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

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

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

Advertisements

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

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

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

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

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

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

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

Editors’ note: this entry was kindly developed by Daniel I. Linzer, Provost of Northwestern University in Evanston IL, United States. Daniel Linzer (pictured to the right) became Provost of Northwestern on September 1, 2007.  Linzer joined Northwestern in 1984 as an assistant professor, and is now professor of biochemistry, molecular biology and cell biology,  He has conducted pioneering research on the molecular basis of hormone action.  Following four years as Associate Dean, Linzer was appointed Dean of Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences in 2002. Prior to coming to Northwestern, Linzer received his Bachelor of Science degree in molecular biophysics and biochemistry from Yale University in 1976 and a Ph.D. in biochemical sciences from Princeton University in 1980.

Northwestern University “is a private institution founded in 1851 to serve the Northwest Territory, an area that now includes the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and parts of Minnesota“. The university has a national and global footprint now, and operates out of three campuses – two in the metropolitan Chicago region, and one in Doha, Qatar.

This entry is the fourth response to Nigel Thrift’s ‘A question (about universities, global challenges, and an organizational, ethical dilemma)‘. The first three were provided by Peter N. Stearns, Provost of George Mason University, Gregor McLennan, Professor of Sociology and Director of the Institute of Advanced Studies, University of Bristol, and David J. Skorton, President, Cornell University.

Our sincere thanks to Daniel Linzer for developing this informative response on behalf of Northwestern University.

Kris Olds & Susan Robertson

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Nigel Thrift asked the question if universities are organized in such a way as to enable the big problems of the day to be tackled effectively.  Responding for Northwestern University, our answer is an emphatic “yes.”

Take the issue of global warming as the example raised by Thrift.  This big problem, as with so many others today, lies at the intersections of fields that are in different schools and departments;  the study of global warming involves engineering and transportation, the natural sciences and social sciences, business and law, public policy and public health.  To mount a serious effort to understand, and have an impact on, these big problems also requires new resources, as universities cannot typically abandon other fields that are important for teaching and research to free up existing funds to focus on newer challenges.  And, universities cannot do it all by themselves.  These three points are key issues that a university would need to resolve.

At Northwestern, we have long emphasized and supported an interdisciplinary culture that encourages faculty and students to work across schools and departments.  The environmental science and the environmental engineering programs in two different schools were brought together several years ago to offer students an integrated curriculum; we have recruited faculty with appointments between departments and schools in these fields; and, more recently, we started and funded the Initiative for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern (ISEN) to promote interdisciplinary research and teaching.  ISEN also has been promoting discussion and student involvement outside of the classroom by taking the lead this year in our annual “One Book, One Northwestern” program.  The selection was Tom Friedman’s Hot, Flat, and Crowded, and ISEN organized a series of University-wide events culminating in the talk by Jean-Michel Cousteau to a large audience on the 40th anniversary of Earth Day.  (As an aside, Wikipedia cites the first event on a university campus leading up to the initial Earth Day as taking place at Northwestern on January 23, 1970.)

The availability of resources often comes down to incentives and control.  At those institutions that allow each academic unit to keep control of all the tuition and grant indirect costs that it generates, the incentive is often to attend to the local needs of that unit over the broader, institutional agenda.  As a result, ideas that would need buy-in from multiple units are harder to launch.  Our schools that serve undergraduate and graduate students are budgeted in a different manner in which tuition and indirect costs are collected centrally and then distributed to address needs and opportunities across the schools.  Thus, we preserve the flexibility of marshalling resources for compelling new ideas that do not fit within a single unit.

An important source of funds to mount a new enterprise is philanthropy, and that depends on the relationships that develop with alumni and other institutional supporters.  Institutions need to keep alumni informed and engaged so that they know their support can have a meaningful impact.  The effective involvement of alumni, especially those who have long been working outside of academia, in the planning of a university can be a challenge, but the big problems faced by the world today are concerns that we all share and can all debate.  We have certainly found that it is exciting to alumni and other supporters to be involved in enterprises such as ISEN.

Finally, the big problems require partnerships with industry, national laboratories, and other institutions.  Even if academics recognize the advantage of partnerships, a more collaborative approach to research often requires a cultural shift in a university’s willingness to share credit and control.  In the fields of sustainability and energy, Northwestern has developed a partnership with the Chicago Botanic Garden to educate and train students in plant conservation and biodiversity; with the Argonne National Laboratory in solar energy research; and with major transportation companies to design stronger, lighter materials.

Investments to attack big problems are made with an understanding that solutions will take significant time, after all the problems would not be big if they were not also difficult to solve.  Great institutions, though, recognize that they are responsible for making these commitments even if we will not see a rapid impact on the environment.  We are excited that at Northwestern we are contributing to this effort, and we anticipate that we will be proud of the graduates and the research contributions that will emerge from Northwestern.

