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Prepared Remarks for 7th International Conference on World-Class Universities: “Thinking Locally, Acting Globally: Higher Education in a Global Century”

I would like to begin with a fundamental question: What is a world-class university? How do we define “world-class”? Looking beyond the criteria used in the global ranking systems, what are the qualities that distinguish a university as being among the best in the world? Every nation on earth wants to have world-class universities; several national governments have publicly committed to develop a specific number of world-class universities within a certain time frame. Yet consensus on the definition of a world-class university remains elusive. Different contexts seem to produce different definitions.

Everyone seems to agree that research power is important, particularly in the science and technology fields. But measuring a university’s quality only by its research output is reductive, and it leaves out other important factors. I believe that to be truly world-class in the fullest meaning of those words, a university must have several other qualities.

First, a world-class university should achieve a high level of excellence in both research and teaching. Its faculty must be committed to discovering new knowledge through research, and they must also be committed to disseminating knowledge though effective teaching — preserving knowledge and passing it to each successive generation.

Clark Kerr, who served as president of the University of California in the 1960s and essentially created the blueprint for modern public higher education in the U.S., coined the term “multiversity.” This was his word to describe the numerous missions carried out by research universities. To be world-class, a university should be a multiversity — successful in the multiple missions of teaching, research, and scholarship, and often clinical care, public service, and cultural enrichment.

A world-class university must also be connected globally, because no university that aspires to be among the world’s best can be isolated in the 21st century. To be world-class, a university should be actively engaged in networks and partnerships around the world — with other universities and also with partners in government, non-governmental organizations, and business.

While reaching out to other universities and to partners in government and business, a world-class university must break down traditional academic boundaries within the university to allow for cross-disciplinary collaboration. This elimination of disciplinary boundaries is necessary for the kind of work that faculty must do to address 21st-century problems.

Many of our most pressing global problems are exceedingly complex and multi-faceted — for example: disease pandemics, international security, pollution, and other environmental issues. Solutions to these problems often arise at the intersections of disciplines, rather than in a single, isolated field of study.

At the University of Virginia, we recently launched a series of pan-university, cross-disciplinary research institutes that draw together faculty from various schools and departments to work on projects and problems of shared interest. The Environmental Resilience Institute brings together engineers, environmental scientists, designers, social scientists, humanists, lawyers, and experts in business. Together, they are seeking solutions to urgent environmental challenges such as coastal flooding and storm impacts in coastal regions.

The Global Infectious Diseases Institute brings together faculty in science, engineering, medicine, social sciences, nursing, law, education, and public policy to address the most urgent infectious threats, including epidemics such as Ebola.  Increasingly, this style of cross-disciplinary work is the new model for research and scholarship, and dissolving barriers to foster this style of work is another necessity for a university to be among the best in the world.

I want to mention one final defining quality, and this one might be the most important. To be truly world-class, a university must practice an unrestrictive style of governance. The university’s governance structures must relax controls sufficiently to allow faculty creativity to flourish. A university is a community of scholars and entrepreneurs above all, and a community of this kind cannot thrive in a tightly restricted environment.

University governing bodies that govern with a closed fist constrain innovation and entrepreneurship; governing bodies that are open-handed create an environment in which innovation and entrepreneurship can flourish. Only in such a setting can a university become world-class. A world-class university should be a meritocracy in every respect — in organization and leadership, and in teaching, research, and service.

Academic freedom is an essential quality for a world-class university. In 2011, the World Bank produced a study titled “The Road to Academic Excellence: The making of world-class research universities.” The study examined successful institutions in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and Eastern Europe, including Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, Shanghai Jiao Tong University, Pohang University of Science and Technology in South Korea, the National University of Singapore, and other universities in India, Nigeria, Mexico, Russia, and Chile.

The study found that even fledgling universities have the potential to grow into top-quality research institutions within two or three decades if — and only if — several conditions are present: top academic talent; adequate financial resources; and above all, a governance structure that protects faculty autonomy and academic freedom.

So these are some of the qualities that make a university world-class: a robust culture of teaching, research, and scholarship; an openness to cross-disciplinary research; diversity and inclusion; and relaxed governance that fosters innovation and supports academic freedom.

As we seek to find a common definition of a world-class university, we should acknowledge that the best colleges and universities in the world come in a variety of institutional forms. There is not a single, exclusive model of excellence. World-class universities typically give advanced degrees in a number of fields, but without sacrificing the importance of undergraduate learning and teaching.

