The Role of the University in World Society

Last week I had the honor of participating at the Qatar Foundation’s WISE Education Leadership Program in Doha, a program that we implement together with the International Association of University Presidents. This program, now in its third year, brings together newly-appointed university presidents, rectors and vice chancellors from developing countries and prepares them to more effectively lead their institutions. This year’s participants came from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Egypt, India, Iraq, Kenya, Mali, Nigeria, Palestine, Tanzania, Tunisia, and the Ukraine. They all face common challenges: how to build the capacity of their teaching staff, how to expand access to women, how to develop programs that meet the demands of the job market and that support sustainable national development, and how to operate in fiscal austerity. And some are dealing with the aftermath of war or conflict, and the toll it took on their students and staff.

I was struck by commitment the participating university leaders had to their institutions and their students. And I was struck by the responsibility they felt to their country and to world society.

In my remarks at the WISE Education Leadership Program I said that “…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.” Why should we 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.

During times of crisis—and the current academic emergency in Syria, for example, is one such crisis—we all share responsibility to world society.

Below are some of the comments I made to the group about that responsibility:

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 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 Middles 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.