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


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

University associations and the enhancement of capabilities for a globalizing era

prague21march20091I recently returned from Prague, where I attended the 5th annual conference of the European University Association (EUA).  It was very well run by the EUA, professionally hosted by Charles University (Universitas Carolina), and the settings (Charles University, Municipal Hall, Prague Castle) were breathtaking.

My role was to contribute to EUA deliberations on the theme of Global Outreach – Europe’s Interaction with the Wider World.  I’ll develop a summary version of my presentation for GlobalHigherEd in the next week once I catch up on some duties here in Madison.

Some aspects of the meeting discussions complemented some recent news items (see below), as well as our 9 March entry ‘Collapsing branch campuses: time for some collective action?’ The thread that ties them all together is capability.

At a broad regional scale, the EUA, and its many partners, have had the capability to bring the 46 country European Higher Education Area (EHEA) into being. Of course the development process is very uneven, but the sweep of change over the last decade, brought to life from the bottom (i.e. the university-level) up, is really quite astonishing, regardless of whether you agree with the aims or not.

Now, capabilities in the case of the EHEA, relates to the capacity of universities, respective national ministries, the EU, and select stakeholders to work towards crafting an “overarching structure”, with associated qualifications frameworks, that incorporates these elements:

  • Three Degree Cycle
  • The European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS)
  • The Diploma Supplement
  • Quality Assurance
  • Recognition [of qualifications]
  • Joint Degrees

Ambitious, yes, but the distributed capabilities have clearly existed to create the EHEA, as will become abundantly clear next month when the Ministerial Conference is held at Leuven and Louvain-la-Neuve in Belgium.

columbiauCapabilities have also been evident this week in the case of Columbia University, which just announced that it was opening up a network of “Global Centers”, with the first two located in Beijing and Amman. As the press release puts it:

While some U.S. universities have built new branch campuses and degree-granting schools abroad, Columbia is taking a different path. Columbia Global Centers will provide flexible regional hubs for a wide range of activities and resources intended to enhance the quality of research and learning at the University and around the world. The goal is to establish a network of regional centers in international capitals to collaboratively address complex global challenges by bringing together scholars, students, public officials, private enterprise, and innovators from a broad range of fields.

“When social challenges are global in their consequences, the intellectual firepower of the world’s great universities must be global in its reach,” said Kenneth Prewitt, vice president of Columbia Global Centers and Carnegie Professor of Public Affairs. “Columbia’s network of Global Centers will bring together some of the world’s finest scholars to address some of the world’s most pressing problems.”

And in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Prewitt had this to say:

“We’re trying to figure out how to go from a series of very strong bilateral relationships and take that to the next phase, not replace it,” said Kenneth Prewitt, director of Columbia’s Office of Global Centers.

As the world becomes more interconnected, many of the most pressing issues of the day are best approached not within a bilateral framework, but by groups of scholars and researchers from diverse backgrounds bringing their expertise to bear in novel ways, Mr. Prewitt said.

See a brief slideshow on the Amman center here, and download the inaugural program launch poster here


The Columbia story is worth being viewed in conjunction with our previous entry on ‘Collapsing branch campuses’ (an indicator of limited capability), ‘NYU Abu Dhabi: realizing the global university?’ (an indicator of strong capability, albeit enabled by the oil-induced largesse of Abu Dhabi), and a series of illuminating entries by Lloyd Armstrong in Changing Higher Education on the Columbia story and some associated entries on ‘modularity’ in higher education and research:

As Armstrong notes:

“Modularity” is an ill-defined concept as used in discussing globalization of the modern corporation, in that it may mean very different things to different organizations at different times.  Generally, however, it has to do with breaking a process into separable blocks (modules) that have sufficiently well defined inputs and outputs that the blocks can later be fit together and  recombined into a complete process. “Globalization” then has to do with accessing resources world-wide to produce those modules in the most effective and efficient manner.

Now, in some future entries we will be exploring the uses and limitations of concepts like scale, networks, chains, modularity, and so on.  But what I’d like to do now, is think in a n-1 way, and beg the question: do universities have the capability to think beyond their comfort zones (e.g., about modularity; about academic freedom in distant territories; about the strategic management of multi-sited operations; about the latest advances in technology for capacity building abroad or international collaborative teaching; about double and joint degrees; about the implications of regionalism and interregionalism in higher education and research), especially when their resources are constrained and ‘mission creep’ is becoming a serious problem?

Most universities, I would argue, do not. Columbia clearly does, as does NYU, but few universities have the material, political, and relational (as in social and cultural capital) resources that these elite private universities do.

