New rector signals new phase for United Nations University

Canadian Dr David Malone, who took office as rector of the United Nations University last month, pledges to “relentlessly” pursue higher quality and more relevant research during his five-year term at the helm of the international research institution.

In an interview with University World News, Malone discussed his intention to push the 150 principal researchers that work for the United Nations University, or UNU, to produce groundbreaking research that will inform policy relevant to UN priorities.

“There is a glut of indifferent material out there,” he said, describing university research in general. “We need to work harder to transcend that.”

The United Nations University

UNU is a research organisation headquartered in Tokyo, with 15 institutes in 13 countries. Established in 1972 as the academic arm of the UN, the university was created to feed evidence-based ideas to UN agencies and decision-makers.

A number of research institutes under UNU’s umbrella are recognised globally for high quality research. The World Institute for Development Economics in Helsinki, for example, has collaborated with or funded eight Nobel prize-winning economists.

In the past four years, the university has launched a handful of small, graduate-degree programmes – the sustainable development masters programme in Yokohama, for instance, has approximately 15 students.

As the only university in the world not connected to a specific nation, UNU thought it could offer students a uniquely international perspective and access to interesting researchers.

But the future of teaching at UNU is uncertain. “We're experimenting at teaching,” said Malone. “We need to be sure whether we can serve our students well before we can take on more.

“The principal role of UNU is to be a think-tank,” he explained. “Teaching is an optional extra we have added in recent years, but the think-tank is central.”

Malone’s background lends itself to leading a hybrid institution like UNU.

From 2008-13, he was president of the International Development Research Centre, a Canadian government agency that funds researchers in developing countries who are working on poverty, health care, development or environmental issues.

He has held research posts at the University of Toronto and Carleton University in Canada and was an adjunct professor at New York University and Columbia University, but most of his professional experience was with Canada’s foreign affairs department and think-tanks. His foreign affairs career culminated with his appointment as Canada’s High Commissioner to India.

UNU’s role, academic freedom and tenure

Malone argues that UNU’s role is to produce uniquely international research in the spirit of interdisciplinary problem-solving. Its researchers are hired to work on specific policy areas of interest to the UN.

“Environmental sustainability cannot be achieved without paying a great deal of attention to science,” he explained. “But simply having scientific evidence is never enough to persuade parliaments, governments or corporations to change.

“You need to figure out how to induce positive change, and that's where the social sciences come in. Behavioural economics, sociology, even anthropology, all become very, very important in the economic development and growth story.”

Malone says the UNU charter guarantees its researchers academic freedom. “The freedom to think as one wishes, to write as one wishes; that is the bedrock of academic freedom and it is well guaranteed within UNU,” he said. “It’s not like working directly for a government or corporation.”

While academic freedom is a principle he values, Malone believes there is inevitably tension between absolute academic freedom and the goals of research organisations.

“Absolute academic freedom does not exist anywhere because you simply wouldn't be hired if what you were proposing to do did not fit into a wider game plan of the institution involved.”

Malone sees global declines of tenured positions as a positive development for quality of research. “The greatest universities in the world are offering fewer and fewer tenured positions. Instead they are offering highly paid, exciting shorter-term contracts,” he said.

“This allows one to go back to the recruitment pool more often. Improvements in quality can be made more quickly than in the past, when there was tenure. It keeps faculty on their toes.”

So is tenure necessary to protect academic freedom?

“The argument for tenure goes that academics would be self-censoring for fear of not having their contracts renewed,” said Malone, who finds this argument unconvincing. “Academic freedom is very well enshrined in most universities. I don't think the weight of the argument is sufficient to outweigh the cost of tenure.”

Malone believes universities are offering fewer tenured positions because of pressure to recruit the top talent in order to compete globally. “Universities are in hot pursuit of the very best people, and don't see why they should indefinitely carry underperforming tenured personnel.”

How to best pursue groundbreaking research and teaching at universities is top of mind for Malone.

As he begins his term at UNU, he is exploring fundamental questions about the future of higher education. “The conversation also needs to include the question: For whose benefit are universities run? That helps to organise one's thoughts. What are universities for?”