Global Challenges and Op-Ed Militarism, American Style: What are the Rules of Engagement?

Jeremi Suri, a former colleague whom I have always respected, came out with an op-ed in the New York Times a few days ago. Suri’s piece, titled ‘Bomb North Korea, Before It’s Too Late,’ has generated a lot of discussion and debate, which was no doubt one of his objectives. While academics sometimes get criticized for being vague when writing titles of articles or chapters, it’s hard to miss Suri’s main point!

Now, before you get me wrong, I am all for the idea of public service, including via engagement with various publics through the use of traditional media outlets and emerging social media platforms. I also believe universities and funding agencies/councils need to do a much better job addressing global/grand challenges, something Suri and I spoke a lot about here at UW-Madison before he was poached by UT-Austin in 2011. Moreover, who can’t help but wonder about the twisted nature of the current North Korean leader and regime.

Despite all of the above, I’ve been perplexed all weekend about Suri’s willingness to write an op-ed like this, and about the New York Times’ willingness to publish it. I have two broad concerns regarding the creation and presence of Suri’s op-ed in this particular newspaper (and I am putting the New York Times on a pedestal here, rightly or wrongly).

First, I personally believe you need to understand much more about the specific country on the other side of the world before writing about it in such a high profile outlet, and even more so proposing that it be bombed. To be sure, Suri has significant knowledge about key East and Southeast Asian regional historical developments (e.g., the causes and consequences of American foreign interventions including WWII, the Korean War (1950-53), the Vietnam War), not to mention the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. He also has deep knowledge on issues of nuclear proliferation, human rights violations, and regional conflict. Yet in the North Korean case, the primary base of knowledge to assert the US should bomb North Korea is a meta-reading of texts, primarily in English. Is this sufficient to engender the production of an adequate base of knowledge before firming up such a proposal? Perhaps it is all that is possible with respect to a country like North Korea. Still, how should academics judge themselves, and be judged, when it comes to the knowledge base question before their views appear in an outlet and form like this particular op-ed. In short, how substantial does an author’s knowledge base need to be about the region and especially country in question before proposing such an action?

Second, what are the ethical dimensions of writing, as well as publishing, such an op-ed. As we know, despite endless pronouncements about the legitimacy of concerns and likely efficacy of military action, there is a long track record of things going horribly off course when such theoretically focused action is launched. Have bombings and all these wars really helped the US demonstrate enlightened ‘leadership’ in the world over the last four decades? Does it ever go as smoothly as all the politicians, planners and propagandists say it will? Would the US (and op-ed writers) be willing to propose this type of action closer to home where hundreds of thousands of Americans might be killed or maimed if war were to break out? Do the advocates for such action have a responsibility to concurrently ensure their sons and daughters are groomed to enlist in the military? Are such advocates also willing to also advocate for higher tax levels to pay for such military action?

Jeremi Suri is a very bright, knowledgeable and committed scholar and citizen. Yet he has volunteered to play a role in advocating for military action. There are also patterns to this form of engagement; one that academics have played a key role in. As Micah Zenko put it in Politics, Power, and Preventive Action in 2012 (and I quote in length):

There is no body of civilians that more consistently makes unrealistic demands for the use of military force than editorial boards and opinion-page writers of major American news outlets. These appeals range from full-blown cockamamie schemes to semi-practical, tactical uses of force to resolve complex and enduring political problems of debatable relevance to U.S. national interests. This practice is a bipartisan exercise, ranging from the quixotic militarist, Nicholas Kristof, to the military-planning staff embedded inside the Wall Street Journal editorial page.

Most of these editorials or op-eds follow the same format: characterize the current U.S. strategy toward the foreign policy problem as inadequate or (better yet) “weak;” highlight that the “international community” has allowed the issue to go on for far too long; describe the president as aloof or disinterested; and obliquely refer to one or two military tactics (no fly/drive/kill zones are particularly hot commodities these days) or objectives purportedly requiring minimal effort (often noting the size of the U.S. military) that might resolve the problem—and have the added benefit of demonstrating presidential “backbone” or American “will.”

There are also improbable psychological benefits ascribed to the U.S. military by these authors. For example, today, the Wall Street Journal claimed, “A show of preparation for intervention might prod Syria’s officer corps to solve the Assad problem on their own.” Last week, three members of Freedom House wrote: “Merely planning for serious military options would have an important psychological effect on the regime and its military forces, possibly prodding more defections.” Last year, the former chief of staff of the U.S. Air Force contended that discussing a no-fly zone in Libya would “change [the Qaddafi regime’s] calculation of who might come out on top. Just the mere announcement of this might have an impact.”

Having read hundreds of these “tactics-first” proposals for using the U.S. military over the past fifteen years, two underlying themes is that the authors are impatient and the current nonmilitary strategy is not having a demonstrable impact. There is a cognitive bias called hyperbolic discounting, which is defined as “the tendency for people to increasingly choose a smaller-sooner reward over a larger-later reward as the delay occurs sooner rather than later in time.” I suspect that the desire to resolve an enduring problem in the near term explains many of these tough-guy (or girl) proposals. Given that it costs nothing to propose sending someone else to bomb or occupy another country, it’s the least tough and most thoughtless thing for someone to write. Why should we take these proposals seriously?

I pointed this argument out to Suri today (14 April) and we had the following exchange via Facebook:

  • Jeremi Suri: Fair point, but the counter-bias also exists in the public and policy worlds: the assumption that you can always out-wait your enemy, that “history is on your side,” that it is better to put off the hard stuff for later. There are indeed contradictory biases to act fast for success and act slow to avoid risk. Every policy-maker and citizen chooses his/her comfort level. That is what this debate is all about.
  • Kris Olds: Put off the hard stuff for later? It’s a search for an ostensibly easy answer that rarely ever turns out to be easy, or quick, and often includes major costs, and usually not costs felt by the type of people floating the solutions. And easy answers, including about distant parts of the world one has never been to (nor has studied, including in relevant languages such as Korean and Chinese in this case), are always easier when spotted from the comfort of a nice office after a meta-read of texts. This is the humanities exposed, but not in a good way IMHO. And I say this as someone who really respects your work as an academic.
  • Jeremi Suri: Again, very fair points, Kris. I have thought about all of this and I have mixed feelings, honestly. These are difficult issues and we are all subject to serious limitations. I just wonder if you would object in the same way if I were advocating, say, a targeted intervention in Syria on humanitarian grounds – also from the “distance” of my office and my “meta-reading of texts.” If we were replaying the Rwanda tragedy, wouldn’t you advocate quick and decisive action by the US, in spite of your own “distance” and “meta-reading of texts.” Our political biases – like our cognitive biases that we discussed above – obviously color our analysis, eh?

Suri makes a good point about the latitude of freedom I did not allow him regarding North Korea, but that I and many others might were he to write about Syria, another unfolding global challenge.

In the end, it is worth situating this more focused debate in the context of a broader debate about the role of academics in the public sphere and especially with respect to addressing global challenges. Universities and funding councils are pushing for more and more public engagement, and ‘impact,’ in countries around the world. The UK’s Research Excellence Framework (REF), for example, is prioritizing ‘impact’ in the public sphere (broadly defined) and has developed a case study methodology to assess how impact was generated.

This is a positive development trend on multiple levels and we need to encourage scholars like Suri to conduct research and speak out about global challenges and potential solutions. But what this case also points out is there are opportunities and constraints, pros and cons, and variable formats, regarding such engagement. I doubt we’ll agree on how to deal with the North Korean risk issue, but I do know that we both agree academics need to provide more public service on ‘global challenges’ and reach out on a broader multilevel basis.

But how should we ideally do this? What are the formal and informal rules guiding such engagement, and are these optimally configured? What type of background information should be provided to help people understand the relevant networks and affiliations of the person making such a significant case for intervention? And how do different disciplinary norms and conventions, not to mention epistemologies and ontologies, shape the willingness and ability of scholars to publicly engage about global, regional, and national challenges, especially those outside of home base?

