A case for free, open and timely access to world university rankings data

Well, the 2010 QS World University Rankings® were released last week and the results are continuing to generate considerable attention in the world’s media (link here for a pre-programmed Google news search of coverage).

For a range of reasons, news that QS placed Cambridge in the No. 1 spot, above Harvard, spurred on much of this media coverage (see, for example, these stories in Time, the Christian Science Monitor, and Al Jazeera). As Al Jazeera put it: “Did the Earth’s axis shift? Almost: Cambridge has nudged Harvard out of the number one spot on one major ranking system.”

Interest in the Cambridge over Harvard outcome led QS (which stands for QS Quacquarelli Symonds Ltd) to release this story (‘2010 QS World University Rankings® – Cambridge strikes back’). Do note, however, that Harvard scored 99.18/100 while QS gave Cambridge 100/100 (hence the 1/2 placing). For non-rankings watchers, Harvard had been pegged as No 1 for the previous five years in rankings that QS published in association with Times Higher Education.

As the QS story notes, the economic crisis in the US, as well as the reduction of other US universities with respect to their share of “international faculty,” was the main cause of Harvard’s slide:

In the US, cost-cutting reductions in academic staff hire are reflected among many of the leading universities in this year’s rankings. Yale also dropped 19 places for international faculty, Chicago dropped 8, Caltech dropped 20, and UPenn dropped 53 places in this measure. However, despite these issues the US retains its dominance at the top of the table, with 20 of the top 50 and 31 of the top 100 universities in the overall table.

Facts like these aside, what we would like to highlight is that all of this information gathering and dissemination — both the back-end (pre-ranking) provision of the data, and the front end (post-ranking) acquisition of the data — focuses the majority of costs on the universities and the majority of benefits on the rankers.

The first cost to universities is the provision of the data. As one of us noted in a recent entry (‘Bibliometrics, global rankings, and transparency‘):

Data demands are becoming very resource consuming for universities. For example, the QS template currently being dealt with by universities around the world shows 14 main categories with sub-categories for each: all together there are 60 data fields, of which 10 are critical to the QS ranking exercise, to be launched in October 2010. Path dependency dynamics clearly exist for once the pipelines are laid the complexity of data requests can be gradually ramped up.

Keep it mind that the data is provided for free, though in the end it is a cost primarily borne by the taxpayer (for most universities are public). It is the taxpayer that pays the majority of the administrators’ salaries to enable them to compile the data and submit it to the rankers.

A second, though indirect and obscured cost, relates to the use of rankings data by credit rating agencies like Moody’s or Standards and Poors in their ratings of the credit-worthiness of universities. We’ve reported on this in earlier blog entries (e.g., ‘‘Passing judgment’: the role of credit rating agencies in the global governance of UK universities‘). Given that cost of borrowing for universities is determined by their credit-worthiness, and rankings are used in this process, we can conclude that any increase in the cost of borrowing is actually also an increase in the cost of the university to the taxpayer.

Third, rankings can alter the views of people (students, faculty, investors) making decisions about mobility or resource allocation, and these decisions inevitably generate direct financial consequences for institutions and host city-regions. Given this it seems only fair that universities and city-region development agencies should be able to freely use the base rankings data for self-reflection and strategic planning, if they so choose to.

A fourth cost is subsequent access to the data. The rankings are released via a strategically planned media blitz, as are hints at causes for shifts in the placement of universities, but access to the base data — the data our administrative colleagues in universities in Canada, the US, the UK, Sweden, etc., supplied to the rankers — is not fully enabled.  Rather, this freely provided data is used as the basis for:

the development of ancillary services and benchmarking capabilities that can be sold back to universities, funding councils, foundations, regional organizations (e.g., the European Commission which is intensely involved in benchmarking and now bankrolling a European ranking scheme), and the like.

Consider, for example, this Thomson Reuters statement on their Global Institutional Profiles Project website:

The first use of the data generated in the Global Institutional Profiles Project was to inform the Times Higher Education World University Ranking. However, there are many other services that will rely on the Profiles Project data. For example the data can be used to inform customized analytical reporting or customized data sets for a specific customer’s needs.

