Great universities seek to erase the borders that confine intellectual exchange. The aspiration is at once scholarly and political: policies informed by research will topple the corrosive forces of provincialism and prejudice, and a flowering culture of inquiry in universities worldwide will inspire scholars to achievements blocked by the singular corporate focus on profit. Though these are worthy hopes, realizing them will prove much more complicated. Collaboration without geographic restriction might lend nobility to the quest for knowledge, but universities aren’t well suited to supporting it. Not only are universities notoriously resistant to change, they are resolutely local enterprises.
Universities as institutions tend to be more inwardly focused than cosmopolitan. Take campuses. Their buildings and grounds tie US universities to a defined physical footprint. Campuses host distinctive communities with singular, recognizable, and highly valued cultures. My home campus, for example, cherishes deep traditions and modes of governance that reflect its unique hybrid identity as both a classic liberal arts college and a research university with a full complement of graduate and professional schools.
The unique identities universities develop locally are tied to financial stability and the capacity to attract support from many sources, including government agencies and alumni. Tuition revenues, too, depend on the celebration of campus-based traditions that sustain the flow of new students. Still, the global remains an aspiration. The Dartmouth College campus is “base camp to the world,” but like most institutions, my university’s commitment to global education continues to reflect a strong notion of “home.”
More than 55 percent of Dartmouth’s undergraduates participate in its array of international education programs. Each program is carefully integrated with the on-campus curriculum, and faculty members closely and deliberately mentor students away just as they would on campus. The ethic of Dartmouth’s campus as base camp persists after graduation: the banner that hangs proudly on the student center during alumni reunion week reads, “Welcome Home.”
US universities are best at realizing a global vision in their educational programs. In 2016–2017, more than a million international students registered at US universities, a high-water mark, although one set in advance of the Trump administration’s attacks on global visitors. Though just 325,339 US-based undergraduates studied abroad in the same period, that number—as well as the number of students from underrepresented racial and ethnic backgrounds—has risen.1 The US State Department funds about 8,000 Fulbright awards annually to support the educational exchange of faculty, professionals, and students around the world; since 1948, the Fulbright Program has supported 370,000 learners.
Despite successes in education, however, global research remains the gold standard in the eyes of university leaders. Discovery requires strategic partnerships among researchers with complementary expertise, as well as shared facilities and the global exchange of students and investigators. Efforts to shape shared research opportunities are legion. The arrival of a visiting delegation from a would-be partner institution remains a genuine pleasure for senior administrators at US universities. Such meetings typically entail free-flowing, creative planning sessions ranging over dozens of possible collaborations … that too often die on the vine.
As both a dean and a provost, I traveled to conduct prospective planning sessions in the offices of my counterparts in Australia and Northern Ireland, Brazil, China, Japan, Ghana, Tanzania, the UAE, and beyond. Goodwill and enthusiasm are universal features of these visits, the shared dedication to research and teaching inspiring. Such potential, though, rarely results in lasting change. University leaders worldwide have drawers full of Memoranda of Understanding that describe the unrealized good-faith hope for future collaboration. US universities have not yet adapted to sustain global commitments in research.
Changing this stalled dynamic requires understanding how US universities create global knowledge. Beginning from within the US disciplines, Seeing the World: How US Universities Make Knowledge in a Global Era, by Mitchell L. Stevens, Cynthia Miller-Idriss, and Seteney Shami, investigates how the vision of worldwide academic collaboration is forged by examining universities as organizations. The authors view US universities as “coral reefs,” which amass both ideas and the departments, institutes, and funding streams that support them, accruing a complex ecology complete with competing priorities and conflicting global imaginaries. “This accumulation,” they argue, “means that today’s universities bear many traces of their pasts even while their leaders build for the future.”
Creatures of the coral, each discipline has its own model of the global, the authors argue, and adds to the reef by adapting knowledge to fit emerging economic forms. Earlier models (which persist today, in some quarters) viewed the world “out there” either as an exotic realm of otherness to be brought back to the home campus or as a series of problems solvable by academic application. A more recent global model—one that drives administrators toward global collaboration—“defines the world as a complex of flows traversable by cosmopolitan students and faculty, properly enabled by great universities.” The emergence of international trade begot a model that looks like commerce itself. These different approaches coexist uncomfortably within the research university today.
Shaped by tradition and reshaped by incentives, conventional disciplines lag behind in developing the methods to address today’s complex challenges.
The shifting economic landscape drives the evolution of one model to the next, even while older ones endure. Follow the money, and the global appears again, reshaping power within the university. Since their colonial inception, US universities have organized knowledge in pursuit of resources, including tuition dollars and government and philanthropic funding. The perennial need to diversify and increase their revenue streams has transformed academic life, as administrators and faculty create centers and institutes that respond to funding opportunities.
Beginning in 1958, for example, the US Department of Education initiated funding for Title VI centers, “comprehensive undergraduate National Resource Centers, which: teach at least one modern foreign language; provide instruction in fields needed for full understanding of areas, regions, or countries where a language is commonly spoken; provide resources for research and training in international and foreign language aspects of professional and other fields of study; and provide opportunities for instruction and research on important issues in world affairs.” In other words, NRCs incentivized universities to support mid-century US economic and security interests, as well as the nation’s social and cultural domination around the globe.