Interesting times, indeed.

Kris Olds

An Indiana University response to ‘A question (about universities, global challenges, and an organizational-ethical dilemma)’

Editors’ note: we are very pleased to mark the start of 2011 with Karen Hanson’s thought provoking response to Nigel Thrift’s ‘A question (about universities, global challenges, and an organizational-ethical dilemma)’. Karen Hanson’s response is the tenth in what is turning out to be a fascinating – and diverse – series of responses that are lined up below in reverse chronological order (from date of publication):

Karen Hanson was named Provost of the Bloomington campus and Executive Vice President of Indiana University (IU) on July 5, 2007. Prior to being appointed Provost, she served as dean of the Hutton Honors College from 2002 to 2007 and chaired the Department of Philosophy from 1997 to 2002. A faculty member in the Department of Philosophy at IU since 1976, Provost Hanson is also an adjunct faculty member of Comparative Literature, American Studies, and Gender Studies. She has won numerous campus and all-university teaching awards, along with a Lilly Fellowship and a number of research grants. She received a B.A., summa cum laude, in Philosophy and Mathematics from the University of Minnesota in 1970, and her Ph.D., and A.M., in Philosophy from Harvard University in 1980. Her principal research interests are in the philosophy of mind, ethics, aesthetics, and American philosophy. She’s published many articles and essays in these areas and is the author of The Self Imagined: Philosophical Reflections on the Social Character of Psyche and a co-editor of Romantic Revolutions: Criticism and Theory.

Please note that we are accepting additional contributions to the ‘Question‘ series through to April 2011, a year after it was launched.

Kris Olds & Susan Robertson

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The Challenge

Nigel Thrift’s thought-provoking question, “Are universities optimally organized to address the fundamental ‘global challenges’ that exist, and at the pace these challenges deserve to be addressed?” comes at an interesting time in the history of North American universities.  Many of our best institutions have been grappling with financial problems in the wake of the worldwide economic downturn— reduced endowments, pressure to hold down tuition costs, and, in the case of public universities in the United States, dwindling state support—and so have been engaged in vigorous self-examination and, often, organizational change.   Wise decisions about organization efficacy and appropriate deployment of resources require a clear sense of core mission and best opportunities.   Some institutions facing financial challenges have claimed to find ways to do more with less, but some have begun to think they may need to do less with less, and that has added a grim urgency to the identification of core mission and crucial activities.

 

Vice-Chancellor Thrift has rightly noted that universities have by and large “taken their ethical responsibilities to the world seriously,” and the responses to his question throughout this past year have underscored that fact.  Universities understand themselves to be constitutively dedicated to good aims—education, the creation and preservation of knowledge, service to society—and yet Vice-Chancellor Thrift, and many of those who have commented on his post, take it as evident that universities are not “optimally organized” to pursue the most pressing ethical or social problems.  Vice-Chancellor Thrift notes that his question about whether the world’s universities are “really doing all they could to mitigate and even head off the risks” of global challenges (such as climate change) is merely rhetorical.  The answer, he says, is “not really.”

Optimal Organization and a Variety of Good Ends—

While I am inclined to agree with this assessment– of course universities are not doing all they could do to address the problem of, e.g., climate change— I am also inclined to think that this, by itself, does not suggest morally deficient institutional organization.  What, after all,  would it be for a university to be doing all it could to address the problem of climate change?  Would this require that all of a university’s resources—its degrees programs and research budgets– be dedicated to topics we know to be implicated in this problem?  That would be unreasonable not only because there is a positive case to be made for research and education in a variety of other areas of vital concern but also because none of us is in a position to be sure that we know all and only the topics that are implicated in this problem.

 

 

Of course, as the discussion of the original question makes plain, it is really a variety of “long emergencies” that are at stake, and we might well understand many of them—unsustainable development, educational and income inequality, pandemic disease, absolute poverty, etc.—as interrelated.  Hence, insofar as our university resources are devoted to education and research in any of these areas of concern, we could thus defend our ethical standing, even though the question of organizational effectiveness would remain open.

 

I would take a harder line, however, and insist that much of what we do in areas not obviously related to the identifiable long emergencies is morally justifiable, and it is not a defect of our institutions or their organization that we devote resources to these areas.  For example, education and research in the humanities cannot be robustly defended in terms of its likely contribution to solving the problem of global climate change or poverty, but that would not be a good reason to abandon it.  (Some research in the humanities does indeed have intriguing if somewhat more oblique applications to our global problems.  For example, a group of faculty in Indiana University’s departments of history and English, mainly medievalists, are embarked on a humanistic study of innovation, and their perspective will surely enrich the work of their colleagues in science, business, and policy studies.   And our faculty in area studies programs, by helping students and the broader society better understand the distinctive cultures of the parts of the world on which they focus, thus also help maintain a framework for understanding and addressing social problems in those areas.  But I would want equally to defend, e.g., the scholar of Romantic poetry, whose teaching and writing is directed simply, centrally, to better understanding of Romantic poetry.)  The humanities, with their focus on meaning and interpretation, are worth preserving in the university, even in the context of our long emergencies.

 

How can this claim be sustained, if we do indeed need to regard ourselves as on “a war footing” against a host of catastrophic problems?  I don’t in the least disagree with the call for universities to be more cooperative with one another and to be more fully internationalized.  Answering that call should not, however, involve neglecting all activities that do not directly contribute to solving those problems.  In particular, answering that call would not, should not require jettisoning the university’s responsibilities to sustain inquiry into questions of value and meaning, to support critical and analytical study of the human condition and of the artifacts—including literature, art, music, religion—that respond to and enrich the human condition.   Will this inquiry help avert those catastrophic problems?  Probably not.  But note that there seems to be a fairly straightforward utilitarian ethics implicit in Vice-Chancellor Thrift’s metaphor of a “war footing,” and one of the standard objections to utilitarian ethics is that it may be unlivable, because it can lead to the loss of personal agency and the loss of the possibility of projects that give an individual’s life personal meaning.  There is, after all, almost alwayssomething I could be doing that would better conduce to the greatest good for the greatest number than whatever I am at the moment engaged in, in my particular life circumstances; and utilitarianism seems to demand that I turn to this, that I seek always to maximize general welfare, rather than attend to the activities and projects that are connected to my individual interests, talents, context, and aims.  But it is a serious, perhaps fatal, objection to a scheme of ethical obligations that, in making boundless demands, it would deprive a person’s life of individual meaning.

 

If it seems that is only from a position of contemptible privilege that one would defend supporting [another] study of Wordsworth’s “Intimations of Immortality,” in the context where one is acknowledging that desperate conditions of absolute poverty are darkening the short lives of other human beings on this planet, it should also be acknowledged that this juxtaposition dooms as well support for scientific inquiry that is not clearly and immediately directed to the most pressing practical ends.

Moreover, it is not in fact obvious what sort of organization is best suited to address the long emergencies.  I agree with Vice-Chancellor Thrift that we should be alert to prospects for effective collaborations across state and national boundaries, but I also agree with President and Vice-Chancellor Stephen Toope’s suggestion that, in general, research collaborations are built from the bottom up, from teams and groups that are already engaged and focused on identified problems.  Most crucially, the determination of the most effective political and organizational structure to deal with issues of common property and resource use is an empirical matter, not something that can be determined a priori. This is one of the lessons of Indiana University’s Workshop on Political Theory, the working group founded by Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom and her husband, Vincent Ostrom.  (The Workshop is itself an example of the extraordinary effectiveness of a grass-roots, self-organizing faculty/student organization, an organization that has partnered with governments, funding agencies, academic institutions, individuals, and communities around the globe and that has in turn become a leader in theoretical and applied studies in natural resource management and sustainable development.)

