The text below is based on the speech I gave to KI’s international students earlier today (27 August 2021)
I would like to start by welcoming you all to Karolinska Institutet. Welcoming international students is one of my favorite tasks as President of KI. You bring new perspectives to campus. You invigorate the discussions in our classrooms. You make Karolinska Institutet the global institution that we aspire to be. In short, you are an essential part of our university, our profile, and our identity.
Thus, I am happy to share with you a piece of good news: this year boasts a record number of international Master’s students. Over 300 students have enrolled in our global master’s programs, representing over 50 different countries around the world. I feel proud that KI can offer opportunities to so many overseas students and I feel honored that you have chosen to study at KI. As well as learning from us, we will learn from you.
Out of all the medical universities in the world, you have chosen Karolinska Institutet for your studies. An excellent choice, if I may say so. KI continues year after year to hit top positions in international university rankings. KI is ranked as the number 1 medical university in the EU and number 6 in the world in the QS World University Ranking by Subject. KI is also home to the Nobel Assembly, which appoints the laureates for the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine every year. I assume that these are some of the reasons you have chosen Karolinska Institutet and that weather and climate have not been among your motivating factors. But let me be clear: I am myself an immigrant to Stockholm. And I have learned to love this city – with its closeness to the sea, with its beautiful archipelago, with its cultural offerings, and with its vibrant social life and haut cuisine. To study is to explore, to absorb, to engage – on campus and beyond. You are not only enrolling in Karolinska Institutet – you are enrolling in Stockholm and you are enrolling in Sweden.
Better health for all
Karolinska Institutet is a medical university and our vision is to advance knowledge about life and to strive for better health for all. What does it mean to strive for a “better health for all”? It means that everyone regardless of ethnicity, age, gender, income or geographical location should have equal opportunities and access to health and healthcare. We know that this is not the case today and that inequalities and inequities abound on the global scene. The skewed and unjust distribution of COVID-19 vaccines tells it all. We have a great deal to do! As you begin your studies here at KI, you will all be contributing to our vision – a better health for all – and hopefully you will continue to do so for many years ahead, building on the knowledge and the foundations offered to you here. The future of health and healthcare lies in your hands. With an education from KI you have an opportunity but also a responsibility to bring about the changes that we so sorely need: a global society that puts health center stage, that sees access to health care as a human right, that respects and remembers what the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Dr Martin Luther King Jr stated in his famous 1966 speech: Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health is the most shocking and the most inhuman.
Creativity, passion and responsibility
Karolinska Institutet rests on a number of values, which I hope that you all share with us. Our KI core values are creativity, passion and responsibility. Creativity in ideas and original thinking for groundbreaking research. Passion for science and knowledge and the power to change the world. Responsibility toward others reflected through strong ethics, respect and empathy. KI stands up for the basic values of the Magna Charta Universitatum, a charter which has been signed by many of the world’s university presidents and leaders. Included in the charter is the fundamental requirement of freedom in research and education. This means that we show tolerance and respect towards others’ ideas, even when we may not agree, and are open to a constructive dialogue. This is how you as students will develop and enrich your minds with knowledge. Academic freedom is at the heart of societal development.
Sadly, there are regimes in parts of the world that do not show such tolerance and wish to quash thoughts and ideas that are not in line with their ideologies. We are seeing this now in Belarus, where eleven students and one professor are facing prison sentences after participating in peaceful protests. This is an attack on democracy and academic freedom and is as such totally unacceptable. Furthermore, the situation in Afghanistan is extremely worrying. We do not want to see the Afghan society slide into a repressive past. Universities must be kept open and women must be allowed to study and develop their full potential. At KI, we will be following these developments with vigilance and will speak out and do whatever we can to support the academics and scholars that are at risk under these regimes. And it goes without saying that we will remain firm in our insistence that Ahmadreza Djalali – a KI alumnus and Swedish citizen – must be released from his prison cell in Teheran where he has spent more than five years with a death penalty hanging over him since October 2017.
Number of challenges
During the last year and a half, we have been faced with a global pandemic. This has presented a number of challenges to healthcare, the research community and society as a whole. These challenges have also highlighted the importance of medical research and education. Access to skilled healthcare staff has meant that seriously ill COVID-19 patients have received optimum care and treatment, and research has provided new knowledge in record time. Now is the time to build a more resilient society that is better prepared when the next crisis hits. KI and you, as students of KI, are poised to play an important role in this endeavor.
Another imminent threat to health is climate change. This summer has seen heatwaves and wildfires sweeping over southern Europe and the USA, as well as excessive rain and flooding in parts of Germany. And we haven’t seen an end to it as scientific evidence estimates that the global temperature is set to reach or exceed 1.5 degrees of warming over the next 20 years. Analyses of the health consequences of climate change have shown that extreme heat or cold are associated with deaths due to cardiorespiratory or metabolic disease, as well as suicide and several types of injury. Health and climate will be high on the research agenda over the coming years and add to the global health challenges that lie ahead of us.
Diversity of views
Now as you prepare for university life, my highest hope and aspiration is that you will develop a sense of belonging to KI. A university at its best is a community nurtured by a diversity of views, sustained by respect and tolerance, and a deepfelt desire to develop our competence through meetings with people having opinions, skills and experiences that differ from our own. Disagreements should not be seen as an impediment to progress but as a prerequisite for it. Harking back to John Henry Newman I say that a university at its best should be a place where minds collide with minds. And let me add: in a peaceful and constructive manner.
In closing I must emphasize that the pandemic is not over yet, and we all have a responsibility to minimize the risk of virus outbreaks. We should do this by adhering to recommendations and guidelines such as keeping distance and staying at home if you feel any symptoms of illness. I encourage you to check in to the KI student website on a regular basis to keep up to date with current recommendations with regards to COVID-19. You will also find plenty of other useful information and news there on what’s happening at KI. You will also be informed about an app that will help us to monitor and cope with the challenges that the pandemic will continue to represent during this autumn term.
I trust you agree: at a leading medical university we should not only excel in research and education but also take a leading role in showing responsibility in a time of a medical crisis.
Standing here in front of you today, on your first day at KI, brings back memories of my own time as a student. I encourage you all to enjoy your time at KI. I speak out of my own experience: the time at a university is a unique and formative period in your lifetime. The ideas, ambitions and networks that you develop here will stand to inspire and color the rest of your life. Thank you for choosing Karolinska Institutet for your studies. From today on KI is your university. Do feel welcome, make friends and learn so that you can go on to achieve great things and make the world a better place – with health and healthcare for all.