Perhaps the EHEA phenomenon, the role of the EUA in shaping it, can generate some lessons about the critically important dimension of capability, especially when universities are not resourced like a Columbia.

euaplenary1The framing and implementation of ambitious university visions to internationalize, to globalize, at a university scale, arguably needs to be better linked to the resources and viewpoints provided by associations and consortia, at least the better staffed and well run ones. There are other options, of course, including private consultants, ad-hoc thematic expert groups, and so on, but the enhancement of capabilities is evident in the case of the EUA, especially with respect to the construction of the EHEA on behalf of its constituent members, the creation of fora for the sharing of best practices, and the creation of new institutions (e.g., the EUA Council for Doctoral Education). It might be worth noting, too, that the EUA clearly benefits from having the European Commission‘s backing on regarding a variety of initiatives, and that the Commission is a key stakeholder in the Bologna Process.

The other side of this equation is, though, the need for universities to actually engage with, support, feed, draw in, and respect their associations. Given the denationalization process, associations and consortia are also being stretched. Some are having to cope with resource limitations vis a vis mission creep, and the uneven involvement of certain types of member universities. I might be wrong, but it seems as if some sub-national, national and regional associations around the world have a challenging time drawing in, and therefore representing, their better off universities.  This is a problematic situation for it has the potential to generate ‘middling zone’ outcomes at a collective level.

Yet, is it not in the interest of higher education systems to have very strong, effective, and powerful associations of universities? And if the elite universities in any system do not look out for their system, versus take the university view, or a segmented view (e.g., a selective association or consortia), the broader context in which elite universities operate may become less conducive to operate within.

euasummaryThe globalization of higher education and research is generating unprecedented challenges for universities, and higher education systems, around the world. This means we need think through the evolving higher education landscape, and the role of associations and consortia in it, for the vast majority of universities simply cannot act like Columbia University.

If capabilities are limited, then associations and consortia have the capacity to enable reflective thinking, and broader and more powerful university voices to emerge.  Indeed, it might also be worth thinking through how all of the world’s associations and consortia relate (or not) to each other, and what might be done to transform what is really a national/international architecture into a more global architecture; one associated with strategic inter-association and inter-consortia dialogue and sustained collective action.

And in a future entry, I’ll explore how some universities are seeking to enhance capabilities via the creation of new joint centers and experimental laboratories with distant universities and non-university stakeholders. While this process has to be managed carefully, the bringing together of complementary resources (e.g., human and otherwise) on campuses can unsettle, though with positive effects, and thereby build capabilities.

But for now, I’ll close off by highlighting the International Association of Universities’ (IAU) 3rd Global Meeting of Associations of Universities (GMAIII) in Guadalajara, Mexico, 20-22 April 2009. This event is shaping up to provide plenty of food for fodder regarding the capabilities issue, as well as many other topics. University associations are being tasked, and are tasking themselves, to enhance capabilities for a globalizing era. Yet, for many, this is relatively uncharted terrain.

Kris Olds

The Global Colloquium of University Presidents: events for global challenges?

University presidents (or their equivalents – vice-chancellors, rectors), especially those associated with universities that seek to be at the forefront of the internationalization/globalization agenda, are searching for suitable mechanisms to make their voices heard, create momentum for change, and generate discursive effects at a wide variety of scales. In other words university presidents seek material change (e.g., enhanced understanding of issue X; new initiatives to address problem Y) but they also seek to use such mechanisms to create positive publicity for their university (under their stewardship) as leaders at a global scale. Leadership at the local, state/provincial, and national scales is no longer enough for ambitious university presidents. Thus a rescaling process is taking place with an enhanced emphasis on the global, with universities as seeking to act as global actors and university presidents seeking to act as global leaders. In some ways this is nothing new, as the experience of colonial university vice-chancellors and rectors demonstrated. Such people acted as the interlocutors between the colonizer and the colonized; the soft administrative infrastructure and centres of calculation that enabled colonial networks to be extended over space. This said times have changed, and it is interesting to see what forms of action are emerging in the contemporary era, where these forms of action are initiated, where they take place, and what the underlying objectives are.

International university consortia and associations are one key mechanism, be they inclusive or exclusive. One example of the inclusive is the very active Paris-based International Association of Universities/Association Internationale des Universités, which has 570 members. The IAU/AIU runs or sponsors numerous events that bring together senior university officials, including presidents, to discuss and debate issues of global relevance. As Lily Kong also noted on 7 October, international consortia such as the Worldwide Universities Network (WUN), or the International Association of Research Universities (IARU) also create events (many of which are of an annual nature) that bring together senior officials, usually university presidents, to discuss issues. They sometimes focus on substantive issues, such as at the recent Realising the Global University conference, though many of such events tend to be focused on consortia governance matters.

