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

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

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

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

Kris Olds & Susan Robertson

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The Challenge

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

 

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

Optimal Organization and a Variety of Good Ends—

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

Local Interests and the Social Compact—

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

 

Modes of Engagement—

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

Conclusion—

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

Karen Hanson

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

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

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

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

Kris Olds & Susan Robertson

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

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

Goal: Arming Future Generations with Advanced Solutions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Helmholtz Alberta Initiative

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

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

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

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

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

Li Ka Shing Institute for Virology

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

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

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

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

Eight Considerations toward “Optimally Organizing” for Results

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

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

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

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

Indira V. Samarasekera

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

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

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

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

Kris Olds & Susan Robertson

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

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

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

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

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

In that context, USM has taken a new approach with a new vision: Transforming Higher Education for a Sustainable Tomorrow. This is part of a larger agenda to redefine “excellence” in line with the challenges of the future under Malaysia’s Accelerated Programme for Excellence (APEX) of which USM is currently undergoing. In so doing we recognized the distraction that Thrift referred to when he wrote: “…as if their [universities] chief raison d’être is position in the league tables. To complete the triptych of problems, it is still too often assumed that scientific discovery, which nearly always takes place as part of a network of actors distributed across the globe, is the province of an individual actor anchored in a particular place: think only of the system of prizes and awards.”  As such, our new mission now reads: “USM is a pioneering, transdisciplinary research intensive university that empowers future talents and enables the bottom billions to transform their socio-economic well-being.”

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

Dzulkifli Abdul Razak

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

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

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

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

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

Kris Olds & Susan Robertson

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

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

Extreme Poverty and Urgent Need

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

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

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

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

The Global Master’s in Development Practice Program

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Global Network of Master’s in Development Practice Programs

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

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

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

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

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

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

Benefits of the Global Network

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

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

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

Lucia Rodriguez

Pacific Rim views on global education: Hong Kong+Seattle

Editor’s note: this guest entry was kindly produced by Gray Kochhar-Lindgren (pictured to the right), Professor of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences, as well as Director of the First Year Experience, at the University of Washington, Bothell. During 2009-10, Gray served as a Fulbright Scholar in General Education based at the University of Hong Kong and the Hong Kong America Center. With Kanta Kochhar-Lindgren, he is currently working on a book entitled Designing the Global University. Our sincere thanks to Gray for a tantalizing entry that sheds light on some of the opportunities and challenges of fashioning deeper forms of internationalization, especially those of a partnership nature.  This is an issue that Nigel Thrift also addressed in a recent blog entry (‘Internationalization is difficult‘) in the Chronicle of Higher Education, as well as via recent comments he made in the Times Higher Education (‘Global future: together alone‘), and one that I will deal with via a series of entries about international collaborative (e.g., dual and joint) degrees this coming September.   Kris Olds

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Having spent September 2009-June 2010 serving as a Fulbright Scholar in General Education in Hong Kong , I have now returned to my responsibilities at the University of Washington, Bothell, as a Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies and the Director of the academic side of our First Year Experience. All the universities in Hong Kong are moving from three to four year degrees and UW Bothell started first and second year programs in 2006 and is now rapidly expanding its degree options. On both sides of the Pacific, curricular and administrative structural reform are moving forward at a sometimes dizzying, but always invigorating, pace. What are the connections and asymmetries involved in such an effort?

As in other parts of the world, a very similar language is emerging in both Seattle and Hong Kong around curricular reform, including the familiar rhetoric of student-centeredness; outcomes-based assessment; interdisciplinarity; writing, quantitative, and IT literacies; cross-cultural competencies; interactive pedagogies; and the development of new administrative structures that can serve the university as a whole instead of reproducing only department or College level concerns.

The most difficult challenges include how best to shape faculty participation in governance, teaching, and administration of the curricular shifts; how to change the culture of the university so that teaching is valued as highly as research productivity in promotion and tenure decisions; how to change faculty behavior toward more interactivity in and beyond the classroom; what forms trans- or interdisciplinarity teaching and research take; and, of course, how best to resource the curricular changes in terms of money and people.

In addition to these similarities, each site has its material and cultural specificities. It is, for instance, much easier to do student projects on different moments of urbanization in Hong Kong and on biodiversity of wetland habitats in Bothell.  The University of Hong Kong, where I was based last year, is an English-language institution, but the language politics of Hong Kong as a whole, which has Cantonese as its primary language and the use of Putonghua growing quickly, involves issues quite different than in the Pacific Northwest of the US. The global position of the US and the “one country, two systems” of Hong Kong, a Special Administrative Region of China, create different sets of questions for teaching, learning, and university reform in each case.