Daniel I Linzer

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

Editors’ note: our thanks to David J. Skorton, President, Cornell University, for his informative and thought provoking response below to Nigel Thrift’s ‘A question (about universities, global challenges, and an organizational, ethical dilemma)‘. David J. Skorton (pictured to the right) became Cornell University’s 12th president on July 1, 2006. He holds faculty appointments as professor in the Departments of Medicine and Pediatrics at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City and in Biomedical Engineering at the College of Engineering on Cornell’s Ithaca campus. He is also chair of the Business–Higher Education Forum, an independent, non-profit organization of Fortune 500 CEOs, leaders of colleges and universities, and foundation executives; life member of the Council on Foreign Relations; co-chair of the advisory board for the Africa-U.S. Higher Education Initiative of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities; member of the National Advisory Council for the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering of the National Institutes of Health; and Master of the American College of Cardiology.

As our regular readers know Professor Nigel Thrift, Vice Chancellor of the University of Warwick, contributed an entry where he posed: ‘A question (about universities, global challenges, and an organizational, ethical dilemma)’. Professor Skorton’s response below is the third response to Nigel Thrift’s ‘question’. The first two were provided by Peter N. Stearns, Provost of George Mason University, and Gregor McLennan, Professor of Sociology and Director of the Institute of Advanced Studies, University of Bristol.

Several more responses are in the works, and others can be proposed (via <kolds@wisc.edu>) through to April 2011.

Kris Olds & Susan Robertson

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

My British colleague Nigel Thrift asks if we should be bothered by our role as universities in the “long emergency” of global suffering and deterioration, whether it be through climate change, hunger, poverty or disease [‘A question (about universities, global challenges, and an organizational, ethical dilemma)‘, April 8, 2010]. He says, “Yes, we should,” and I fully agree with him.

By any measure, the facts go beyond the alarming: World Bank socioeconomic indicators show a high level of human misery, from extreme poverty to child malnutrition, particularly in those countries suffering from armed conflict. More than 1 billion people lack access to potable water, and 42 percent of the world’s population–that’s 2.6 billion people–don’t have access to proper sanitation. More than 10 million children under the age of 5 die every year from causes that would be preventable with better nutrition and access to health care.

Clearly, universities in the developed world have a major role to play in alleviating this human suffering. This is especially true in the United States, where universities traditionally have carried out a three-part mission of teaching, research, and outreach and service to the larger world.

Nigel talks about our intellectual and ethical responsibilities and the need for decisive action. Those reasons are splendidly altruistic and well-stated. As an American, I would add a further reason to act: higher education is one of the most effective and credible diplomatic assets available to the United States. Before my overseas colleagues cringe in dismay, let me add that I am in no way advocating that higher education be utilized for political gain or advantage. But I do contend that colleges and universities are among our country’s best tools to build human and societal capacity and foster positive international relations in a world in which the United States is being challenged economically as well as on religious, moral and ideological grounds. The global participation of our universities can help alleviate poverty and create a pathway for millions to improve their own lives and enter an increasingly globalized society. Moreover, we in higher education in the United States need to engage the world in order to educate American students to function in a global economy and to address common problems from global outbreaks of new infectious diseases to climate change.

Many universities in the United States and other developed countries, the United Kingdom included, are already reaching out to and establishing partnerships with institutions in the developing world. Cornell is high on the list of those participating in this effort, particularly in coming to the aid of the overburdened higher-education infrastructure in Africa. In 2007, for example, Cornell established a master’s of professional studies degree program in international agriculture, with emphasis on watershed management, in Ethiopia in partnership with Bahir Dar University. In addition, our Weill Cornell Medical College is working to strengthen medical education at the Weill Bugando University College of Health Sciences and at Bugando Medical Centre in Mwanza, Tanzania, in order to improve and expand Tanzania’s core of health-care providers. We need many, many more initiatives like these to directly confront the issues of world poverty, illiteracy, hunger, disease, and societal dysfunction.

Nigel notes that “perhaps it could be argued that we are now on a kind of war footing and need to act accordingly,” and I have described the international situation as “explosive.” But what is needed is not so much a warlike stance as a long-term commitment to address problems that have seemed intractable for at least half a century.

Nearly three years ago I proposed the creation of a new Marshall Plan for higher education that would enlist colleges and universities in fulfilling their potential as educators, developers and researchers for the world. What would such a plan achieve? First, colleges and universities need to coordinate our efforts at capacity-building in the developing world, and by that I mean developing a new kind of plan that would enable us to work together on education, research, and outreach. Second, we need to make sure our efforts complement the current work by nongovernmental organizations, foundations, and by government agencies in confronting the issues of literacy, nutrition, global health, sustainable technologies and conflict resolution, among others. And third, we need to follow the lead of our colleagues in the developing world who are most knowledgeable about local needs and the cultural, social, and political contexts within which projects and programs must operate.