Regular and ad-hoc groupings of university presidents are also brought together by national councils and associations but their ambit is national in scope is therefore limited by statute, in general.


In this context, the third annual Global Colloquium of University Presidents took place at New York University (NYU) a few weeks ago. The first two of these events were held at Columbia University (2005), and Princeton University (2006). A core group of university presidents (Amy Gutmann, University of Pennsylvania; John Sexton, NYU; Lee Bollinger, Columbia University; Richard Levin, Yale University; Neil Rudenstine, president emeritus of Harvard University; and Shirley Tilghman, Princeton University) are the formal sponsors of the Global Colloquium of University Presidents.

Each colloquium explores two issues: “universities and their role in society, and a specific public policy challenge”, though the themes of discussion vary from year to year, with the assumption that the university president in attendance will draw upon expert resources (and one representative) out of his/her institution. The themes associated with the first three Global Colloquium of University Presidents have been:

  • 2005: “International migration, a key element of globalization” and “academic freedom, a crucial foundation of university research and teaching”
  • 2006: “The social benefits of the research university in the 21st century” and “innovative sources of funding for public goods”
  • 2007: “The role of universities in relation to climate change” and “setting the post-Kyoto agenda for climate policy”

A significant part of the rationale is to provide an annual forum where the Secretary General of the United Nations, and some of his staff, can benefit from the dialogue and discussion that takes place. As Kofi Annan, then Secretary-General of the UN, put it in 2005:

One of the first speeches I gave on taking office as Secretary-General was to a distinguished group of university presidents from around the world. From the outset, I was convinced that universities would be tremendously important partners of the United Nations. And so it has been. As educators, as repositories and creators of knowledge, as people deeply involved in helping the world address the issues of our times, your role has been vital. This colloquium is yet another example of the productive ties we have developed over the years, and I hope it will become a tradition.

The third Global Colloquium of University Presidents appears to have drawn in a larger and more diverse set of university presidents, as the attendee list demonstrates (Bangkok University, Columbia University, El Colegio de México, Fudan University, Harvard Universit, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Indian Institute of Technology, Karagpur, Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris-Sciences Po, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Kyoto University, Makerere University, New York University, Pontifical Catholic, University of Rio de Janiero, Princeton University, Seoul National University, Tsinghua University, University of Amsterdam, University of Botswana, University of British Columbia,, University of Dhaka, University of Oxford, University of Pennsylvania, University of São Paulo, University of Tokyo, Yale University). It also drew in the new Secretary General (Ban Ki-moon), with Bill Clinton as a guest speaker this particular year (hard to imagine GWB as a guest speaker in future years…). NYU is, as we have noted, pushing the boundaries with respect to the globalization process so this event would clearly have been viewed as a complement to action on other levels for this institution.

gcupreception.jpgAre these events more than networking opportunities? It is difficult to say at this stage. Is, for example, the cumulative knowledge base of all of these universities regarding climate change evident in the position papers available here and here (with late stragglers consigned to the late download site here)? Or are the position papers mere leaders to bridge scholars in a president’s university to relevant UN units?

I can’t answer these questions, nor will I pose more that could be asked. But what I can say is that we at GlobalHigherEd have noticed a restlessness as universities (and select university leaders) seek to identify what networks and scales to focus their activities and contributions on, and how to frame their identities (and their brand names). All universities are embedded, placed, grounded; they have territorially specific responsibilities to the societies that they depend upon and (hopefully) nurture. But how to blend these responsibilities with supra-national responsibilities and objectives is becoming a conceptual and strategic challenge. Are temporary or regular fora such as the Global Public University, the Globally Engaged Institution, and the Global Colloquium of University Presidents the answer? Or are member-only international consortia of universities the answer given their capacity to offer sustained dialogue? Or is active and sustained leadership via a body like the International Association of Universities/Association Internationale des Universités the answer? There are numerous other options, many of which have not been discussed or indeed even invented yet. The point is that we are only at the early stages of thinking through what role universities, and university presidents, should be doing with their limited time and resources so as to address pressing process-oriented challenges that cut across the divisions that so artificially constrain truly global analyses and the formulation of associated solutions. If universities are to become genuine global actors, then more sustained thinking, and acting, on an intra-organizational level, is required. But we also need a broader global view, with an eye to creating a more effective and inclusive global landscape of options that is appropriate for universities and their leaders.

Kris Olds

Update: The next Global Colloquium of University Presidents is being held at Yale University in January 2010. Link here for the press release.