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The Role of the University in World Society

Remarks from Dr. Allan E. Goodman

Doha, Qatar | October 2012

A few weeks ago, I received the new issue of Harvard Magazine.  It is sent to all alumni and always begins with a message from the President.  This one particularly caught my eye because it was entitled, “Toward a Global Strategy for Harvard.”  In it, President Faust offered some reflections on a two year “University-wide discussion about how Harvard can most effectively seize the opportunities offered by the changing realities around us.”  She also shared the outline “of our emerging global strategy.” As far as I can tell, the University has done pretty well without one for 375 years.

Becoming “more intentionally global” is, consequently, a big step for Harvard. 

Indeed, I thought back to a conversation I had with her predecessor who, having had the benefit of living abroad while his parents were Fulbright professors, wanted to increase significantly the number of Harvard undergraduates who would be able to do the same.  He asked me then how Harvard stacked up in the Institute’s annual census of student mobility and I was happy to report that he could only make progress.  At the time, of the 92 leading research universities in America, Harvard was in a three-way tie for last place in terms of the percentage of its students that studied abroad. He left office in 2006 having made some progress, but with the faculty still debating whether or not the world was flat (again) and, if so, whether or not the University needed to do anything in particular about that.

Now I suspect all here would like Harvard’s endowment and its place in the so-called league ranking tables.  What I am going to suggest, though, is that what Harvard is planning to do in engaging the University in the discussion of its global strategy is an approach that many more institutions can take in thinking about how to embrace globalization and better prepare our students to be truly global citizens.  It is also one where money does not necessarily matter.

The most important step is, as President Faust outlined it, to begin “by considering our distinctive strengths.”  We all have things that set the university apart in our societies and also make it different than other institutions that involve sequestering and organizing the activities of young adults, such as armies and churches.  In Harvard’s case, these strengths include “the opportunity for intense study, supported by eminent faculty and outstanding library and museum resources, of a wide representation of geographic areas.”  What struck me about this statement was the centrality of something that money cannot necessarily buy; namely, the valuing and creation of opportunity for intense study.  We can all provide our students more of that -- even in America, where the average number of hours per week that students report they spend on academic work has dropped (precipitously in my view) from 40 in 1961, to 27 in 2003, and today may be closer to 20.  If intense study time is really central, that is one quality we can all provide – or in the US case, begin to stress again -- to students regardless of the size of our budgets, the number of books in the library, or quality of our buildings.

But other things many institutions already have are also important.  For example, Harvard, along with the rest of American higher education, needs access to the developing world in which you reside.  Your problems are things we all need to study and solve; they are our problems, too, in such fields as public health, food security, and the environment.  That is why I have been struck by the growing number of partnerships that are being established between US universities and institutions of higher education that are thousands of miles away and worlds apart; our recent book in the Global Education Research Reports series, Developing Strategic International Partnerships documents the phenomenon and highlights best practices.

These partnerships cover a wide array of topics and types.  In one case, North Carolina A&T formed a partnership with Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Ghana to develop engineers with international teamwork experience.  A collaborative automotive design project helped students leverage Ghana’s wealth of the mineral bauxite by working together to build lightweight autos with aluminum parts, which have been jointly entered into student competitions.  Since then, the partnership has grown to include a broad range of collaborative activities including faculty exchanges that develop technical expertise that can be adapted to benefit the community.

In another model, Houston Community College in Houston, Texas has been partnering with counterparts around the world to address a growing global workforce development need on a local level by sharing the US community college model.  HCC helped to develop the Saigon Institute of Technology in Vietnam, which has now graduated over 1000 students with associate degrees; in 2010, HCC partnered with the government of Qatar to build the Community College of Qatar in support of the government’s goal to support access to educational opportunities for Qataris.

Since the 1960s, California and Chile have shared a deep, multi-faceted partnership which has expanded to all of the University of California schools and their counterparts in Chile. Many Chilean graduates from UC Davis, for example, returned to Chile to help their country become one of the world’s leading exporters of fruit in the 60s and 70s. A few years ago, during a visit by President Michelle Bachelet, previous agreements with Chile were confirmed and expanded, particularly with the University of California campuses.  UC Davis expanded agreements with Chilean partners to include research collaboration in seed biotechnology, viticulture and enology, water resource management, and food science. This has led to numerous faculty and student exchanges, conferences and workshops as well as the development of the Outreach Water Center in Chile, and a nonprofit initiative that strives to assist developing countries in accessing genetic resources and new technologies, in collaboration with the Foundation for Agricultural Innovation.