Once Cold War–era investments waned, however, disciplines shifted away from the area studies model Title VI centers represented. The focus on the qualitative, contextual analysis of culture has since given way to more specialized quantitative modeling, especially in the social sciences. Faculty and universities reap the rewards of highly specialized scholarly distinctiveness, institutional ranking schemes, and doctoral student job placements, even as such narrow framing has rendered contextual knowledge of other peoples and places “a very hard sell to department faculty.”
Hyperspecialization reinforces the barriers between disciplines, with each discipline retreating into its own increasingly abstract ideas. Resource and status hoarding ensue. Academic disciplines respond to carrots and sticks, and they prove long lived in the university as coral reef. Shaped by tradition and reshaped by incentives, conventional disciplines lag behind in developing the methods to address today’s complex challenges.
Outside the disciplines, the wider world of universities mirrors this incentive seeking; status is a resource as powerful as money. Institutions compete over hierarchies of rankings and status, and stockpile the rewards that follow. For example, the Times Higher Education World University Rankings grades institutions on five seemingly simple metrics: teaching; research volume and reputation; research influence by citation numbers; international traffic in students, staff, and research; and knowledge transfer as measured in external funding.
In the US News and World Report’s status system, each university receives a score focused broadly on global and regional research reputation, publications, and citations. Just as certain disciplines privilege quantitative over contextual knowledge, these rankings anoint winners based on ostensibly neutral calculations, with the usual suspects in the US and UK atop the pyramids of these two global rankings.
Global problems, however, do not respect such hierarchies and incentives.
“Universities must adapt,” wrote UC Berkeley’s then-chancellor Nicholas Dirks in the World Economic Forum.2 Globalization has rapidly rewritten the contours of human interaction, Dirks observes, making change both within and among universities necessary. Hope rests on a future in which knowledge can be wrested from “the powerful and the dominant.” Dirks sees hope in universities that goes beyond knowledge, too. “A global consortium of universities” can provide a beacon for a world of openness, progress, peace, serving not only to create new and better knowledge, but also to act “as a model for governments, industries, and societies about how to trust and collaborate.”
Dirks offers a broad, progressive vision. But the kind of consortium he describes has been most effective within tightly focused research environments. In disciplines that require costly instrumentation, for example, the scale of needs requires the support of nations, not universities. CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research), in Switzerland, is effectively the world’s largest particle physics lab and operates with the support of member and observer nations. In partnership with two US-funded giant telescopes, the Extremely Large Telescope (ELT), in Chile, funded by a broad coalition of nations, organizations, and corporations, will be the world’s largest optical/near-infrared telescope when it commences operations in 2024, advancing the search for extrasolar planets. University-based astronomers use the facilities and scientific networks that these and other massive, incredibly costly resources provide.
Our conventional institutions are too parochial for the complex global challenges we face.
Nationally funded facilities like CERN and the ELT target specific, significant scientific challenges effectively, but they are not designed to support the breadth of intellectual questions, disciplines, and methods found within a university. This is important: thanks to its breadth, only a university has the capacity to integrate perspectives in response to complex, interlocking global challenges.
In that light, the University of the Arctic is probably the most innovative university you’ve never heard of. Founded in 2001, the University of the Arctic integrates scholars and resources from nearly 190 universities and organizations worldwide, repurposing the concept of “university” to support research and education in the Circumpolar World across the full array of academic disciplines. In the process, it has established a transformative vision, articulated in its statement of values: “UArctic promotes respectful relationships in education, science, research and policy based on reciprocity, equality and trust between northerners and other partners. This approach values the inclusion of traditional and indigenous knowledge systems, together with multidisciplinary perspectives from the arts, social and natural sciences.”
The “campus” of UArctic is the Arctic region itself; its local politics are the transnational politics of culture and climate change. What, then, puts the “U” in UArctic? Its commitment to creating and deploying evidence-based investigation and education across disciplines to address the many complex, interlocking challenges facing the Arctic region.
In the context of climate change, what happens in the Arctic has critical implications for the well-being of climates and their dependent populations worldwide. The global Arctic region is complex in its biodiversity, its wealth of as-yet-untapped natural resources, and its environmental and social fragility. The region is multinational, including numerous indigenous communities as well as Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, and the US. That UArctic is governed by an elected board of individual experts rather than by states or universities allows it to be a flexible para-university with a broad focus and a multidisciplinary approach. It lifts the concept of “university” from the platform of the physical footprint; even its administration is deliberately distributed among its member institutions.
University leaders often tie their global visions to exporting a brick-and-mortar model: the home campus abroad, the campus flag planted at a global outpost. Dirks proposed flipping that formula and locating global Berkeley within 10 miles of the home campus. He envisioned that this “physical hub for an emergent star alliance of top-tier global universities” on the California coast would attract the world’s researchers and educators to pursue multidisciplinary research, apply their discoveries for the good of humanity, and develop techniques for educating emerging leaders, including future scholars and scientists.
This “intellectual collaboration on a new scale” crashed hard against the fiscal and built realities of US higher education. Soon after presenting this vision, word of a massive budget shortfall on Berkeley’s main campus hit the news. The Berkeley Global Campus was killed after Dirks tendered his resignation as Berkeley’s chancellor amid a scandal on campus.
Fiscal and political realities still tie universities resolutely to home, then. Nonetheless, it’s clear that our conventional institutions are too parochial for the complex global challenges we face. Institutions change when incentives change. So let us be guided not by revenues or rankings but by our ideals of what universities can, should, and must be in the world.
This article was commissioned by Caitlin Zaloom.