 

Local Interests and the Social Compact—

I would argue as well that it should not be regarded as a matter of myopia or global neglect for a public university such as Indiana University to be sensitive to local— that is to say, state— regional, and national issues and priorities as well as global concerns.  Presumably a case does not need to be made for the value of educating the citizens of the state, as they will be among those in the next generation to face and try to solve the long emergencies.  But it may need to be said, in the context of this discussion of global engagement, that the very existence of the public university depends on a social compact recognizing the public benefits of this institution.  Now, while it’s undeniably true that addressing a problem—such as climate change– that threatens life on this planet does, to put it mildly, promise public benefits, it is entirely possible that our relevant publics, in order to provide resources to help us address this problem, require additional, more immediate reinforcements of the value of their investments.  Public support and appreciation of the value of the university, of higher education and non-commercial research, of the university’s claim to be a common good, is a fragile thing, and I don’t think we can reasonably expect it to be entirely free of local self-interest.

 

Modes of Engagement—

The upshot is that, even on a “war footing,” the domestic economy must be served, the young must be educated, and art and values beyond material measure must be sustained.  Of course, this qualification of Vice-Chancellor Thrift’s message is not meant to suggest any hesitancy about the imperatives of institutional cooperation and international engagement.

 

For more than half a century, Indiana University has supported and benefited from the consortium of Midwestern universities that is the Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC), and, for much longer than that, IU has been actively engaged in tackling global problems.  As we have considered and re-considered our institutional identity and our core missions, our commitment to international engagement has not faltered.  We understand this engagement to go far beyond study-abroad programs, international recruitment of faculty and students, international service-learning opportunities and area studies and language programs, important as these all are.  We understand this engagement to go beyond a variety of joint and dual degrees programs, such as those we have with Sungkyunkwan University, and institutional partnerships, such as the Bi-National Asian Studies Center, an IU partnership with Australian National University, important as they are.

IU’s contributions to the solution of major global problems have come not only from the work of individual researchers and the collaborations they have identified at other universities and research centers, but also from interdisciplinary training and research centers such as the Workshop and the Anthropological Center for Training in Global Environmental Change, which focuses on human ecology and agriculture, forestry, and fishery systems all over the world, and which, like the Workshop, is especially sensitive to the highly variable local issues that are relevant to resource management and sustainability.

 

Also crucial are interventions in the form of institution-building and technical assistance.  Just after World War II, Indiana University played a role in the founding of the Free University of Berlin, and in 1964 was one of the founding members of the Midwest Consortium for International Activity (MUICIA).  Among the MUICIA institution-building projects in which IU played a leading role were the development of the National Institute of Development Administration in Bangkok; the establishment of sixteen teacher education colleges in Thailand; the development of the National Institute of Public Administration in Indonesia; faculty and curriculum development for Kabul University’s School of Education; and a variety of faculty, curriculum, and government development projects in Bangladesh, Peru, and Ghana.  IU served as the lead institution for the Institute Teknologi MARA Cooperative Program, which for ten years provided a two-year IU undergraduate curriculum in Malaysia for more than 5000 government-sponsored students who subsequently transferred to more than 160 U.S. universities (including IU) to finish undergraduate degrees.  Khanya College, an IU distance education program funded by foundations, enabled hundreds of black South Africans to gain entry into formerly all-white South African universities.  IU helped to establish the Southeast European University in Macedonia, which has tripled the number of ethnic Albanian students enrolled in higher education in Macedonia; and, with USAID and private foundation support, IU helps sustains programs at the American University in Central Asia, thus supporting one the bulwarks of democratic education in the region.

 

The Workshop on Political Theory has, with USAID help, mounted the Sustainable Agriculture and Natural Resource Management Collaborative Research Support Program with partners in Mexico, Kenya, Bolivia, and Uganda, and with the Center for International Forestry Research and the International Food Policy Research Institute; and the Workshop is also the home of the Consortium for Self-Governance in Africa, led by Workshop Research Associate (and former Liberian president) Amos Sawyer.  IU’s Mauer School of Law also works in Liberia, through its Center for Constitutional Democracy, which has a primary focus on Myanmar, but also has projects in Central Asia as well as Africa; and the IU School of Nursing, the Center of Genomics and Informatics, and the School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation (now transforming into a school of public health) have formed with the University of Liberia a Partnership in the Health and Life Sciences in order to train more than 1000 new Liberian health care workers within the next six years.  The IU School of Medicine’s AIDS project (AMPATH) with Moi University in Kenya has treated over 100,000 HIV-positive patients, has protected babies by blocking mother-to-child transmission, and has prevented HIV/AIDS through educational outreach, which has also involved TB screening and the delivery of treated bed nets to prevent malaria.  The medical effort has also led to food and income security programs, skills training and micro-financing efforts, and programs of educational support for AIDS orphans.

 

Conclusion—

More examples of successful international engagement and dedication to global problems could be cited, but I hope the point is clear.  We do understand universities to have moral obligations and those obligations extend beyond our state and national boundaries and beyond our current generation of students and faculty.  But it is possible to attend to those obligations, and to find new ways to partner with others in order to address the long emergencies, and yet attend to local expectations and to the realms of knowledge, understanding, and aesthetic value not so directly tied to practical concerns.  It is possible, too, to shape local and national expectations so that our local and national constituencies understand their stake in these global issues.  That educational task, another of our institutions’ moral imperatives, may be the key to the organizational transformations that will best address the long emergencies.

Karen Hanson

A (not ‘The’) UBC response to Nigel Thrift’s questions on global challenges and the organizational-ethical dilemmas of universities

Editors’ note: our sincere thanks to Stephen J. Toope, President and Vice-Chancellor, University of British Columbia, for his thought provoking contribution below. Professor Toope’s entry is the ninth response to Nigel Thrift’s ‘A question (about universities, global challenges, and an organizational-ethical dilemma)‘, which was originally posted on 8 April 2010. The previous eight responses can be located here.

Professor Stephen J. Toope was named the 12th President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of British Columbia on March 22, 2006. He will begin his second five-year term in July 2011. An International Law scholar who represented Western Europe and North America on the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances from 2002-2007, Professor Toope’s academic interests include public international law, legal theory, human rights and international dispute resolution. He has worked on issues of human rights and legal reform in the Caribbean, East Africa and Southeast Asia. His latest book is Legitimacy and Legality in International Law: an Interactional Account, published by Cambridge University Press in the summer of 2010.

Kris Olds & Susan Robertson

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Last spring, Vice-Chancellor Nigel Thrift of Warwick University posed a profound ethical challenge to universities around the world.  He asked if we are appropriately organized to fulfill our contemporary mission.

At least since the creation of the land-grant universities in North America it has been received wisdom that universities have three interlocking goals and opportunities: to foster student learning;  to preserve and increase the store of human knowledge; and to engage with the wider society.  Some commentators like to call contemporary universities “multiversities” because of this complexity of mission, and they note that the goals and opportunities are not invariably in synch, despite the fond wishes of university leaders who suggest that there is an inevitable synergy amongst teaching-research-community engagement.

Nigel Thrift’s welcome challenge is to ask how the three goals of contemporary universities, and especially the goal of community engagement (or ‘service’ in its more condescending formulation), might be better pursued.  His implicit suggestion, carefully not insisted upon, is that universities might do a better job if they banded together in deeper partnerships to address the great crises of our times.  Prof. Thrift focuses upon the example of climate change, and it is a most appropriate choice, being scientifically complex, geographically unfocussed and full of potentially devastating effects.  Other contributors to the online dialogue on GlobalHigherEd have advanced other causes eminently worthy of global attention from our universities: pandemic disease, income inequality, pervasive poverty, ideological fundamentalism.  I would add, especially for countries of immigration, understanding and fully benefitting from cultural diversity.

The superficial answer to Prof. Thrift’s challenge is obvious.  Given that we have not been able to solve our fundamental problems, nor to fully exploit our opportunities, the answer demanded by Prof. Thrift’s question must be ‘no’:  universities around the globe are not optimally organized to do what the world needs us to do.  I suggest, however, that to figure out a way forward, the primary question needs to be torn apart into a series of related questions.  Why are we organized the way we are?  How easy will it be to re-organize ourselves?  What promising models might be pursued?  What are the limits to re-invention?  Each of these questions is complex, and I will only be able to trace out some tentative answers in this short response.  What is more, the answers are not always encouraging.  So as not to descend into paralysis, however, I will end by joining President Indira Samarasekara in proposing a few concrete ways in which we might improve our collective ability to harness the brains, energy and heart of our universities, to do our fundamental job: helping to make the world a better place through education and research.