A major thrust must also be to make higher education available to the growing number of students in the developing world with few options to pursue postsecondary education. As I have written before: We cannot handle tomorrow’s students and the demands for advanced skills with the resources that exist today.

Just as U.S. Secretary of State George C. Marshall’s 1947 proposal for a massive program of aid and redevelopment helped bring a war-ravaged Europe back to economic health, political stability and peace, an enlightened, coordinated, and broad-based plan could greatly benefit the developing world today.

Is such a plan feasible today, given the much wider global community? I sincerely hope so, and I am also hopeful that as more and more of our research universities reach out globally, they will see that the stakes are even higher now than they were six decades ago. The appalling conditions faced by vast numbers of the world’s people create a humanitarian crisis of the first order and, as such, a threat not only to stability and intercultural understanding, but also to peace.

But, Nigel asks, are universities “optimally organized” to address these fundamental global challenges? “Optimally organized” is elusive and must be defined on a local basis. However, based on past and present action, I can certainly answer for Cornell, which has a long history of international research and capacity building. The Cornell-Nanking Crop Improvement Program, a cooperative agricultural exchange program, was carried out in China between 1925 and 1931 to improve the major food crops of northern China and train Chinese investigators in crop-improvement techniques. That effort paved the way for many post-World War II technical assistance programs involving American universities and their counterparts overseas.

We, and many of our peer institutions, have long regarded ourselves as international universities, and ever more institutions in the United States understand that they need to engage the world by educating American students to function in a global economy by exposing them to the breadth of world cultures. These students quickly find that collaboration across national borders often is the most effective way to attack a variety of research problems and to build human and institutional capacity in the developing world.

One thing is apparent: No single college or university, acting alone, can achieve what is needed to solve global society’s growing ills. Working together, however, the research institutions of the United States and the rest of the developed world, in cooperation with those already in the field and in local leadership positions, can play a central role in helping countries that are struggling to meet the needs of their citizens. Acting together, we can improve local education, apply research and contribute our problem-solving skills.

The world increasingly is turning to higher education to develop and share the knowledge needed to solve its most critical problems, which know no disciplinary or national boundaries. In a 2007 essay I wrote that the development of human capacity is not only one of the most effective ways to ameliorate global inequality, it is a prerequisite for any enduring improvement of the standard of living at the local level, where it counts most. In 2010, with income inequality between the richest and poorest nations ever more pronounced, that is assuredly more certain than ever.

I firmly believe that the current global milieu – especially the frictions, fears and misunderstandings between cultures – requires responses that universities are uniquely qualified to supply: dialogue, learning, creativity and discovery. And that’s not only good for America and its friends – it’s good for the world.

David J. Skorton

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

Editors’ note: several weeks ago, Professor Nigel Thrift, Vice Chancellor of the University of Warwick, UK, contributed an entry where he posed: ‘A question (about universities, global challenges, and an organizational, ethical dilemma)’. Peter N. Stearns, Provost of George Mason University, offered the first response to Nigel’s challenge in a series we will be posting through to the end of 2010.

This  ‘response’ is from Gregor McLennan, Professor of Sociology and Director of the Institute of Advanced Studies, University of Bristol. As Director of the IAS, Gregor has been busy promoting  a series of debates around the changing nature of the university in contemporary societies. His contribution to this series is therefore particularly welcome. Gregor’s work lies in the area of sociological theories and social philosophies, and has written widely on Marxism and pluralism in particular. His book, Sociological Cultural Studies: Reflexivity and Positivity in the Human Sciences, tackled some key questions of the day around (inter) disciplinarity, explanation, critical realism, complexity theory and Eurocentrism.

Susan Robertson & Kris Olds

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

I want to raise a couple of issues about Nigel Thrift’s questions, to do with the way he constructs universities as a collective agency, a coherent ‘we’ that bears a ‘global’ identity. Nigel urges this ‘we’ fully to bring its actions into alignment with its ‘beliefs’, and to improve upon the shoddy performance of ‘other actors’ in tackling the ‘grand challenges’ of the day. And in that regard, the collectivity should see itself henceforth as positioned on a ‘war footing’, deploying its ‘engines of reason’ to force the principles of ‘scientific cooperation’ into service of the ‘survival of the species’.

There are several things that might be contested in this scenario of ‘agentification’, by which I mean the portrayal of universities as though they constituted a singular moral centre or personality, strategically intervening as such.

