Address to Times Higher Education Conference

Robert J. Zimmer
Address to Times Higher Education Conference
London, September 30, 2010

Thank you very much. I am very pleased to be here today and to join all of you in a discussion of higher education. I would like to thank the Times Higher Education for the kind introduction and the invitation to address this conference today. It is a privilege to be here.

The university, as an institution, is now about nine hundred years old. Moving beyond the older model of schools that provided training in one particular vocation, the university was born from a conceptual leap—recognizing the value of having a combined faculty, student body, and institution simultaneously covering multiple areas of training. Many observers today think of universities as conservative institutions resistant to change. There is some truth to that. But it is important to remember that universities operate on a very long time frame. Universities have a long and complex history, and they have evolved dramatically over the centuries. Their capacity to change and their remarkable longevity are inextricably bound together. The university of today is quite different from that of fifty years ago, and of course more so from that of one hundred years ago. There is no reason to believe that in fifty or one hundred years people will not say the same about our time. So evolution of universities is to be expected and accounts in part for the stability of the university as an institution.

We see many signs of potential change around us. In Europe, there is considerable ferment about whether universities can become more autonomous, responsive, innovative, and nimble, with every proposal inevitably producing both advocates and opponents. In the United States, we see a flourishing of the great private research universities while the partner structures, the great state public university systems, are under considerable financial pressure and duress. In Asia, we see a great urgency to develop a large number of new universities that can contribute to the massive effort of bringing hundreds of millions of people into the modern economic mainstream. So there are many forces at play and pressures for change are afoot. And as with much change, we can simply let it happen, or we can attempt to apply some principles for navigating these changes and making them a force for strengthening universities.

Today I would like to discuss three topics that arise as we consider change, each of which I believe demands a distinct response. First, I will discuss the fundamental values of universities and the nature of the contributions they make to society. Second, I will discuss how to think about universities in a world of increasing specialization. And third, I will discuss globalization and how it affects universities.

Before I launch into these topics however, it is important to recognize the variability across universities, not only across but also within nations. This variability is in general healthy. Not all students need or can benefit from the same type of education. Ambient cultures as well as economic circumstances create different environments, and the autonomy necessary for universities to be most responsive and innovative also inevitably creates differences. So while I will make some general statements about universities, any broad statements need to be understood in the context of meaningful and valuable variability.

Let’s begin now with the fundamental values of universities and their contributions to society. Most universities describe their missions as research and education as well as the impact that these endeavors have on society, through discovery, understanding, and the capabilities of their alumni. While this is hardly controversial, where issues arise is in interpreting these statements and, very importantly, in which values emerge as the dominant values as one examines legitimate competing interests and interpretations of this mission. An institution’s values are more often what distinguishes them than a general statement of mission.

To me, the highest values of universities are that they are places of intellectual inquiry and challenge, of unfettered and open investigation, of constant questioning and testing of ideas, of exposing and evaluating assumptions; they should be places of questioning and not deference, of analysis and not ideology, of intellectual openness and not comfortable exclusion, of teaching students to think and not follow, and they should be driven by the demand that arguments are accepted only when they stand the test of scrutiny. This openness to questioning and challenge should lie at the foundation of research and permeate students’ education at all levels. There is ample evidence that this type of environment leads to the most innovative research with greatest impact, and that such an environment empowers students to be innovative and original actors across the domains of human endeavor.

This is easy to say but less easy to implement. Most universities articulate some version of these principles. But the real question is whether these principles represent a dominant value, or whether these principles will be trumped by competing interests, either legitimate or more questionable. The strength of the leading research universities in the United States, for example, has been the extent to which these have remained dominant values.

How do these principles connect with the evolution of universities? First of all, they have not always been a primary value at all. When the University of Berlin was founded in 1810, six centuries after the early universities were founded in Bologna, Oxford, Cambridge, and Paris, it was founded on a new set of principles, focused on research, teaching students how to think rather than master a craft, and autonomy from church and state. These values defined the German model of the university, and helped Germany become the leading scientific and scholarly nation in the world until much of it was destroyed in the 1930s. The German model ultimately became the dominant model for universities in Europe. These values were picked up and built upon in the United States with the founding of Johns Hopkins University and the University of Chicago in the last quarter of the 19th century. Over the next half century, this model subsequently spread throughout the leading universities in the U.S. But there are several forces at play now that are threatening these values.