First a caveat, as I am an academic after all!  Ever since becoming a university president, and beginning to read and listen to others of my cohort, I have been struck by a tendency to assume that the world today is entirely different than it was twenty or fifty or a hundred or two hundred years ago.  The idea seems to be attractive to some colleague presidents that it is our destiny to fundamentally re-shape what we have inherited.  This impulse is often prompted by a sense of frustration with our own faculty members who are accused of not “getting it,” of somehow living in the past.  By the way, I do not suggest that Prof. Thrift reveals these tendencies, for I know him to be far more subtle.  But it is worth remembering that universities are one of the only social institutions to have survived, both intact and wildly changed, since the medieval era.  (Other examples are religious institutions, now under increasing attack, and some political institutions, like the Icelandic parliament).  This is no accident.  Universities have proven themselves to be crucial to social, economic and cultural evolution.  In seeking to promote needed change, we must be careful to acknowledge the strength that we bring to the task.  The mix of conservatism and openness that marks universities, probably due in large measure to our commitment to collegial governance, is a remarkable asset, even as I acknowledge that it can lead to frustration, and a failure sometimes to seize the day.

The Confines of History and Nation

As suggested just above, university organization is very much an inherited trait.  Most of us have forms of collegial governance in relation to academic decision-making: senates or governing councils of some kind.  They often must work in conjunction with boards whose duties are focused on the financial and property aspects of the university.  Professors, even in those places where tenure has not been fully established or preserved, are best thought of as ‘independent contractors’; they are certainly not placed within a directive hierarchy.  University ‘management,’ at least in relation to the academic side of the house, is much more about encouragement and cajoling, and sometimes even shaming, than about ‘executing to plan.’  Concrete student expectations tend to be oriented to the short term, like keeping tuition low, improving access to courses, and not being too disrupted by physical changes to the campus, even when student visions are grand, like equality, environmental sustainability and fairness.  I doubt that this conundrum has changed all that much in the past couple of hundred years.

Prof. Thrift and other commentators have noted that the nation-based organization of universities is one of the central problems in promoting effective cross-border collaboration.  Of course, this too is historically contingent.  Just as the law of commerce was once fundamentally transnational (the medieval lex mercatoria), universities, though physically implanted in one place, were deeply cross-cultural.  We all know the stories of wandering scholars like Erasmus, who contributed to the academic life of Paris, Leuven, Cambridge, and Basel.  Although we are currently experiencing a re-discovery of the basic need for mobility amongst scholars, our national systems are not fully cooperating.  There are still many barriers to international recruitment, like impaired transferability of credentials (especially amongst the professions) and narrow-minded visa rules.  Moreover, many of our most important funding mechanisms (e.g. national research councils) remain inwardly focused, doing precious little to foster global collaboration.  For North American public universities, we are also confronted by sub-national constraints.  We are partially funded by state or provincial governments; even recruiting students from a few hundred kilometers away can be controversial.

The Risks of Hubris

Hubris may be the greatest flaw of universities, especially big ones with strong reputations.  We need to recognize that our own brilliant hiring and attraction of ‘top’ students cannot of itself create a critical mass of talent sufficient to solve fundamental global problems.  We must find partners.  We must collaborate, not only with other universities but with community groups, civil society organizations, industry, and government.  Even if we are to create effective cross-sectoral collaboration, we must also display some pragmatism, defining our ambitions with realism.  ‘Grand challenges,’ unless sufficiently specified and broken down, can turn into attempts to boil the ocean.

Chasing Ephemera

Rather than focusing intently on what needs to be improved in the world, university leadership can become preoccupied with superficial measures of reputation: university rankings; collecting prestigious partners; satisfying consumerist understandings of what student learning is all about.  Universities can also find themselves responding to the immediate rather than the important.  We are challenged by research funding vehicles that focus on short term wins or immediate political issues.  The pre-occupation with ‘commercialization’ of research in the first part of this century is a good example, but so too was the rush to create new computer science and electrical engineering spaces for students just as the tech bubble was bursting in the 1990s.  Perhaps we should have been pushing for more geographers, economists, political scientists, and sociologists to help us figure out how to promote a more sustainable world.

Models of Collaboration

So far, none of the university networks that sprang up at the beginning of this century has fulfilled its promise.  Attempts to jump-start research collaboration on crucial issues through these networks have seen modest success at best.  Let’s be honest.  Just because presidents and vice-chancellors say they would like something to happen on the research front does not make it happen, even if we can cobble together ‘seed’ funding.  Research networks typically arise in an organic fashion from the bottom up.  Our faculty and graduate students notice good work somewhere else, and they reach out at a conference or online.  Exchanges may begin, and true collaboration evolves.  Perhaps we can facilitate such organic growth, but we cannot direct it hierarchically.  Some research communities, like high energy physics and astronomy, have been very effective at creating multinational networks out of necessity: their need for large facilities. The same trend is now seen in life sciences and clinical research. In other words, researchers will naturally form networks to solve big problems with high infrastructure costs.

An example of a strong international research network is the structural genomics consortium, which has a solid base in Canada, but with partners globally.  It has attracted significant support for UK partners through the Welcome Trust, and is well established in Sweden. My own university is involved in outstanding collaborative work in the field of quantum materials with the University of Tokyo and the Max Planck Society.  In the field of climate change, which Prof. Thrift focuses upon, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has already created an influential experts group that already includes many university researchers, but we have not been able to link the IPPC effectively with broader university research agendas. We need to learn from successful global collaborations if we are to expand our reach to address the fundamental problems of our era.

Possible Ways Forward

Build from the bottom up. Where are there research teams, and groups of dedicated and inspired students, who are already working together across borders?  Can we support them, and help them find new partners in other places?  By starting with small, focused and effective networks we can build up confidence to move to more ambitious global platforms.  How do we seek out real commitment to specific efforts, rather than the ‘why not, we can do that too’ response?

Challenge National myopia. Those of us living and working in the USA or the European Union must make a specific effort to look outside the borders for partnerships that may be less obvious.  Those living in smaller states need to encourage our governments to change rules to allow research funding that crosses borders, even though we may seem like small players.  We should encourage national research councils to sponsor joint initiatives.  We all must do more to facilitate and fund migration of students and scholars.  If university folk get a chance to meet one another informally and over time, the chances of effective collaboration later are significantly enhanced.

Communicate authentically about strengths. None of our universities is good at everything.  There are many important global issues.  Where are we best placed to make a real difference, working with others?  In the case of my own university, I suspect that we are most likely to contribute in a major way to global solutions on climate change and sustainability more generally.  We could also make a real difference in collaborating on the prevention and control of infectious disease, and in intercultural understanding.  Our ability to lead in a global effort to understand and combat ideological fundamentalism is less obvious.  Like all universities, our expertise is not entirely balanced across all areas of research.  In UBC’s case, we have deep knowledge of Asia, but have invested little in creating knowledge of the Middle East.  This reaffirms the necessity of cooperation.

Help our students and alumni become global citizens. In focusing, as we almost inevitably do, on research as a means of addressing global problems, we should never forget that our most important ‘translators’ are our graduates.  Are our students being exposed to classes in which they really confront the problems of our era?  Are we doing enough to help students see how they could make a difference in the world?  Are we helping them connect with the wider community during their studies (e.g. through community-service learning)?  Are enough of our students being introduced to perspectives from other cultures, other parts of the world?

Walk the talk. Universities must learn to be more Janus-faced.  By that, I mean the opposite of hypocritical.  If we are really going to address the fundamental problems of global society, we can’t just research solutions and preach.  We need to act on our own campuses, and in our local communities, as well.  Are we leaders in economic, environmental and social sustainability?  How aggressive are our own greenhouse gas reduction targets?  Are we modeling best practices in intercultural dialogue?  Do our own workforce practices address issues of income inequality?