Thomson Reuters is developing a platform designed for easy access and interpretation of this valuable data set. The platform will combine different sets of key indicators, with peer benchmarking and visualization tools to allow users to quickly identify the key strengths of institutions across a wide variety of aspects and subjects.

Now, as QS’s Ben Sowter put it:

Despite the inevitable efforts that will be required to respond to a wide variety of enquiries from academics, journalists and institutions over the coming days there is always a deep sense of satisfaction when our results emerge. The tension visibly lifts from the team as we move into a new phase of our work – that of explaining how and why it works as opposed to actually conducting the work.

This year has been the most intense yet, we have grown the team and introduced a new system, introduced new translations of surveys, spent more time poring over the detail in the Scopus data we receive, sent out the most thorough fact files yet to universities in advance of the release – we have driven engagement to a new level – evaluating, speaking to and visiting more universities than ever.

The point we would like to make is that the process of taking “engagement to a new level” — a process coordinated and enabled by QS Quacquarelli Symonds Ltd and Times Higher Education/Thomson Reuters — is solely dependent upon universities being willing to provide data to these firms for free.

Given all of these costs, access to all of the base data beyond the simple rankings available on websites like the THE World University Rankings 2010 (due out on 16 September), or QS World University Rankings Results 2010, should be freely accessible to all.

Detailed information should also be provided about which unit, within each university, provided the rankers with the data. This would enable faculty, students and staff within ranked institutions to engage in dialogue about ranking outcomes, methodologies, and so on, should they choose to. This would also prevent confusing mix-ups such as what occurred at the University of Waterloo (UW) this week when:

UW representative Martin van Nierop said he hadn’t heard that QS had contacted the university, even though QS’s website says universities are invited to submit names of employers and professors at other universities to provide opinions. Data analysts at UW are checking the rankings to see where the information came from.

And access to this data should be provided on a timely basis, as in exactly when the rankings are released to the media and the general public.

In closing, we are making a case for free, open and timely access to all world university rankings data from January 2011, ideally on a voluntary basis. Alternative mechanisms, including intergovernmental agreements in the context of the next Global Bologna Policy Forum (in 2012), could also facilitate such an outcome.

If we have learned anything to date about the open access debate, and ‘climategate’, greater transparency helps everyone — the rankers (who will get more informed and timely feedback about their adopted methodologies), universities (faculty, students & staff), scholars and students interested in the nature of ranking methodologies, government ministries and departments, and the taxpayers who support universities (and hence the rankers).

Inspiration for this case comes from many people, as well as the open access agenda that is partly driven on the principle that taxpayer funded research generates research outcomes that society should have free and open access to, and in a timely fashion.  Surely this open access principle applies just as well to university rankings data!

Another reason society deserves to have free, open and timely access to the data is that a change in practices will shed light on how the organizations ranking universities implement their methodologies; methodologies that are ever changing (and hence more open to error).

Finer-grained access to the data would enable us to check out exactly why, for example, Harvard deserved a 99.18/100 while Cambridge was allocated a 100/100. As professors who mark student papers, outcomes this close lead us to cross-check the data, lest we subtly favour one student over another for X, Y or Z reasons. And cross-checking is even more important given that ranking is a highly mediatized phenomenon, as is clearly evident this week betwixt and between releases of the hyper-competitive QS vs THE world university rankings.

Free, open and timely access to the world university rankings data is arguably a win-win-win scenario, though it will admittedly rebalance the current focus of the majority of the costs on the universities, and the majority of the benefits on the rankers. Yet it is in the interest of the world’s universities, and the taxpayers who support these universities, for this to happen.

Kris Olds & Susan Robertson

Deliberating about bridging the gap between industry and universities in a global knowledge economy

Deliberations about the meanings and uses of higher education continue apace.  The global economic crisis has exasperated the significance of this centuries old debate, in part because of serious fiscal pressures, but also because of the perception that higher education is now becoming the ‘railroad of the 21st century’.

Why is the ‘railroad of the 21st century’ perception emerging, rightly or wrongly? In part because a structural transformation to a ‘knowledge-based economy’ is underway; one dependent upon related shifts, including the emergence of a ‘knowledge society’. And which institutions are critically important to producing a knowledge society? Well, many, but a key one is, undoubtedly, the university.