First, this approach recognizes and prioritizes the long term value to society of rigorous research and education that focuses on teaching students to think. In the United States, we have seen an increasing focus within society on immediate results, and a declining societal willingness to accept the profound need for long term investments, such as, though not restricted to, education and research. As the ambient societal environment for universities changes, there may be pressure to pull back from these values, which to my mind would be a major error with profoundly negative consequences for the long term. Therefore, this is one domain in which fundamental values need to be reasserted and reaffirmed in an environment of change.

The second problem, perhaps less evident but very real, is that universities are being called upon to solve a variety of societal and even personal issues and therefore face an increasingly complex and diverse set of pressures. Responding to these forces certainly can fall within a university’s purview and provide benefit to both society and to the university. But there is a danger that with so many forces pulling in so many directions, what are seen as legitimate competing interests may trump the values of rigorous and open inquiry and challenge. While each university must find its own way, again I believe that maintaining the values of which I have spoken as the highest and dominant value is critical to the long term success of universities and to their most important contributions to society. That is why we have had, and continue to have, such a great commitment to maintaining rigorous inquiry as the dominant value at the University of Chicago.

I have spoken of the importance of maintaining the value of inquiry in an environment of change, and let me move now to the second topic, namely how to think about universities in a world of increasing specialization. Let me begin by summarizing a familiar argument that we often hear.

We all acknowledge that the world is more complex, and mastering a given area requires a great deal of focus. Further, many employers are eager to find persons who can move most easily into positions as quickly as possible, and since more of these positions require increased specialized knowledge compared to what was required some years ago, it is important, this argument has it, that universities focus students’ education on attaining such specialized knowledge. This, it is argued, is an appropriate evolutionary step for universities given the evolution of knowledge and society.

However, I believe there are serious problems with this argument, the first being that its description of the world of increased specialization is very incomplete. Namely, this argument assumes that the world essentially looks like a set of isolated and separate specializations, and one need only fit into one of these separate buckets. However, a better description of the world is that it is a complex network of specializations, and that a key to both understanding and working in this world is appreciation of how the network works. More specifically, a key feature of the network is that it has to connect and integrate the specializations, which may cross disciplines, cultures, and perspectives.

Therefore, for people working in this network, and particularly for leaders, a key area of responsibility will be integration across these different nodes, i.e. specializations, in the network. To train leaders, one needs to train persons with particular capabilities—the understanding of multiple modes of work, the perspectives underlying specializations, and the nature of different cultures. Furthermore, leaders must be able to question and synthesize within this complex environment. But it is not just the leaders, the integrators, who need to participate in this process. People working within specializations themselves will need to connect to others to make the network effective. Thus, an education is called for that embraces both specialized knowledge and a synthesizing integrating perspective across disciplines. It is this, not an overly simplistic view of a world of specialization, that we are really called upon to respond to.

How does this connect to the classic notion of a liberal arts education? First, I would argue it implies that a liberal arts component of education is, if anything, only of more value. But it also says something about the nature of a liberal arts education that is in fact most beneficial. Namely, such an education should be purposefully focused on teaching students a habit of mind to integrate ideas, to understand problems from multiple perspectives, and to challenge conclusions that may be too deeply rooted in only one perspective. Liberal arts education at its best is more than a smorgasbord, a sampling from different specializations. It is rather a capacity to integrate different approaches, to understand power and limitations of fields and arguments, to focus on the nature and implications of different cultures, and to create syntheses.

And what about specialized knowledge? This too is of course important. But it is likewise important within a specialized field that students be taught to think and to challenge. The same arguments about societal evolution often assert that change is accelerating. And if that is the case, then simply learning skills without a capacity to adjust, to think, and to question may leave a student well prepared for the short term, but not the long term.