Stephen J. Toope

A University of Alberta response to ‘A question (about universities, global challenges, and an organizational-ethical dilemma)’

Editors’ note: today’s guest entry has been kindly developed by Indira V. Samarasekera, President and Vice-Chancellor, University of Alberta, Canada. Professor Samarasekera’s engaging entry is the eighth response to Nigel Thrift’s ‘A question (about universities, global challenges, and an organizational, ethical dilemma)‘, which was originally posted on 8 April 2010. The previous seven were provided by the people below and the entries can be linked to via their names:

Finally, please note that we will continue to welcome proposals for responses to Nigel Thrift’s ‘A question‘ through to the end of 2010.

Professor Samarasekera (pictured above) became Alberta’s 12th university president in 2005. Over a professional career spanning three decades, she has distinguished herself as one of Canada’s leading metallurgical engineers. As a Fulbright-Hays Scholar, she earned an MSc from the University of California in 1976, and, in 1980, she was granted a PhD in metallurgical engineering from the University of British Columbia.  She was awarded the Order of Canada in 2002 in recognition of outstanding contributions to steel process engineering. Professor Samarasekera is also Chair of the National Institute of Nanotechnology (NINT), and sits on the Board of Directors of the Bank of Nova Scotia (Scotiabank) and the Public Policy Forum of Canada.

Kris Olds & Susan Robertson

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I have been following with interest the initial entry in this series by Nigel Thrift and the responses that followed.  The internationalization of large, public research universities leading to more rapid research advancements that address what he terms the “long emergency” is a topic I am passionate about and explored in my opinion piece in Nature (‘Universities need a new social contract,’ 12 November 2009).

I agree with Professor Thrift that universities—and university researchers—must be the “primary intellectual fire-fighters” in the emerging global crisis which is unprecedented in complexity, universality, and potential for comprehensive devastation.  It’s time universities and the “nation-states” that consider us their “national assets” recognize our mutual ethical obligation to focus on both the short and long-term emergencies we see gathering force, however uncomfortable that may make our political or academic colleagues who might prefer to respond with semantics exercises or further retreat into their cloistered halls.

Goal: Arming Future Generations with Advanced Solutions

International collaborative engagement of public research universities in global issues is now imperative if we are ever to arrest any of the threats to nearly every field that sustains life on our planet: water quality, air quality, food production, sanitation, climate and environment, health and nutrition, disaster prevention and relief, land and sea wildlife preservation, energy resources and consumption, economic stability, international security, and more.

The contributions we can make—that our nations are expecting us to make—touch every area of our mission:  teaching, research, and service.  As many of the thought-provoking responses to Professor Thrift’s question noted, our paramount responsibility is preparing students to serve in the quest for solutions, whether as future development practitioners, as researchers, or simply as ethical, informed global citizens who care and support those on the front lines of humanitarian and scientific efforts.

Student and faculty exchanges, study abroad, international student recruiting, rescuing oppressed and threatened scholars, and advancing current curriculum offerings with creative new interdisciplinary global studies programs and program components—the human knowledge side of this equation—is indeed very important, primarily for the long run.  It is the upcoming generation that will have to face the accelerating consequences of the threats attracting our attention now.  All universities’ first organizational-ethical dilemma is to organize optimally to prepare learners to lead optimally effective initiatives in every challenged field worldwide.  Their lives and the lives of generations ahead depend on it.

But what will they have in their arsenal to strengthen what Professor Thrift calls their “war footing” if we don’t envision, fund, and facilitate—not only research, but the often more expensive push into development and application of scientific and technological discoveries into practical, effective solutions.  These are what workers on the front lines in future generations will need to arrest damage, repair and prevent future damage, and improve and sustain universal quality of life on our planet.

Which returns me to the importance of creating a new social contract around research that recognizes that we face a universal imperative for cross border research collaboration that challenges all nation-states to step up with their public and private universities, not just in North America, but around the world.

We need to get creative and follow the lead of many of our individual academic researchers, who are now collaborating across geographic and discipline boundaries to concentrate the best minds, research facilities, and joint initiatives on the big issues threatening global survival.

As Dr. Peter Stearns fears in his response, creation of this new social contract and ways to fund research and development yet to be done will “entail substantial investment.” That’s why we and our nation-states must collaborate to fund large, complex research programs that address the most threatening problems, where the global community must find solutions fast, and use of those solutions must span all borders.

At the University of Alberta, our founding promise of “uplifting the whole people” guides us in our ethical commitment to forge ahead toward our vision of a world of expedited interdisciplinary, inter-institutional, international research.  We have lit a fire under our former structural inertia and, over the past few years, have been trying some new things I would like to share.

So I return to Professor Thrift’s original questions:  “Are universities optimally organized to address the fundamental ‘global challenges’ that exist, and at the pace these challenges deserve to be addressed?  If not, what should be done about this organizational-ethical dilemma?”

The answer is “no,” but here are some examples of what we believe is moving The University of Alberta in the right direction.

Helmholtz Alberta Initiative

In September 2009, the Helmholtz Association of German Research Centers and the University of Alberta established a five-year agreement creating the Helmholtz Alberta Initiative to combine their scientific research capabilities in tackling the environmental issues facing Alberta’s oilsands.

This initiative was the result of years of diplomatic and information sharing between University of Alberta leaders and academic researchers and their counterparts in Germany, the German government, German research universities, and German research centers.  From these years of conversations, common goals were identified, possibilities were defined, alignments were explored, and eventually graduate student and faculty exchanges, joint research projects, and collaborations with industry, both in Canada and Germany, were established and the initiative is well under way.

In fact, it is already expanding beyond the technological and environmental issues facing oilsands development—which  are also concerns for coal operations in both Alberta and Germany—to  include health sciences research initiatives.

As part of this partnership, in addition to the resources invested in the initiative by the University of Alberta and the Helmholtz Association, the Alberta government invested $25 million, which came from the Canadian federal government’s ecoTrust program.

This example demonstrates both the sophistication of effort, involving many levels of conversation from researchers to university leaders to heads of nation-states and the time required—years of delicate deliberations—to put together such a collaboration.  But it also demonstrates it can be done.

Li Ka Shing Institute for Virology

In addition to collaboration of nation-states, we have looked to international foundations and philanthropists to be partners in helping us fund research of international importance to our university, their mission, and the world.

In February 2010, the Li Ka Shing Canada Foundation gave us $28 million, the largest cash donation in our history, to establish the Li Ka Shing Institution of Virology. The power of this gift was amplified by $52.5 million in related funding from the Government of Alberta to help University of Alberta researchers in their quest to treat, cure, and prevent virus-based diseases worldwide.

Part of the foundation’s donation will extend the university’s connections to Shantou University Medical College, with the launch of the Sino-Canadian Exchange Program—a joint PhD program between the two medical schools.  With the creation of the institute, the University of Alberta joins the East West Alliance, a portal into a global network of medical research institutions including Stanford University, University of California-Berkeley, Oxford and Cambridge universities in the United Kingdom, and the Institut Pasteur in France, among others.

Like the Helmholtz Alberta Initiative, the funding, partnerships, aligning of objectives and resources, and establishment of inter-organizational trust (another dimension of the organizational-ethical dilemma) took years, involving many levels of conversation.  But again, it demonstrates that interdisciplinary, inter-institutional, internationally organized and funded collaborations can be done when a university establishes its international vision, communicates it well, and dedicates the institution’s will to achieving it.

Eight Considerations toward “Optimally Organizing” for Results

I present these examples, not as a model or fait accompli but rather as an insight into a process the University of Alberta took to identify the infrastructure that we needed and put it to the test.  We began by defining a vision of what we thought might be done to build on decades of less formal relationships established between our nation-state, our administrative leaders, and our faculty leaders and credible representatives of the two countries:  Germany and China.