Altogether in the U.S., we have more than 4,700 degree-granting institutions. That number includes about 1,700 two-year colleges and more than 3,000 four-year colleges. Within those 4,700, we have many different types of colleges and universities, and within each type we have some examples of excellence.

We have public universities, meaning these schools receive some level of government support; and we have private universities, meaning these schools operate independently from the government. But this distinction can be misleading. Our private universities are private in the sense that they are not controlled or regulated by state governments; they are not required to have open meetings of their governing boards; and they are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, that allows journalists and others to request access to information, whereas public universities are subject to FOIA requests.

But our private universities also have public characteristics. They receive public subsidies, mostly in the form of tax breaks and student loans and grants. They receive government grants and contracts that allow overhead to cover a portion of the research costs. These may be private universities in name, but these are public, taxpayer-based subsidies.

Of course, public universities have private elements, too. For example, because of the collapse of U.S. state support for public colleges and universities in recent decades, private funds have become an increasingly essential revenue stream for the publics. These realities make the distinction between public and private less obvious than it may seem.

Within the category of public universities, we have land-grant and non-land-grant universities. In 1862, the U.S. government provided grants of 30,000 acres of Federal lands to help states fund public colleges — these became known as the land-grant schools. We have large flagship universities with 50,000 or more students, and we have small liberal arts colleges with 2,000 or fewer, both public and private.

Last year, the American Academy of Arts & Sciences produced a report describing how America’s public research universities contribute to the public good.  These universities enroll 3.8 million students each year, educating these young people for employment and active citizenship. They support the upward social mobility of large numbers of talented young people who face financial challenges, many of whom are the first in their family to go to college. More than 30 percent of undergraduate students who attend public research universities in the U.S. receive Pell Grants—these are grants from the federal government for students from low-income families.

America’s public research universities conduct much of the nation’s research in science, medicine, engineering, and technology. This is a change from an earlier era, when research and development in the U.S. was performed primarily by national laboratories and industrial research laboratories, such as Bell Labs. After many of these industrial laboratories shut down, American research universities stepped forward to fill the gap.

Discoveries made by researchers at public universities have improved health, advanced the economy, and contributed to the public good in so many ways. Some examples include the following.

  • Retractable locking seatbelts for automobiles were created at the University of Minnesota.
  • The lithium-ion battery, a critical component of smartphones and tablets, was developed at the University of Texas at Austin.
  • The U.S. social security system was developed using social science research conducted at the University of Wisconsin.
  • Recently at the University of Virginia, researchers discovered that the brain is connected to the immune system by vessels that were previously thought not to exist. This groundbreaking discovery has implications for the study and treatment of numerous neurological diseases, ranging from multiple sclerosis to Alzheimer’s disease. Science magazine named this one of the top-10 biggest research breakthroughs of 2015.

In addition to educating millions of students from all backgrounds and creating new products, technologies, and disease treatments, U.S. public research universities contribute to the public good by improving teaching and learning in kindergarten through secondary schools; promoting child development and teen health; and engaging with their local communities through lab schools, extension programs, and so on. They support the advancement of numerous professions by teaching and credentialing in law, medicine, teaching, engineering, and so forth. They produce educated citizens who are prepared to shape and participate in effective society.

These are just a few examples of how public universities in the U.S. have contributed to the public good. World-class universities in other nations are likewise educating millions of their citizens and making discoveries and breakthroughs that have great societal benefits.

How can we best work together? The theme of this conference speaks to “the global common good.” This theme reflects the view that higher education is a public rather than a private good; that governments therefore should allocate resources to support higher education; and that top universities around the world must work together to continue contributing to the global good. This last point is critical. I believe that world-class universities in our respective nations can reach our fullest potential as contributors to the global public good only when we reach across national borders to join forces, pooling our intellectual resources and other resources to maximum effect. Top universities all over the world must continue to meet their own local commitments — educating the citizens of their respective states and nations, conducting research to solve localized problems, and so on. But in the 21st century, WCUs must balance their roles in fulfilling these local engagements and national commitments with contributing to the global common good. Often these two commitments—to the local and national good, and to the global good—overlap.