We run here once again into the question of societal patience and willingness to undertake investment for the long term. If we look to the longer term and the work students will be doing in their jobs in the future, an education that combines an integrative liberal arts education with specialized education that teaches thought in that area seems to me to be the best response for our evolving societies.

So while in considering the dominant values of universities I argued the need for holding fast to the values that have led to universities’ greatest achievements and contributions to society, I believe that the education that we need in the face of a world which can be described as an increasingly complex network of specializations needs to draw on some of the strengths of past models, but with a renewed focus on liberal arts in a particular way.

Finally, let me turn to the question of globalization and what it means for our universities. While there are many aspects of globalization that affect universities, I will focus on one. Namely, what we are seeing in Asia and to some extent in Latin America and the Middle East is a cultural, economic, political, and social experiment of unprecedented scale and impact. It is already having a massive effect on the lives of hundreds of millions of people, changing the structure of societies, and altering the global economic and political environment. These effects are likely to continue to evolve and create yet greater impact.

What are the implications for universities? First of course is that many countries in Asia, most notably China, but also India and Singapore, are building new universities to educate what is expected to be a vast socially and economically upwardly mobile population. These universities will inevitably reflect something of the situation of their founding. In universities in the United States and Europe, I believe that over time the effect will be very significant. Increasing numbers of faculty will find work connected to Asia to be a natural component of their work (and I am not speaking here of just China or India “experts,” but a much wider collection of scholars) and many more students at all levels will want exposure to Asia, educational experiences connected to Asia, and relationships to Asia. Universities, to be competitive in their research and education programs, will seek ways to respond. We are already seeing a great deal of such activity, and in fact I was in Beijing just two weeks ago for the opening of the new University of Chicago Center in Beijing. This center is designed to support the work of our faculty and students and help them build meaningful collaborations with Chinese faculty, students, universities, and other entities. This is our second center in Asia, the first being in Singapore, and we are now actively exploring establishing one in Delhi as well.

There are two aspects of this general development that I would like to highlight. First, universities as a whole are trying to understand how to respond to these challenges. There are many experiments underway of varying scale and approach, and we will likely understand quite a bit more in ten years about what types of approaches work. For now, this is very much early-stage work in progress. Another way of phrasing this is that universities are struggling to define for themselves exactly what it means to be a global university and how important this is compared to other types of investments they might make. There is perhaps an analogy with the difference between regional and national universities. In countries of enough scale to have a large university system, there is a difference between universities that think of themselves and are seen by others as “national” as opposed to regional universities. Certainly, all the major private research universities in the U.S. are national universities. Many regional universities do a good job, but in terms of the type of faculty and students they recruit, there is a considerable difference. But those that are now national universities were not always so. Many had a regional focus for quite some time, and only with increased ambition and capacity were able to develop into a national university. Few universities would claim to be able to be truly eminent without this national perspective. It is a natural question as to whether the transition from national to global will have the same tone. Right now this is an open question, but again, we will understand a good deal more as universities evolve over the next two or three decades.

Therefore, in this third area connected to the evolution of universities I am in fact very sanguine that we will see a new feature of many universities emerging that will be of great benefit. It is unclear which exact forms that will ultimately prove successful, but I believe we can see already the exploration of important goals: much greater global interaction in education, expanded need and opportunities for research and collaboration across national boundaries, and a greater role for making cultural boundaries across the world much more porous. This to me is an exciting future, even if its ultimate precise forms remain uncertain in these early stages of development.

In conclusion, we are in the midst of a number of directions of change for universities driven by general societal evolution. I have discussed only a few of them here. But what I have tried to illustrate is that in some cases we need to ensure that long standing values connected to the best that universities have to offer society are preserved, even in an evolving environment. In other cases, there are natural positive ways of evolving existing forms to respond to change, but there are dangers in not reading the meaning of the change correctly. And then there are genuinely new challenges that, while there may be analogues, offer exciting new opportunities for universities in how they contribute. Change is always upon us, whether it is slow or fast. And it is our collective responsibility not to be flotsam and jetsam in the flow of this change, but to ensure that the highest values of universities are preserved and in fact enhanced as we help develop the university of the future.

Thank you.