our work. But whatever the future holds, it is clear that the conclusion is not to abandon the core values of universities. On the contrary, now as never before we must have the courage to fight for the pursuit of truth, enlightenment, compassion, democracy and equality.


Jón Atli Benediktsson
University of Iceland

Jón Atli Benediktsson is the Rector of the University of Iceland and Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering. He received his PhD from Purdue University, USA. His research interests are in remote sensing and image analysis. He is a highly cited researcher and fellow of IEEE and SPIE.

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