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