One is to do with its assumed site, the ‘global’ apparently designating something definite, and something quite obviously good. As Nigel knows, substantial objections can be raised against such easy affirmation of the nature and ‘imperativity’ of the global per se.  Yet universities everywhere now are falling over in the rush to assure themselves that meeting the ‘challenge of the global’ is something wholly other than the imperativity of the market, something that instead touches upon our deepest ethical and intellectual mission. It behoves us, I think, to be a tad sceptical about such ‘globalloney’ (in Bruno Latour’s phrase), and perhaps even to risk the accusation of parochialism by emphasising the continuing importance of the national contexts that not only universities, but many millions with an interest in the future of universities, still mainly orientate themselves around. National contexts – arguably at least – retain a certain logistical, cultural and psychological coherence that globality might forever lack; and the prospect of a world of relatively small-scale, highly educated democracies looks better geared to effective species-survival than the sort of flaccid but pushy cosmopolitanism that is currently doing the rounds.

Second, it is not self-evident that the kind of cooperation that characterizes scientific practice and development has any direct application to, or analogue within, the political processes through which any humanity-wide survival strategy will necessarily have to be coordinated. Nigel asks universities as a whole to interact in the way that individual investigators do, but this expectation is surely inappropriate. Academics are driven to work together because of their motivation to produce facts, measures, truths, and theories, whereas universities, as such, have no such intrinsic motivation, and nor do governments.

So asking universities to tackle the survival of the species is rather like asking families, or football clubs to do this. It’s not that people within these civic associations shouldn’t be mightily concerned about such imperatives, and contribute their expertise in a politically active way. It’s just that this is not these institutions’ defining concern. Indeed, in some ways the specific concern of universities – to develop plural communities of knowledge and understanding through discovery, controversial systematization, and rigorous reflection – is likely to generate some resistance to any politicized summary of the ‘threats and opportunities’ that ‘we’ all face. Don’t get me wrong, this is not a defence of the apolitical: as individuals and members of a range of collectives, we should get active around the priorities that Nigel Thrift designates. But it might be OK that universities are not best suited to organize in that targeted way. As Peter Stearns emphasises, universities’ hallmark medium is education, which is necessarily open-ended, changing and reflective. Of course, just as we need universities to free us from the blockages of our societal formations, interests and mind-sets, so in turn we need politics to reign in our deliberations and give positive shape to our values. But though they complement each other in this way, the functions of education and politics remain very different.

The third problematic aspect of Nigel’s line of thought comes out most clearly in Indira V. Samarasekera’s paper in Nature, in which it is suggested that universities have two prevailing thought-styles and labour processes: ‘solution-driven’ and ‘blue skies’. Both modes, she accepts, have to be part of core business. But whilst the latter, ‘until recently’, has been considered the ‘mainstay’, and must ‘remain so’, a much closer alignment between the two modes is held to be necessary if ‘we’ are to be more effective in ‘solving the world’s problems’. Accordingly, it is quite a good thing that the ‘fairly traditionalist’ structure of ‘curiosity-driven projects’ is giving way to a ‘fast and effective’ modality, enabling us to ‘keep pace’ with the big challenges, for which we need to ‘copy the organizations that work best’. To that end, Samarasekera maintains, we need to develop ‘collaboratories’ involving universities, government and industry, to bridge the gap between ‘universities and the private sector’, and to construct funding regimes that stimulate ‘interdisciplinary, inter-professional, and inter-sectoral approaches’.

It strikes me that the founding contrast here between ‘blue skies’ thinking (with just a hint of the smear of ‘uselessness’) and various other research practices (themselves over-schematized as ‘solution-driven’) is considerably exaggerated. But another, perhaps more insidious, bifurcation comes into play, according to which the agentic ‘we’ of the university turns out to have two bodies, as in, ‘We, the academic leaders and universities, should embrace this new relationship…’ In this depiction, the purely academic side of the collective, and the blue skies folks in particular, are ushered into the background and cast as worryingly slow off the mark, not quite up to the demands of fast and smart global Higher-ed with its solution-seeking culture. Responsibility for meeting the latter therefore falls perforce to the academic leaders, now stepping decisively into the foreground as the distinctive group that represents the essence and future of the university. So, given that the merits and deficits of, let’s say, inter-disciplinarity are never going to be definitively resolved if left to the bottom-up logic of seminar-room agonism, university leaders will have to push it through from the top, along with all the other excellent and necessary ‘inters’ of the new knowledge-society regime – inter-sectoralism, inter-professionalism, dynamic and agile Engagement with dynamic private and civic Collaborators, and so on. Now, whilst Nigel’s notion of the ‘forcing’ of knowledge seems potentially more subtle and interesting than this increasingly hectoring management ideology, a somewhat ‘traditionalist’ note still needs to be struck by way of caution, because to see universities as agentic interventionists at all is to risk missing the central point and purpose, even today, of their existence.

Gregor McLennan