Now the ‘uses of higher education’ debate is taking place on many levels, only one of which (university-industry linkages) we’ll flag today.  Other debates centre on views that higher education should be considered as an ‘export-earning industry’ (and issue we have discussed in GlobalHigherEd), or the logic of opening new types of higher education institutions (e.g., KAUST and Amsterdam University College, both of which celebrated their openings last week) with unique missions. [Note: we’ll be posting coverage of both openings over the next several days]

Bridging the perceived gap between universities and industry in the UK/Europe

Given the structural pressure to create a knowledge society/economy, and the patently obvious decline of government income per student in most countries, we are witnessing drives in many countries to create and/or deepen university-industry linkages. The logic is to generate (a) more innovation within the economic development process, (b) new streams of revenue for fiscally challenged universities via the commercialization of select forms of knowledge production, and (c) more entrepreneurial students who will become the tangible drivers of the knowledge economy.  I’m being simplistic here, of course, but this is the broad tenor of the argument.

This drive is focused on, albeit unevenly across space and time, bridging the perceived gap between universities (as represented by faculty, researchers, and students) and industry. Bridging activities include patenting, licensing, spinning-off firms, consultancy, contract research, on-demand training, new forms of formal and informal advisory relationships, and so on.

Now the drive to enhance transformation of the mission of universities comes from many quarters. In some countries and city-regions it comes from within the universities themselves, while in other contexts industry is the key driver. In yet other contexts the push comes from national governments, as well as regional (e.g., the European Commission) or international organizations (e.g. the World Bank).  In all cases an ‘innovation’ agenda underlies the push.

An example of a push from ‘industry’ was clearly evident last week in the UK. The industry push came via the UK-based Confederation of British Industry (CBI), under the leadership of Richard Lambert. Lambert is the CBI’s director-general, author of the Lambert Review of Business-University Collaboration (2003), and co-author (with Nick Butler) of The Future of European Universities: Renaissance or Decay? (2006). Lambert has also acted as the University of Warwick’s Chancellor since 2008.

CBIcoverThe CBI’s Higher Education unit stirred up the debate via the release of a major report titled Stronger Together – Businesses and Universities in Turbulent Times. Let me quote, extensively, from the press release, including a lead-off quote from Sam Laidlaw, Chairman of the CBI Higher Education taskforce and CEO of Centrica:

“Effective collaboration between the higher education sector, business and government will be critical to the UK’s economic recovery and sustainable international competitiveness. Business must also make a sustained effort in supporting higher education. To this end, I am pleased that as a Task Force we have made a strong commitment to provide the support needed to help students build the employability and technical skills that are so important.”

The report proposes that more businesses should work with universities to:

  • Sponsor students studying subjects relevant to business, such as science and technology.
  • Provide financial support to new graduates, through bonuses when they sign on with the firm.
  • Offer more opportunities for internships, placements, work experience or projects.
  • View working with universities as part of core innovation activity.

Richard Lambert, CBI director-general, said:

“Maintaining a world-class higher education system is vital to the UK’s future competitiveness, and we should sustain current levels of investment in teaching and research, which are low by international standards. Strong leadership is also needed to minimise the risk of long-term decline.

“Business should engage more with universities, both financially and intellectually. More firms should help design and pay for courses for the benefit of the current and future workforce, and more firms should offer students practical work experience.

“In return for this extra investment of time and money, business will want to see more emphasis given to certain subjects, such as science, technology, engineering and maths. Languages are also seen to be important, and the taskforce argues that more should be done to prepare students for the world of work, and teach them the generic skills that will help smooth their pathway into employment.”

Needless to say, this report has been both praised and criticized over the last week. Some are concerned that the UK government is turning higher education into a training unit for private firms, while others are praising the call for greater focus (the ‘do less better’ mantra) and the report’s recognition that there is a disconnect between society’s ambitions for its universities and the funding base that currently exists.

The report’s findings are likely to feed into deliberations about the new proposals (launched last week as well) regarding the UK’s proposed Research Excellence Framework (REF), which will replace the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE).

Two contrarian views in the US

The timing of this push by industry, one largely supported by the UK’s Labour Government, coincided with two broadly critical arguments regarding such a development agenda.