Once we were in agreement on our vision, we then asked: “ How will we get there?”  Like many large universities, our “international” emphasis to date had been primarily on recruiting students and faculty, both here and abroad, for undergraduate and graduate studies, research fellowships, faculty exchanges, and study abroad.

In all, we identified eight considerations that we had to address in order to move toward more optimal organization for reaching our goals.  Again, I don’t propose that University of Alberta has created the model.  However, I think it’s important for any university that wants to help shape the new social contract internationally to begin with these considerations, identify others that might apply  as well to its institution, and craft the specific vision and organization it needs for its international research collaborations to succeed.

  1. Prioritize and focus: it’s the quality and purposefulness, not quantity of international partnerships that counts and yields results.  Your institution can’t be everywhere and everything to everybody, internally and externally, although it is tempting to try.
  2. Sharpen your in-house international expertise and align it to your vision and execution/cultivation objectives.  You rarely can reassign international student recruiters to be researchers, organizers, and ambassadors in establishing these relationships.  It takes international relationship pros with contacts and experience collaborating with your subject area specialists to advance substantive, productive initiatives.
  3. Demand top executive engagement and ambassadorship in the cultivation and formation of relationships.  The top people in international institutions want to meet, know, and negotiate with the top people from your institution.
  4. Develop your nation-state’s engagement and support. Without that, your ability to command attention and negotiate international funding is severely limited.
  5. Recognize that tapping into nation-state partnership funding or international philanthropic sources requires demonstrating mastery of diplomacy as much—perhaps even more—than demonstrating mastery of academic collaboration. Make sure your staff can prepare your ambassadors with statements of purpose, backgrounders, talking points, and protocols specific to every encounter.
  6. Develop or acquire skills in international negotiation for individual audiences, nation-states, and academic disciplines at all levels of discussion between your institution and your potential international partners.
  7. Organize internally to engage, communicate, and exchange information on your initiatives to your university community, focusing on communicating your leadership’s focus on few partnerships well done, so your international initiatives do not appear to be “gad flying” to academics, students, and others in your university and community.
  8. Persist in maintaining, advancing, and sustaining relationships with prospective international partners with whom you see potential for a mutually beneficial relationship.  Remember, international university partnerships and funding are sought by many institutions worldwide, large and small. Your institution, objectives, and investment in forming any relationship can easily fall off the table if you don’t persist in keeping it front and center until—and after—it delivers your desired result.

Indira V. Samarasekera

A Universiti Sains Malaysia response to ‘A question (about universities, global challenges, and an organizational-ethical dilemma)’

Editors’ note: today’s guest entry has been kindly developed by Professor Dzulkifli Abdul Razak, Vice-Chancellor, Universiti Sains Malaysia, a position he has held since 2000. Professor Dzulkifli’s post is the seventh response to Nigel Thrift’s ‘A question (about universities, global challenges, and an organizational, ethical dilemma)‘, which was originally posted on 8 April 2010.  As noted in last week’s entry (‘A Columbia University/Millennium Promise response to ‘A question (about universities, global challenges, and an organizational-ethical dilemma)”, we are accepting contributions to the discussion through to the end of 2010.

Professor Dzulkifli Abdul Razak (pictured to the right) is presently serving as Vice-President of the International Association of Universities (IAU) – a UNESCO- affiliated organisation. He served as President of Association of Southeast Asia Institutions of Higher Learning (ASAIHL) from 2007-2008, and is also a member of Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) – Advisory Education Hub Committee, Executive Council of Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU), and also Advisory Committee of World Universities Forum (WUF). He has served as a World Heath Organisation (WHO) Expert Advisory Panel on Drug Policies and Management since 1995, and the WHO Scientific Advisory Committee on Tobacco Product Regulation (2000-2002). At the national level, he is the Chair of Malaysian Vice-Chancellors’/Rector’s Committee, and Chair of Malaysian Examination Council, Co-chair of Malaysian and serves as Advisor to the National Higher Education Research Institute (IPPTN). Outside the academic arena, he writes regularly for his weekly column in the New Straits Times, and, fortnightly, in The Edge, where he shares his views on a host of national and global issues.

Our sincere thanks to Professor Dzulkifli Abdul Razak for developing this illuminating entry, and the first response on behalf of an Asian university.

Kris Olds & Susan Robertson

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I cannot agree more with Nigel Thrift when he posed ‘A question (about universities, global challenges, and an organizational, ethical dilemma)‘. Coming from the Global South invariably this question resonates with me, more so in articulating the raison d’être of a university in the 21st century. In short, is a university modelled on the days of the industrial age – taking more or less a metaphor of factory – still relevant for the post-industrial age with its unique global challenges and ethical dilemma? In other words, can a factory-like metaphor with its de-humanizing tendencies adequately support for the future? What James Martin termed as “The 21st Century Revolution.”

Our search for “answers” to such a question started with a Scenario Planning Workshop in May 2005. It seeks to understand what would the scenario for a university be in the year 2025? We came out with six scenarios, including a “Dead University” scenario – where the present setup fails to respond to the need of the future! This scenario is discarded since we are desirous to bring about a change; but the question is: which way forward?

After almost 15 months of university-wide consultations and soul-searching activities, backed by the emerging trends globally – not much different from that of Thrift’s, only more intense, we agreed on “The University in a Garden “ scenario – which is now the tagline of the University (see Universiti Sains Malaysia’s publication: Constructing Future Higher Education Scenarios – Insights from Universiti Sains Malaysia, 2007 (a review of this report can be downloaded here).

In summary, Constructing Future Higher Education Scenarios – Insights from Universiti Sains Malaysia concerns itself with creating a sustainable future, and how university must change to cope with this new future. Here the focus is about the prevailing disparities in all facets of societal well-being as depicted by the United Nation Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which will end in 2015 – barely five years from now. Most of the MDGs are age-old issues of extreme poverty, very simple and common diseases, basic education, malnourishment and hunger, infant and maternal health and mortality – many of which are no longer heard of in the Global North! Yet, they are very real in the South with all its accompanying shortcomings and vulnerabilities. Interestingly the last and eighth goal of MDGs is about Global Partnership! But, what kind of partnership and for what purpose? It comes back to the question what are universities for in the 21st century!

To be sure, it is more an issue of awareness and will, than knowledge or technology. Many of challenges posed by MDGs can be solved, if there is a will to share based on a truly global partnership. To quote the UN Secretary-General in his called for a special UN Summit in September 20-22, 2010: “Our world possesses the knowledge and the resources to achieve the MDGs. Our challenge today is to agree on an action agenda to achieve the MDGs.” Similarly for the universities that are keen in such a mission! First off, how many universities have MDGs on their radar screen as part of the educational framework?; let alone directed to fulfilling such global agenda. Perhaps, this is one of the organizational-ethical dilemmas alluded to by Thrift. Indeed, how many more have missed the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development that was launched in 2005 (coinciding with USM Scenario Planning initiative) as a way to engage in elucidating this dilemma.

In that context, USM has taken a new approach with a new vision: Transforming Higher Education for a Sustainable Tomorrow. This is part of a larger agenda to redefine “excellence” in line with the challenges of the future under Malaysia’s Accelerated Programme for Excellence (APEX) of which USM is currently undergoing. In so doing we recognized the distraction that Thrift referred to when he wrote: “…as if their [universities] chief raison d’être 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.”  As such, our new mission now reads: “USM is a pioneering, transdisciplinary research intensive university that empowers future talents and enables the bottom billions to transform their socio-economic well-being.”

This is our second year on the APEX journey, and we are gradually discovering that the factory-like metaphor is in main dysfunctional to serve the need for the future, at least in the Global South. In that regards the question raised by Thrift can only be adequately articulated if we are bold enough to create a new metaphor for the university of the future! Short of that, the “Dead University” scenario as mentioned above may seem more likely.