Such linkages and partnerships contribute greatly to what the global Harvard is looking for; i.e., “problem-based engagement that draws on region-based resources.”

International connections these days are easier than ever to make and maintain.  There are over four million internationally mobile students, thousands of traveling faculty, and vast curriculum resources circulating on the Internet and mainly available for free.  Promotion and rank and tenure processes, too, can embrace this value by, as President Faust writes, encouraging “faculty to envision their work and its impact with the broadest perspective possible.”  What Harvard is committed to doing – namely, becoming “more intentionally global” – is in fact becoming something that many institutions can do no matter their budget or standing in the league tables. 

Indeed, the role of the university in world society may not be measured by rankings and it may not depend completely even on the comprehensiveness of curriculum.  Something more fundamental may be a willingness to embrace taking a global perspective for faculty as well as students.  Once that exists, we may be entering an era where all that is making our world so interconnected will greatly facilitate preparing truly global citizens.  And this may be something that can happen a lot faster in your cities than it does in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The topic for this session also begs the question of why we should think about universities as having a role in world society.  After all, we are all challenged by just making things work in our own contexts and situations. 

Universities have a duty to save knowledge when it is threatened.  Around the world, scholars have long suffered harassment, torture and persecution as a result of their work. In the worst cases, scholars pay with their lives for their dedication to scholarship and freedom of thought. Participating in IIE’s Scholar Rescue Fund is one way that universities have played a role in preserving knowledge.  Since its founding a decade ago, the Scholar Rescue Fund has helped nearly five hundred scholars from 48 countries. At the heart of the Fund is the idea that each scholar the Fund helps who continues his or her work in safety is a beacon of hope in the world, and will reach hundreds or thousands of additional students through the multiplier effect of teaching and learning. The Fund has undertaken a large-scale effort to assist the professors and university leaders who have had to flee Iraq.  And the need for this kind of rescue has become even more acute in recent months with current threats to academic freedom and safety in Syria.

Since the spring 2011 outbreak of conflict in Syria, the Scholar Rescue Fund has experienced a dramatic increase in inquiries and applications from Syrian scholars, students and professionals.  Scholars who have applied for SRF fellowships have described threats such as arrest, imprisonment, and torture; harassment and intimidation; wrongful dismissal; academic censorship and obstruction of work; university closures; destruction of property and academic materials; and an inability to continue teaching due to general civil conflict, compulsory military service, targeted violence at universities, and displacement due to fighting in their communities.  Not surprisingly, we are seeing a marked increase in applications from scholars in Syria, and have a number of applications currently under review.  To date, ten universities and research institutions in four countries are currently hosting or have agreed to host scholars from Syria with fellowships from our Scholar Rescue Fund.

This is only the latest chapter in an ongoing story. As our board members point out, we have found that rescuing scholars is a “growth industry”.  While IIE formally launched the Fund in 2002, the idea of rescuing threatened scholars has long been a part of IIE’s vision. From the Bolshevik Revolution to the Hungarian Uprising, IIE had long demonstrated a commitment to protecting academic freedom. In the 1930s, IIE was instrumental in founding the Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced Foreign Scholars, which rescued more than 330 scholars fleeing persecution in Europe.

The university community has been crucial to the success of these efforts. Over the past decade, nearly 300 institutions in 40 countries have hosted scholars from around the world. Many host campuses from the developing world -- and many with much smaller budgets and endowment than Harvard’s -- have provided safe haven for threatened scholars.

It is important to recall that the whole idea of the university in ancient as well as modern times was, as the Yale historian Jaroslav Pelikan observed, to function “as the primary staging area for peace through international understanding.” Pelikan notes that since the Middle Ages, “following almost every international conflict…, postwar planners have looked to cooperation between universities and across national boundaries as a resource for healing the wounds of the past and for helping to prevent war in the future.”  Such a role is more critical to perform today, perhaps, than ever before.

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