A question (about universities, global challenges, and an organizational-ethical dilemma)

Editors’ note: this guest entry has been kindly contributed by Nigel Thrift (pictured to the right), Vice-Chancellor, University of Warwick, UK.

Professor Thrift, who has written one other guest entry for GlobalHigherEd (see ‘University viewpoint: the University of Warwick on ‘The challenge of global education and research’‘, 6 November 2007), has been very active in contributing to debates about the globalization of higher education and research. See for example, his role in the 2008-2009 UK-US Study Group that produced Higher Education and Collaboration in a Global Context (which GlobalHigherEd profiled in ‘Higher education and collaboration in a global context: a new UK/US (Atlantic) perspective‘, 29 July 2009). Also see his recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education (‘The world needs global research cooperation urgently, and now‘, 14 February 2010), and his introduction (and Warwick’s role, with support from Canada’s Centre for International Governance Innovation) in the innovative and high impact Warwick Commission on International Financial Reform: In Praise of Unlevel Playing Fields (November 2009).

Nigel Thrift’s contribution is indeed ‘a question’; one that we encourage other ‘architects’ of higher education and research institutional reform to respond to (via <kolds@wisc.edu>).  Some have elsewhere – see for example, Indira V. Samarasekera‘s (President, University of Alberta) piece in Nature (‘Universities need a new social contract‘, 12 November 2009), or Aarhus University‘s convening role (with the support of Lauritz B. Holm-Nielsen, Rector) in the Beyond Kyoto: Addressing the Challenges of Climate Change event held in March 2009. But we are seeking, via GlobalHigherEd, to ratchet up attention on this issue. We are accepting responses through to April 2011, one year from now.

To get the ball rolling Professor Peter N. Stearns, Provost, George Mason University, will respond this coming Monday.  Our thanks to both Nigel Thrift and Peter Stearns for grappling with this issue; one that generates no easy answers but is emerging as a key strategic development issue in universities, higher education associations, funding councils, ministries, etc., around the world.

Kris Olds & Susan Robertson


A Question

I have a question and it goes like this. Just suppose we are in a period in which the future of human life on the planet is seriously threatened – by climate change and all the negative economic, social and cultural processes that attend it – then are the world’s universities really doing all they could to mitigate and even head off the risks? So far as I’m concerned, it’s a rhetorical question. The answer is – not really. Good, maybe, but not good enough.

Should we be bothered about our role will be in what is often called the long emergency? I think so, and for at least three reasons. First off, it could be argued that universities are the primary intellectual fire-fighters in the current situation, not least because that responsibility has increasingly been abrogated by so many other actors. Second, the vast majority of universities have always – quite rightly – taken their ethical responsibilities to the world seriously, though it would be difficult to argue that universities have always ensured that they have acted in alignment with their beliefs, or indeed adequately translated their knowledge base. Third, if the situation is really so serious, perhaps it could be argued that we are now on a kind of war footing and need to act accordingly.

Now, universities face all kinds of difficulties in living up to these roles and responsibilities, of that I am sure. To begin with, they may be global public goods but they are still largely funded and regulated by nation states who, not surprisingly, tend to see them as national assets to be deployed according to national priorities. Equally, they are often in competition with one another: sometimes, it can seem as if their chief raison d’etre is position in the league tables. To complete the triptych of problems, it is still too often assumed that scientific discovery, which nearly always takes place as part of a network of actors distributed across the globe, is the province of an individual actor anchored in a particular place: think only of the system of prizes and awards.

But, if the problems are on the scale that is often now foreseen surely these difficulties do not constitute insuperable problems. What, then, is to be done? I think we should take our cue from the actions of our individual investigators who nowadays exist through a co-operative web of contacts which are automatically international in character. If they can cooperate so easily, surely universities can too. There are signs of progress, of course. National research councils are beginning to link up their research, and not just through the use of large facilities. Universities are fitfully internationalizing though, with the best will in the world, idealistic reasons have not always figured prominently. What I am suggesting is that this business of scientific cooperation now needs to go on apace and perhaps even as one of the conditions of the survival of the species. The stakes may be that high. To put it another way, nation states may not have been able to get their act together at Copenhagen but surely Universities – supposedly engines of reason – can.

Assuming you agree with the proposition, the question I raise is: are universities optimally organized to address the fundamental ‘global challenges’ that exist, and at the pace these challenges deserved to be addressed? If not, what should be done about this organizational-ethical dilemma?

Nigel Thrift

22 thoughts on “A question (about universities, global challenges, and an organizational-ethical dilemma)

  1. Coincidentally, I just submitted an NIH proposal on Wednesday titled “Restructuring Collaborative Research to Support Integrity and Innovation.” So my answer is “no,” universities are not optimally organized, including the research enterprise, which is essentially unchanged since the 1930s; as institutions, universities as a whole have grown dramatically throughout the 20th century without fundamental re-organization, leading only, to paraphrase father of strategy Alfred Chandler, to inefficiency and an inability to achieve goals.
    Change at the institution level in universities will require what we know is required for change in any other major organization: change in leadership (including type or nature of leadership); a great deal of evidence on the issues inhibiting performance and a vision for a different future that specifically addresses those issues and satisfies the needs and wants of its members; replacement of those who cannot or will not get on the bus; and a good deal of effortful, planned, and managed implementation processes to ensure that things–and ultimately the culture–really do change. Given that major research universities today are, from an administrative standpoint, essentially political, utilitarian, ego-driven organizations, this is a a tall order. But as a pragmatic idealist, I do believe it is do-able–over time. Essentially because I believe that the old business model is beginning to implode.