Dzulkifli Abdul Razak

A Columbia University/Millennium Promise response to ‘A question (about universities, global challenges, and an organizational-ethical dilemma)’

Editors’ note: today’s guest entry has been kindly developed by Dr. Lucia Rodriguez, director of the Global Master’s in Development Practice Secretariat, Columbia University. For the past 20 years Dr. Rodriguez (pictured to the right) has been involved in the field of education, including at Teachers College and the Department of Bilingual/Bicultural Education (Columbia University), and the United Nations Association of the USA (UNA-USA). A native of Cuba, Dr. Rodriguez completed her undergraduate work at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and received her Doctorate in Education from Teachers College, Columbia University.

Dr. Rodriguez’s entry focuses on an innovative global educational initiative that has much potential to generate substantive, organizational, pedagogical and technological lessons. The Global Master’s in Development Practice (MDP) is a two-year graduate degree program involving the participation of 22 universities around the world. Further information about the MDP is available below, and also in ‘Some Important Lessons for Global Academic Innovation’ by John W. McArthur (Huffington Post, 17 May 2010) and ‘Needed: a New Generation of Problem Solvers‘ by John W. McArthur and Jeffrey Sachs (Chronicle of Higher Education, 18 June 2009). Our sincere thanks to Dr. Rodriquez, and John W. McArthur and Vibhuti Jain (both of Millennium Promise), for enabling the development of this entry.

This entry is the sixth response to Nigel Thrift’s ‘A question (about universities, global challenges, and an organizational, ethical dilemma)‘. The first five entries were provided by the people below and can be linked to via their names:

Finally, please note that we will continue to welcome proposals for responses to Nigel Thrift’s ‘A question‘ through to the end of 2010.

Kris Olds & Susan Robertson

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Nigel Thrift’s recent post asked the question: Are the world’s universities doing all they can to prepare their students for the complex challenges facing this interconnected and interdependent global community?  Speaking as the director of the Global Master’s in Development Practice Secretariat, I believe that, although progress has occurred, much more is needed.

We are, indeed, in an urgent situation where the role of universities needs to be clarified if they are to tackle successfully the task of preparing global citizens, workers and leaders.  This urgency to innovate, to think “outside of the box,” to do things differently is the thing for which thousands of the world’s suffering people are clamoring.

Extreme Poverty and Urgent Need

Nihima, a fictitious name that represents many of the world’s most vulnerable children, epitomizes the challenges of the many voiceless people around the world in need of extreme intervention.  Like many poor people, Nihima spends her days sprawled on a mud floor with dried leaves for a roof.  She is a 13-year-old girl who recounts, through tears of despair, her life as the oldest sister, and now main caregiver, of four brothers and sisters.  Her father left the family long ago. Her mother followed shortly after.  Both of them were swallowed by the big city with the promise of returning for the family after earning some money.  Four years later, nothing has been heard from either parent.

I met Nihima several years ago, abandoned and tired.  She shared the difficulties of being a sister-parent of four at the tender age of 13.  She does not go to school because she does not have shoes.  She spends most of the day begging for kernels of millet or dried cassava or whatever she can find to feed her brothers and sisters.  What little energy she has left she spends thinking of how to help her younger sister, a weak and sickly child.

Help did not come soon enough to Nihima’s hut.  All the help funneled into this rural village was well-intentioned, but not comprehensive enough.  Many of the people on the ground, the experts in education, health and agriculture deployed to economically depressed areas, could not go beyond offering solutions that were singularly focused and limiting, failing to address the broad challenges of sustainable development.

In her day-to-day struggles, Nihima is like many of the developing world’s destitute.  She joins more than half of the world’s population who live on less than $2 day.  She, too, is one of the millions of people who cannot read a book or sign their names.  And, if her socio-economic situation does not change soon, her brothers and sisters may join the many vulnerable children who make up the 8 million preventable disease fatalities that occur worldwide each year.

The Global Master’s in Development Practice Program

Universities have a role in training and developing the problem-solvers of the world.  In particular, we believe that practitioners, the people at the forefront of all of these global problems, need to be prepared to confront the multifaceted challenges of sustainable development.

The most disenfranchised people—the poor subsistence farmer, the urban slum dweller, the ailing HIV father and mother and their vulnerable children—need our help now.  For their survival, people like Nihima often depend on the professional knowledge, skills and attributes of development practitioners.  These professionals are often the only hope for poor, suffering people.  Although most practitioners have completed the most rigorous training in sustainable development, few are prepared for the complex challenges they will encounter in the field.  They realize that their knowledge or specialization in a particular area is not enough.  Once in the field, they understand that the interwoven challenges of sustainable development can be solved only by connecting insights from a range of disciplines.

It was this realization that more is needed and the urgency to bolster the leadership and training of development practitioners that brought eminent practitioners and academics across a range of development fields together.  Former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo; global health leaders Helene Gayle, Jim Kim, and Jeffrey Koplan; former UNICEF Executive Director Ann Veneman; Nobel Laureate RK Pachauri; ground-breaking ecologist Virgilio Viana; prominent agronomists Freddie Kwesiga and Alice Pell; and African academic leaders Goolam Mohamedbhai and Livingstone Luboobi are some of those who collaborated.  As members of the International Commission on Education for Sustainable Development Practice, a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation-supported initiative, the Commission provided the insights and recommendations that led to the development of the global Master’s in Development Practice (MDP) programs.

The Global Master’s in Development Practice is a two-year graduate degree program providing students with the skills and knowledge required to better identify and address the global challenges of sustainable development, such as poverty, population, health, conservation, and climate change.  The MDP students take core courses in health sciences, natural sciences and engineering, social sciences and management.

In addition, MDP students take the Global Classroom: Integrated Approaches to Sustainable Development Practice course. This is an information technology-based, interactive course that fosters cross-border and cross-disciplinary collaboration and allows students and professors to participate in collective assignments and learning experiences.  For instance, the first “pilot” global classroom addressed a range of core issues from health, economics, policy, and agriculture, to ethics and education.  It involved the participation of 16 universities around the world.  All course materials, including the syllabus, readings, videos, and assignments, were uploaded to a common course website.  Commission members served as guest experts and provided taped lectures for each of the weekly sessions.  Students from around the world viewed the taped lectures in advance and then joined their classmates and professors for weekly, live sessions.  The weekly sessions were conducted through web-based conferencing software that enables partner universities to log-on free of charge.  Each participating classroom is then able to activate their camera.  The “global classroom” screen becomes filled with live videos of all of the partner universities.

Furthermore, all MDP students participate in two hands-on field training and internship experiences.  Only by broadening the MDP students’ educational and practical training will these students be able to more effectively understand and address the root causes of extreme poverty and confront the challenges of sustainable development.  For more information on the MDP curriculum, please go to www.globalmdp.org.

The Global Network of Master’s in Development Practice Programs

Two years after the launch of the International Commission on Education for Sustainable Development Practice report and its recommendations, the global network of MDP programs comprises 22 universities in 15 countries and five continents.  Many other academic institutions are soliciting membership into the network.  These universities are not only thinking about the question of how to address the various worldwide disparities, but are working together to address this problem.

The creation of the Master’s in Development Practice program acknowledges that addressing extreme poverty and sustainable development throughout the world requires a concerted effort by experts using a cross-disciplinary approach.  The first 22 universities in the network are:

  1. BRAC Development Institute, BRAC University (Dhaka, Bangladesh)
  2. CATIE (Turrialba, Costa Rica)
  3. Columbia University (New York City, New York)
  4. Emory University (Atlanta, Georgia)
  5. James Cook University (Cairns and Townsville, Australia)
  6. Sciences Po (Paris, France)
  7. TERI (The Energy and Resources Institute) University (New Delhi, India)
  8. Trinity College Dublin and University College Dublin (Dublin, Ireland)
  9. Tsinghua University (Beijing, China)
  10. Universidad de Los Andes (Bogota, Colombia)
  11. Universidade Federal Rural do Rio de Janeiro (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil)
  12. University of Botswana (Gaborone, Botswana)
  13. University of California, Berkeley (Berkeley, California)
  14. University of California, Davis (Davis, California)
  15. University of Cheikh Anta Diop, UCAD (Dakar, Senegal)
  16. University of Denver (Denver, Colorado)
  17. University of Florida (Gainesville, Florida)
  18. University of Ibadan (Ibadan, Nigeria)
  19. University of Peradeniya (Peradeniya, Sri Lanka)
  20. University of Minnesota (Minneapolis, Minnesota)
  21. University of Waterloo (Waterloo, Ontario)
  22. University of Winnipeg (Winnipeg, Manitoba)

Columbia University accepted its first cohort of students in 2009. Twelve other universities will do the same this September and the remaining in 2011. Although the core MDP curriculum integrates the four pillars of health, natural, social and management sciences, each university approaches the MDP through a highly diverse set of curricular emphasis.  The University of Winnipeg, for example, focuses on indigenous populations and the University of Botswana offers an executive education-type program for full-time professionals who wish to complete the MDP degree while still working.  To learn more about each MDP program’s curricular focus, please go to www.globalmdp.org.