As an outsider-insider in Hong Kong there were always, and inevitably, blind spots I did not even recognize as well as a torrent of learning from daily life, reading, conversation, teaching, and the curricular work itself.  As we all learn to work more effectively across global sites, we would do well to think much more rigorously about our theories of cultural translatability.

Finally, there is the formation of interdisciplinary and cross-cultural research groups. I am in the very beginning of this process, so I am immensely curious about how it will unfold. I am collaborating with scholars in Hong Kong, Seattle, Macau, and elsewhere to collect a series of essays on Global Noir, with its affiliations with cities, political economy, the tradition of the genre, and a reconceptualization of the concept of noir.

On a larger scale, I, along with Robert Peckham, the Co-Director of the Centre for Humanities and Medicine at HKU, are forming a research project called “Transnational Asian Cities: Health, Virtualities, and Urban Ecologies” that will involve scholars from multiple disciplines in Hong Kong, Seattle, Shanghai, and Mumbai.  How will we construct the object of study? How will we stay in touch? What types of new understandings will we produce and in what media? How will such effort be judged and assessed? Such questions must, in our globalized but still localized contexts, be asked time and time again.

All of these efforts, which are part of redefining the contemporary globalized university, require leadership, visibility, inventiveness, collaboration, faculty and staff development, and consistency of effort over time.  We will all have to learn to articulate spatial-temporal consistencies and asymmetries, a host of rapidly shifting variabilities of culture and language, and a series of nodes of Intensity where we collect, share, and move our work ahead. What, in other words, does “Seattle+Hong Kong” signify? How do we actualize the links as new curriculum and new university structures? How do we move back and forth across the Pacific? As with any organizational change at such basic levels, there are difficulties, frustrations, and successes, but the necessity for change is clear.  Ready or not.

Gray Kochhar-Lindgren

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

Editors’ note: this guest entry has been kindly developed by Dr. Allan E. Goodman (pictured to the left), President & CEO, Institute of International Education (IIE).  Allan Goodman is the sixth President of IIE, a leading not-for-profit organization in the field of international educational exchange and development training. IIE administers the Fulbright program, sponsored by the United States Department of State, and 200 other corporate, government and privately-sponsored programs. Dr. Goodman helped create the first U.S. academic exchange program with the Moscow Diplomatic Academy for the Association of Professional Schools of International Affairs and developed the diplomatic training program of the Foreign Ministry of Vietnam. Dr. Goodman has also served as a consultant to Ford Foundation, the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, the United States Information Agency, and IBM.

This entry is the fifth response to Nigel Thrift’s ‘A question (about universities, global challenges, and an organizational, ethical dilemma)‘. The first four 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, David J. Skorton, President, Cornell University, and Daniel I. Linzer, Provost of Northwestern University.

Our sincere thanks to Allan Goodman for this response on behalf of the IIE, not to mention the global network of universities and scholars that support and/or benefit from the IIE’s Scholar Rescue Fund.

Kris Olds & Susan Robertson

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Nigel Thrift refers to and has focused us on “the long emergency” related to climate change and its attendant effects.  The other long emergency on which the Institute of International Education (IIE) is focusing has necessitated us to rescue scholars for nearly a century.

Every year since our founding in 1919, we have responded to appeals from scholars fleeing oppression, caught in the cross-fire of local, regional, and even world-wide wars, or stranded in the midst of natural disasters and catastrophes.  In some years, we have helped a few; in others a few hundred or even a thousand.  The cumulative number now exceeds 20,000.

As this century began, the Trustees of the Institute recognized that scholar rescue was, in fact, a permanent part of what we do and raised a Scholar Rescue Fund (SRF) endowment to support it.  SRF provides safe haven to those threatened or persecuted worldwide.  The Fellowship funds and supports visiting academic positions at universities anywhere in the world where the scholar will be safe and can continue their research and teaching.  It is open to scholars from any country and every discipline.  So far more than 2,000 have applied to the Institute for help from over 100 countries.  Over 400 from 43 countries have received grants and more than 200 higher education institutions in 38 countries have joined with us in hosting rescued scholars.  When I mention these statistics to an academic audience, most often the reaction is “we had no idea” the problem was so large or persistent.  Hence, my thought that this is also “a long emergency.”

Our experience with the first five years of the fund is documented in a study by Dr. Henry G. Jarecki and Daniela Zane Kaisth, Scholar Rescue in the Modern World and published last year.

In this Commencement season, campuses look especially inviting and recall the observation of England’s Poet Laureate John Masefield that “there are few earthly things more beautiful than a university.”  But Masefield was also speaking about something deeper and which has enabled so many universities around the world to assist us in rescuing scholars.  Beyond the surface beauty, he told the graduates of the University of Sheffield, it is a place that “will welcome thinkers in distress or in exile.”

From our experience at the Scholar Rescue Fund, universities are well organized to do just that – and help us every day.

Allan E. Goodman

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

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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