Let me share a few examples from work at the University of Virginia. Lack of clean drinking water is an urgent health problem in many parts of the globe. Among the world’s 7.5 billion people, fewer than 2 billion have a consistent supply of clean water, and between 3 and 4 million people die each year from water-borne diseases. In an effort to fight this problem, UVA students and faculty have been working with university partners in South Africa to provide clean drinking water through the use of a water-purification disk called MadiDrop.

The MadiDrop tablet, which uses silver to disinfect water, was developed by UVA scientists. It’s cheap to produce, and it can disinfect water for up to six months simply by resting in water storage containers. It causes better than a 99.99% reduction in water-borne bacteria such as cholera, E. coli, and other bacteria.  Working with community health workers, UVA students now travel regularly to communities in South Africa to gather data about the water quality and to educate local citizens about the benefits of using the MadiDrop technology. This technology also has potential applications within the United States, in areas where clean drinking water is scarce—in areas struck by natural disasters, for example.

In another example, in 2016 UVA formed a partnership with the Max Planck Society in Germany, one of the foremost research institutions in the world. UVA faculty are working together with colleagues in the Max Planck Society to develop solutions for one of society’s most urgent global challenges: the need for clean, renewable energy sources. The need for clean energy is a challenge in the U.S., but it is also a global challenge, so the work being produced by this partnership will benefit nations around the world.

In a final example, UVA faculty members and students are involved with partners in India on a multi-disciplinary project to restore the Yamuna River in New Delhi. Some of the earliest settlements in Delhi were established along the banks of the Yamuna River, but today the Yamuna is one of the most polluted rivers in the world — a toxic mixture of industrial waste and sewage. Increasing levels of pollution have dropped the oxygen levels in the river to zero; it is a “dead river,” as environmental experts say. Making matters worse, the river is completely cut off from the city of Delhi by poorly planned construction.

UVA architecture faculty and students have been working for the past three years to create a plan for reconnecting the river to the city, and the project has expanded to involve faculty and students in environmental sciences, engineering, public health, politics, big data, and business.

This year, we signed a five-year M.O.U. with the New Delhi Water Authority to map out a plan to resuscitate the pollution-choked river and to re-connect it to the city. Over the next few years, UVA faculty and students will work together with partners at the University of Delhi to study the river and the land surrounding it, with the goal of turning this “dead river” into a healthy, functioning environment for the millions of people living nearby. This work is important to the citizens of Delhi, obviously, but it has implications for millions of other citizens around the world who are living near polluted waters. Lessons learned in Delhi may be applied elsewhere around the world.

Each one of these projects has unique qualities, but they also share a common denominator. The project in South Africa began when UVA faculty and students saw a terrible problem and a great need, one that affects the most vulnerable populations in South Africa and around the world, and they set out in a spirit of service to find solutions. The project in India began with architecture faculty, many of whom have personal ties to India, who saw an area of great need. They opened a series of research studios, and began appealing to other faculty from various disciplines to help, and the effort expanded from there. The partnership with the Max Planck Society began when UVA faculty who are deeply involved in solving a global problem sought out partners at one of the finest research centers in the world, partners who share their commitment and vision.

This was the common denominator: A shared vision and sense of purpose drew people together from various corners of the world to work on local problems that have global implications—to contribute to “the global common good,” to use the words of our conference theme. By reaching across our national borders and the miles that divide us to work together, world-class universities in different nations can achieve something greater and more impactful than we would ever be able to achieve in isolation. We may think locally, but we must act globally to contribute in full measure to the global common good.

There is a metaphor that is quite appropriate to the goal of world-class universities collaborating across borders for the common good, and I will share it with you in closing. During space flight, when astronauts can see the whole Earth from their position far away in orbit, they often experience a cognitive shift that has become known as the “overview effect.”

From the distant perspective of space, astronauts from various nations see the Earth for what it is — a relatively small, fragile ball of life hanging in the vast void of the universe. From far away in space, the man-made borders that separate nations on earth are completely invisible; the conflicts that divide peoples of various nations and ethnic groups seem trivial; and working together to help all people thrive and to sustain the entire earth seems like the only correct and viable course of action. This is the “overview effect.”

Our effort to contribute to “the global common good” as partners in higher education must work the same way. We must look beyond geographical boundaries and national borders to form strong partnerships to solve the complex global problems that we face in the 21st century. Our responsibility to the global common good demands that we do so, and that we do so with great energy and enthusiasm.