We anticipate that the several hundred MDP students trained each year will not only have a broader understanding of the challenges of development, but as leaders will be able to draw on their interdisciplinary training for both policy and practice insights.  They will be the “specialists” of interdisciplinary studies in the field of sustainable development who can speak and understand the language of the various development experts often found in the field working in isolation from one another.

These MDP graduates will go on to professional trajectories within government ministries, bi-lateral and multi-lateral donor organizations, non-governmental organizations, private sector companies, foundations, or UN agencies.  As practitioners, they will be able to propose solutions to the challenges of poverty that are informed by multidisciplinary and multisectoral perspectives.

Benefits of the Global Network

Imagine a student at Sciences Po participating in the MDP field experience organized by Universidade Federal Rural do Rio de Janeiro or a faculty member from the University of Ibadan teaching a course at Tsinghua University’s MDP program.   Through the global network of MDP programs, this and more will be possible.  MDP students and professors will be able to reap the benefits of a global network by participating in exchanges and field experiences offered by the various MDP programs.  In addition, it is expected that, all MDP programs will develop their own Global Classroom course on topics as varied as public health and agricultural systems, which will be offered to students at the 22 MDP programs in the global network.

Furthermore, in order to take advantage of the global resources these 22 universities offer and to ensure that all MDP students receive a rigorous and comprehensive education, the global network of MDP programs will also benefit from the development of an open-source online resource center.  Once developed, this resource center will welcome global contributions from the MDP programs and provide academic institutions with a comprehensive repository of MDP-related educational resources and tools, including case studies, lectures, and e-journals on sustainable development practice.

The benefits of participating in the global network are numerous.  The above-mentioned are just a few.  No longer can conservationist, water specialist, agronomist, and public health specialist working to alleviate poverty depend on narrow expertise alone.  Cross-disciplinary and cross-sectoral knowledge and rigorous, hands-on, field experiences are needed. Nigel Thrift can be certain that universities in the global network of MDP programs are doing all they can and more to prepare their students for the complex challenges facing this interconnected and interdependent global community.

Lucia Rodriguez

The temporal rhythm of academic life in a globalizing era

The globalization of higher education and research is associated with a wide variety of shifts and changes, many of which (e.g., branch campuses) are debated about in relatively intense fashion. Other aspects of this transition, though, receive little attention, including the temporal rhythm of academic life; a rhythm being simultaneously maintained, extended, reduced, and bracketed.

In many ways not much has changed for we continue to follow a seasonal rhythm: the build up to term, the fall and spring cycles (punctuated by brief breaks of variable lengths), and then a longer summer ‘break’. When I was an undergraduate my summers were associated with work at fish canneries, mineral prospecting, and drill camps (throughout British Columbia and the Yukon) – the legacy of living amidst a resource-based staples economy.

Summers during graduate student life in Canada and the UK were focused on research, with some holiday time. And summers now, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the US (pictured to the right, at dusk), are associated with a mix of research and writing time, university service, and holiday time with my family. But the real temporal anchor is the twin semester (or quarters for some) cycle split by a summer break.

Scaling up, the rhythm of institutional life follows aspects of this seasonal cycle, albeit with noteworthy national and institutional variations. For example, research administrators kick into higher gear in the US and UK (where I am a visiting professor) during the summer and winter breaks before important national funding council deadlines, yet even research active university libraries shut down for much of the summer in France for the annual holiday cycle. Human resources managers everywhere get busy when new faculty and staff arrive in the July/August and December/January windows of time. We all welcome and say goodbye to many of our students at key windows of time throughout the year, whilst the term/semester/quarter cycle shapes, in bracing ways, the rhythms of contract (sessional) lecturers.

In an overall sense, then, it is this year-to-year seasonal rhythm, with fuzzy edges, that continues to propel most of us forward.

The globalization of higher education and research, though, is also extending, reducing, and bracketing our senses of time, as well as the structural rhythmic context in which we (as faculty members, students, and staff) are embedded.

For example, research on key ‘global challenges’ – something a variety of contributors to GlobalHigherEd have been reflecting about, and something international consortia (e.g., the Worldwide Universities Network) are seeking to facilitate – is inevitably long-term in nature. This is in part because of the nature of the issues being addressed, but also because of the practicalities and complications associated with developing international collaborative research teams. This said, government funding councils are resolutely national in orientation — they have a very hard time matching up budgetary and review cycles across borders and tying them up to the agendas of large international collaborative teams (CERN and a few other exemplars aside). So while research agendas and relationships need to be long-term in nature, we have really yet to develop the infrastructure to support a longer-term temporal rhythm when it comes to international collaborative research on ‘global challenges’.

Long-term thinking is also evident in the strategic thinking being undertaken by the European Commission regarding the role of universities in the European Higher Education Area (EHEA), as well as the European Research Area (ERA), in the context of the Lisbon agenda. Related forms of long-term thinking are evident in a whole host of agencies in the US regarding ‘non-traditional’ security matters regarding issues like dependency upon foreign graduates (e.g., ‘the coming storm’), comparative ‘research footprints’, and the like.

Moving the other way, the reduction and/or bracketing of temporal rhythms is most obvious in the higher education media, as well as the for-profit world of higher education, or in the non-profit world once endowments are created, and bonds are sold.

On the media front, for example, higher education outlets like US-based Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education, and the UK-based Times Higher Education, are all active on a daily basis now with website updates, Twitter feeds, and once- to twice-daily email updates. The unhurried rhythms of our pre-digital era are long gone, and the pick-up in pace might even intensify.

On the for-profit and ratings front, stock value and revenue is tracked with increased precision, quarterly and annual reports are issued, and university data from networks of acquired universities are bundled together, while fund managers track every move of for-profit education firms. Interesting side effects can emerge, including replicant or Agent Smith-like dynamics where multiple offerings of honorary degrees to Nelson Mandela emerge within one network of universities controlled by the for-profit Laureate International Universities.

Ratings agencies such as Moody’s are also developing increased capacity to assess the financial health of higher education institutions, with a recent drive, for example, to “acquire liquidity data to provide a more direct and accurate gauge of the near-term liquidity standing” of each rated institution (on this issue see ‘Moody’s Probes Colleges on Cash’, Inside Higher Ed, 16 June 2010).

Or take the case of national governments, which are beginning to develop the capacity to track, analyse and communicate about international student flow vis a vis export earnings (see recent data below from Australian Education International’s Research Snapshot, May 2010).

This bracketing of time, which takes place in the Australian case on a combined monthly/annual cycle so as to enhance strategic planning and risk assessment at institutional, state, national, and international scales, has become both more thorough and more regular.

These are but a few examples of the new rhythms of our globalizing era. Assuming you agree with me that the temporal rhythm of academic life is being simultaneously maintained, extended, reduced, and bracketed, who has the capability to adjust rhythms, for what purposes, and with what effects?

I’ll explore aspects of this reworking of temporal rhythms in a subsequent entry on the global rankings of universities; a benchmarking ‘technology’ (broadly defined) that bundles together universities around the globe into annual cycles of data requests, data provision, and highly mediatized launches.

Kris Olds