Drew Gilpin Faust, the president of Harvard University, published a widely read 9 September article in the New York Times about the problems with such a development agenda. In her article (‘The University’s Crisis of Purpose’), Gilpin Faust argues that:

Higher education is not about results in the next quarter but about discoveries that may take — and last — decades or even centuries. Neither the abiding questions of humanistic inquiry nor the winding path of scientific research that leads ultimately to innovation and discovery can be neatly fitted within a predictable budget and timetable….Universities are meant to be producers not just of knowledge but also of (often inconvenient) doubt. They are creative and unruly places, homes to a polyphony of voices. But at this moment in our history, universities might well ask if they have in fact done enough to raise the deep and unsettling questions necessary to any society.

As the world indulged in a bubble of false prosperity and excessive materialism, should universities — in their research, teaching and writing — have made greater efforts to expose the patterns of risk and denial? Should universities have presented a firmer counterweight to economic irresponsibility? Have universities become too captive to the immediate and worldly purposes they serve? Has the market model become the fundamental and defining identity of higher education?

Since the 1970s there has been a steep decline in the percentage of students majoring in the liberal arts and sciences, and an accompanying increase in preprofessional undergraduate degrees. Business is now by far the most popular undergraduate major, with twice as many bachelor’s degrees awarded in this area than in any other field of study. In the era of economic constraint before us, the pressure toward vocational pursuits is likely only to intensify.

As a nation, we need to ask more than this from our universities. Higher learning can offer individuals and societies a depth and breadth of vision absent from the inevitably myopic present. Human beings need meaning, understanding and perspective as well as jobs. The question should not be whether we can afford to believe in such purposes in these times, but whether we can afford not to.

Drew Gilpin Faust’s argument complements a full-length piece (‘Dehumanized: When math and science rule the school’) by Mark Slouka in the September 2009 issue of Harper’s Magazine. Slouka’s article focuses on education (versus just higher education) but it reflects the tenor of debates in higher ed in the US. His article, which is worth contrasting with the CBI report noted above, reflects a concern that the linkage agenda needs to be halted for it has already gone far too far, especially with respect to the valorization of select disciplines, specific forms of knowledge, and particular ways of knowing. Thus, the sense of urgency that the CBI constructs (in the UK) is turned upside down, and effectively viewed as an attempt to finish off what has been a long running and lost (or won, from an industry perspective) battle. Slouka’s sense is that:

[I]t’s about the increasing dominance—scratch that, the unqualified triumph—of a certain way of seeing, of reckoning value. It’s about the victory of whatever can be quantified over everything that can’t. It’s about the quiet retooling of American education into an adjunct of business, an instrument of production.

Slouka’s argument is primarily situated in the American context, but resonates with debates going on in many other countries, both on university-industry linkages, but also on the challenges the Humanities are currently facing.

What are universities for?The contributions of both Slouka and Gilpin Faust remind me of elements of the argument of Geoffrey Boulton and Colin Lucas in What are universities for? (League of European Research Universities, September 2008):

It is our contention that slipshod thinking about the roles that universities can play in society is leading to demands that they cannot satisfy, whilst obscuring their most important contributions to society, and, in the process, undermining their potential. It is wrong, in our view, to expect … that universities will be dynamos of growth and huge generators of wealth, leading to economic prosperity and enhanced quality of life on anything like the scale that is implicit in such language. In a European context, where governments are principal funders of universities, the assumption is that they are a lever which, when pulled, will gush forth the tangible effects of economic prosperity into which public money has been transformed. In reality, universities can only be one part of the process of producing a successful knowledge economy. The oft-quoted example of Silicon Valley and Stanford University is far more subtle and complex than a simple reading allows. It is a compound of capitalist enterprise, technical and legal services, skilled labour, a broad range of social provision in the public domain, local and state government policy, the appetites of an historically entrepreneurial culture, and maybe even climate.

Mission creep is to be expected for universities are embedded in a services-dominated knowledge economy (in the Global North, at least): it would be foolish not to expect universities to be asked to play a stronger role in the development and innovation process. But such mission creep needs to be interrogated, debated about, contextualized (as Boulton and Lucas hint at), and viewed in other than simple B&W ways. Broader factors, too, like the largesse Harvard University sits on needs to be flagged, for this multi-billion dollar endowment arguably provides Gilpin Faust with at least some of her desired latitude.