  2. Not only is the modern university ill-equipped organizationally to address the global challenges you cite, but the modern university has been a great contributor to many of the global issues. The educational focus has been on short-term economic gain (in terms of research productivity [read: more federal funding for the institution]), vocational training of citizens to contribute to the well being of the sponsoring nation-state, and an emphasis on cranking out MBAs with no education in ethics. So, I agree with Professors Thrift and Robins that a major restructuring of the university is in order. But the view that the modern university’s chief role — or one of its chief roles — is to improve society is a naive one, in my opinion. Universities now exist for their own survival and well being.

  3. “Survival” as a goal is part of the definition of institutions. There is nothing inherently wrong with seeking to survive; the differentiation point is strategy, and strategy is the role of leadership. So, opportunism (the short-termism and co-optation by external forces that Andrew points out) is a kind of strategy for survival–and we need to look to the leaders of institutions for the decisions they make about what to do and what not to do. Ethics is part of that strategic decision making.

    Historically, at least in the U.S., the role of the college was to perpetuate the clergy: it was essentially vocational, and education was for these, at the time, elites. In that sense it has always been self-interested and oriented internally toward self-preservation. Self-perpetuation was the college’s (church’s) mission. This is deeply embedded in the culture of universities, and stands in stark contrast to other kinds of institutions that may have an outer-directed, productive goal to serve. So the questions of whether universities have any interest in improving society or whether, as currently structured and led, they could, are really chicken-egg questions. Without the right leadership, they never will seek to improve society in the first instance, or know how.

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

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  10. The Question started out fine with “Just suppose we are in a period in which the future of human life on the planet is seriously threatened – by climate change and all the negative economic, social and cultural processes that attend it”. “The long emergency” and “war footing” supports the seriousness of the challenge we now face.

    But the answer, “cooperate more”, “network more” has little bearing on The Question. The same advice could easily be grafted upon the business-as-usual paradigm that got us here and it seems to me to be quite feeble advice compared to the seriousness and implications of the challenges that were sketched out in the opening paragraphs.

    I have sketched out a much more disruptive (and depressive fututure) in a blog post, “Peak oil, ‘big education’ and ‘big science'” (http://life-after-oil.blogspot.com/2010/09/peak-oil-big-education-and-big-science.html).

    What is the future of universities and research if Peak Energy also means Peak Economy and we are at it now (or near)?

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  13. I am an on-line student with Walden University. I am acquiring a Masters Degree in Higher Education.

    A question I would propose to you this week is: How will Higher Education be affected by the global economy in the year 2013? I am learning about Organizational Challenges in Higher Education this week in my class. What will the organizational challenges be for someone who wants to become a professor in Higher Education in 2013?.

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  15. This week at Walden University we learned about how the community influences the financial stability of a university. Can you consider for me what a community (of employers) might do to support a university in their efforts to keep the university alive and enrolling new students as well as bringing in those students who are transferring from another university? Can we as professors gain an impact in our departments by accepting recommendations from the community about how we teach our classes and what we should include in our curriculum?

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  17. This week at Walden University we learned about Birnbaum’s four models of organizational bureaucratic, political, collegial, and anarchical. I found it interesting in each classmates discussion of the models that each of us brought insights into the discussions that were quite different. Some of us agreed that collegial was the best model and others favored the political approach. I would be interested in finding out what others on this blog think of each model and if you have experienced one of the models at your university.

  18. This week at Walden Univeristy we learned about using an LMS for training purposes and how faculty as well as students object to the system. I related to this topic becuase I previously worked in a corporate environment will well developed planning, training and cooporation from management to make the LMS successful. I related my knowledge toward a scenario with Hybid University where fauculty has used the system for nearly 5 years and now in the process of training others to use the system. We have to involve those faculty and administrators who have been successful with the new system to convince others to ‘come on board’ with the new LMS. Sometimes it takes ‘real-time’ evidence to prove your point.how much more success would it be than to involve these students and faculty who have found the modern technology to be more productive for them in maintaining their classes. We have to be able to satisfy the needs of these doubters in order to persuade them to our side. I have seen this type of LMS to be successful and I would have no problem in convincing them to ‘come on board’ with the new plan.

  19. This week in my Walden University on-line class we were to post our understanding of Collaboration and Change and we thought these two concepts affect the way that universities increase tuition. Should the tuition be presented to only in-coming students or to all students enrolled? Is it important to remember those students who are already enrolled and how they might become dropouts becuase of the high cost of their tuition? In my analysis, I questioned as to are the stakeholders in this collaboration. Are we really considering how the change would affect the students overall?

    I would like to hear back from anyone who might have some insight into this analysis.

    Marlene Haney

  20. This is my last submission into the blog for my on-line Walden University Class…..I am disappointed that I did not have anyone comment on my questions / observations throught the last 8 weeks. This is my first time for joining a blog and make a submission into one. I have learned that you must choose a topic in a blog that you are interested in and one that might receive some comments back.

    Marlene Haney
    Walden University On-line student

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