Responding to ‘A question (about universities, global challenges, and an organizational-ethical dilemma)’

Editors’ note: as noted last week, Nigel Thrift contributed ‘A question (about universities, global challenges, and an organizational-ethical dilemma)’. Peter N. Stearns (pictured to the left), Provost, George Mason University, has kindly helped us launch a series of formal responses, more of which will be posted through to the end of 2010. We should add that some comments are also coming in via the Comments section below Professor Thrift’s entry.

As noted on his biography page, Peter N. Stearns became Provost and Professor of History at George Mason University on January 1, 2000. He has taught previously at Harvard, the University of Chicago, Rutgers, and Carnegie Mellon; he was educated at Harvard University. Dr. Stearns has authored or edited over 100 books. He has published widely in modern social history, including the history of emotions, and in world history. As Provost at George Mason, Dr. Stearns has worked to expand research capacities, to add or enhance centers of strength such as the arts, biomedical research and education, and public health, and to increase the global activities and educational goals of the University.

Kris Olds & Susan Robertson

~~~~~~~~~~~

Nigel Thrift’s recent posting on ‘A question‘, about whether universities adequately geared to help respond to urgent contemporary problems, prompted several responses. Despite all the information available, or perhaps because of it, I do not feel fully equipped concerning the urgent scope of the problems he cites — which is not to dispute the problems, simply the threat-to-the-planet angle. But even aside from questions here, my first basic reaction was a sense of uncertainty about how one might proceed to effect the kinds of changes in university relations he is pleading for. I do think that the larger processes of globalization, even environmental threat aside, in principle call for fuller changes in university relations than we have thus far achieved, but I am not optimistic about rapid response.

A recent effort to discuss international educational links before one of our national academies reminded me of several obvious limitations. Where my plea was for adjustments in our ability to respond to opportunities for international collaborations, the academy seemed most interested in guarding against security threats from foreigners engaged with Americans in scientific research. Nigel Thrift properly notes his concern about national selfishness in constraining universities; in the United States it’s often even worse, with states battling each other to make sure university efforts don’t spill beyond these boundaries, lest precious state funding be dissipated on out-of-state Americans. The challenge of funding is very real. Public institutions in the U.S. are being severely cut back (a trend that began before the current crisis), and this plus the regional parochialism makes it impossible to do much internationally that costs money. We have all sorts of initiatives, but they are largely (a bit of administrative investment aside) fiscally neutral; yet it’s hard to imagine a more ambitious global scope that would not entail substantial investment.

Finally, on the doubts side, I have been recurrently impressed at the difficulty of even bilateral cooperation between two universities internationally. On the U.S. side, our accreditation system can be a serious constraint, which we really need to work on but which is not easy to bring under control. This aside, simply getting two institutions with a shared goal to cut through mutual differences in procedures and approval processes entails an immense amount of work. We’ve been struggling, for example, on a partnership with the University of Malta in the conflict resolution area, despite immediate agreement on the purposes involved; we’re nearing a limited agreement, but the process has taken lots of people over two years to effect.

All this said, the idea of a cooperative web of contacts to help deal jointly with pressing problems has immense appeal — so long as it went beyond the pious agreement and rhetoric stage, which is what Nigel Thrift suggests. Extending some research partnerships, for example in the area of global environmental change and data sharing, might be one basis for beginning, as is already suggested.

I wonder also about the potential for some imaginative degree programs, at both undergraduate and graduate levels, under a “global problems” heading. Here, universities might agree that each could develop one year of a program, emphasizing both local strengths in scholarship and local vantagepoints on the problem itself (including for example regional political factors in dealing with the environmental crisis). It would be further agreed that students could move freely among three or four institutions, taking a year in each place, for degree completion, with a local advisor assigned for each year and a multiply-joint degree resulting. The only constraint would be the need to select universities in quite different regions — and of course, costs factors that we would have to help work on as best we could. I could see programs in this area not only on the environment and sustainability, but global poverty and development issues, globalization and resistance and identity issues, food and water, war and violence — the list could be considerable, and intriguingly interdisciplinary as well as international.

An approach of this sort would not only attract venturesome students and give them real experience relevant to careers on global hot topics, going well beyond current study abroad opportunities to real international and intercultural mixtures.  It would also require the kinds of discussions among educators that could encourage other collaborative ideas, better utilization of teaching technologies for international purposes, and so on. I would hope, finally, that any such collaboratives would carefully encourage partnerships among better-funded universities (whatever our current woes) and universities in developing areas where additional faculty and student contacts would be an immense boon.

The goal is a set of teaching connections that would be institutional counterparts to the kinds of research links that, as Nigel Thrift notes, have already been formed among individuals. The capacity to blend institutional requirements, on the basis of year-long chunks rather than laborious negotiations about detailed credit equivalencies, would be a further plus.

The challenge of thinking in more than abstract terms about the issues Professor Thrift has set out is considerable. A new kind of educational initiative, by a potentially wide set of university collaborators using the heart of their enterprise — teaching — as the centerpiece, might move us forward a bit toward concrete opportunities for discussion.

Peter N. Stearns

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7 thoughts on “Responding to ‘A question (about universities, global challenges, and an organizational-ethical dilemma)’

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  6. Pingback: A University of Alberta response to ‘A question (about universities, global challenges, and an organizational-ethical dilemma)’ « GlobalHigherEd

  7. Pingback: An Indiana University response to Nigel Thrift’s questions on global challenges and the organizational-ethical dilemmas of universities | GlobalHigherEd

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