I’ll close off by noting that the UK’s CBI is being remarkably open about their objectives.  This is to be welcomed and it contrasts sharply with what happens in many other countries. The CBI (via the CBI Higher Education taskforce) seems ready for a debate, and they are systematic and strategic about their agenda. Yet the critics of the CBI agenda seem to primarily gripe from the edges, at least as perceived from my distanced perspective. We await a more formal and systematic critique to emerge in the UK; one that is equally formed, as coherently put together, and as openly circulated, as is the CBI viewpoint. The unruly process of innovation depends upon it.

Kris Olds

The media, universities, and Higher Ed Cabinets: Or, why doesn’t Harvard buy the New York Times?

A potentially symbiotic relationship between the ‘quality’ media in the USA, and institutions of higher education, has been discussed from time to time in a variety of fora. Fiscal stress in the print media, for example, has led some to suggest that the well endowed (e.g., Harvard, with nearly $40 billion in interest generating capital) should rescue outlets like the New York Times, or actually facilitate the creation of a quality newspaper in Chicago (the Chicago Tribune is shockingly bad for a city of eight million). Instead, we see a significant component of the New York Times being sold off to Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim Helú last week, or the Washington Post dependent upon the profits being generated by Kaplan.

Yet quality newspapers play a critically important role in the higher education process, let along the broader socio-economic development process. Many professors (including myself) use newspaper articles in courses, and we require term-length newspaper subscriptions to complement more traditional readings. Newspapers are also important outlets for the circulation of knowledge that is produced in universities, and they help observers of the world of higher ed (including global higher ed) keep up on what is happening.

In this context, it is worth noting that the New York Times teamed up with the Chronicle of Higher Education today to host the USA’s:

first Higher Education Cabinet, comprising presidents, trustees and leaders from 76 colleges, universities and higher-education associations. The goal of the cabinet is to identify trends and direct discussions about the most pressing issues facing higher education today.

The first meeting of the cabinet will be held today at The New York Times Building. The welcome address will be given by Janet L. Robinson, president and chief executive officer of The New York Times Company, followed by remarks from Jeffrey Selingo, editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Topics to be discussed at the cabinet meeting included e-learning, internationalization [“Internationalization” – How will you compete globally?], financing models, assessment and accountability.

“The New York Times is committed to fostering discussion about the changing landscape of higher education,” said Felice Nudelman, executive director, education, The New York Times. “We are delighted to be hosting the inaugural Chronicle of Higher Education/New York Times Higher Education Cabinet meeting and look forward to continued opportunities to facilitate creative and collective discussions about the key topics in higher education.”

Today’s ‘Cabinet meeting’ is apparently the first of many (to be held on an annual basis), and will be supplemented by quarterly online meetings “conducted via the EpsilenTM environment, an e-learning and meeting platform”, which is:

the result of six years of research and development within the Purdue School of Engineering and Technology at IUPUI.  Epsilen Products and Services are commercially available through BehNeem LLC, the holding company created in Indiana to commercialize, market and further develop the Epsilen Environment. The New York Times is an equity and strategic partner in the company.

The bringing together of institutions of higher education and the quality general and higher ed media cannot help but generate positive benefits. Yet, I cannot help but wonder if the leaders of the many well resourced universities participating in this scheme – people focused on generating maximum annual returns off of endowments, or selling their innovative learning technologies like Epsilen to the media (or to universities and colleges) – reflected much, if at all, about the structural problems facing media companies like the New York Times Company.

Autonomy of university foundation offices and administrators aside, imagine if just a few of these universities decided to pool parts of their endowments, and preserve if not enhance the quality media in the USA, a country desperately in need of better news and analysis. So, instead of Columbia’s Bollinger working for the Washington Post Company, imagine if the Washington Post worked for Bollinger, or the Chicago Tribune worked for Penn’s Guttman, or the New York Times worked for Harvard’s Gilpin Faust. Not ideal, perhaps, but better than watching these important media firms get ravaged by the forces of socio-economic and technological change. But, might this be expecting too much of inward looking universities in the era of the marketplace?

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.

gcupnyu.jpg

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.