How will your graduates contribute to society?

Jamil Salmi, a Moroccan education economist, is well known in the higher education world as a global tertiary education expert. In the past 24 years he has provided policy advice to governments and university leaders in more than 90 countries in all parts of the world.

This article is part of a series on Transformative Leadership published by University World News in partnership with Mastercard Foundation. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

A former World Bank tertiary education coordinator and lead expert on tertiary education and now an independent consultant, the list of institutions, governments and global and international bodies he has advised makes him one of the most sought-after experts on higher education worldwide.

Among his many publications, Jamil Salmi, with Philip Altbach, is co-editor of The Road to Academic Excellence: The making of world-class research universities (The World Bank, 2011) and author of The Challenge of Establishing World-Class Universities (The World Bank, 2009), which can be downloaded from his website.

As part of the University World News series on Transformative Leadership, published in partnership with The MasterCard Foundation, University World News invited Salmi to discuss how higher education institutions and systems can provide and promote ethical leadership that is transformative.

This Q&A is an edited version of the conversation.

UWN: What is transformative leadership?

Salmi: I think it is really leadership with a vision and capacity to carry out that vision, transform it into reality, inspire the team and make a big difference. It is not to do more of the same: it is disruptive. I think what is happening at Arizona State University, led by Michael Crow, is a great example. He took over 12 to 13 years ago and has really made a big impact.

Arizona State University is not an Ivy League university but he and his team have tried to make it a strong research university at the same time as not losing its character as an open, not elite, university. He is trying to define 'what is the American University?'

Other examples would be Lausanne’s EPFL, Switzerland, which has improved drastically to become one of the top French-speaking engineering institutes in the world, and Olin College of Engineering in the US.

Olin College, located in Needham, Massachusetts, and serving undergraduates only, is the best school of engineering. They have really transformed the way they approach engineering – a multidisciplinary, project-based, team-based approach – and its curriculum includes entrepreneurship and humanities, because of the importance of values and ethical behaviour. Its leader (since 1999), Rick Miller, is visionary.

EPFL’s president, Patrick Aebischer, who is stepping down at the end of this year after 16 years of leadership, has really transformed the institution. He tried to make it more like a top US research institution while retaining its European character.

Aebischer has tried to bring some principles from top US universities, breaking down barriers between disciplines and introducing tenure track systems for junior researchers. He organised a merger by bringing from the University of Lausanne the departments of maths, physics and chemistry to strengthen the scientific base of the school. He also moved away from governance with elected deans to having deans appointed by the president, making it a stronger leadership team.

UWN: How does having appointed rather than elected deans strengthen leadership?

Salmi: I do a lot of work in Latin American and in continental Europe and believe that electing university presidents and deans more often than not does not bring leaders willing to transform but rather managers who want to keep business as usual. There are exceptions, but it is much easier to be elected on a platform of no change than a platform where you tell colleagues we are going to work harder, demand more from you and evaluate your performance.

Some of the best examples are Denmark and Finland, where they moved away from traditional elected [positions] and have a professional search. As a result, we have seen much progress in these two countries.

UWN: What is ethical leadership and what does it mean for universities?

Salmi: Ethical leadership means that you don’t just prepare graduates to make money but to be citizens.

This is the goal at Olin College where they prepare graduates who will be socially responsible. For instance, Miller, an aeronautics engineer by profession, likes to teach one class every year, but he does not teach aeronautical engineering, he teaches ethics instead – because he wants his engineering graduates to be socially responsible about the relevance and impact of their work. It is about making sure whatever you produce, whether it is goods or services, will have a positive impact on the community, on society.

In developing countries it means that you will address the sustainable development goals and more globally the big challenges our planet faces today and that you will be responsible citizens.

Take the few US universities which were recently faulted for not taking sexual harassment, or even rape, seriously. There was the case of the Pennsylvannia State University coach who sexually harassed students. Everyone now knows about it but it was hush hushed because sport is more important than ethics in [some] US universities.

Ethics in research is making sure you don’t have too cosy a relationship between researcher and the sponsor of the research. We have had several cases involving the drug industry. We want ethical behaviour – no false research, no inappropriate research, no plagiarism.

In fundraising, the University of Hong Kong has clear guidelines about which companies they will accept money from and which they will not, for example, producers of tobacco products and weapons. Some universities are diversifying endowment from coal producers or companies that have a negative environmental impact. Being a green campus is also important.

UWN: Are values of inclusiveness and equality important to ethical leadership?

Salmi: Yes, it is also about being an inclusive university. How do you combine academic excellence and social inclusion? Some Ivy League universities have needs blind admissions policies to ensure low-income students won’t be discriminated against. It is a common criticism of Oxford and Cambridge universities that they don’t do it.

It is the same as [the issue of] female leadership. It is no accident that Nordic universities have a higher proportion of female leaders than continental Europe or the UK – if you are not going to put it on the agenda, you are not going to deal with it.

There are ways of reaching out. I spoke to working-class youngsters in the UK who had the qualifying A-level results to go to Imperial College London, but because their dad had never been to college they took a bus past Imperial each day to go to a further education college. They had the qualifications but not the right information or motivation. If you don’t put equity on the agenda, you won’t be able to improve this.

UWN: What is your advice to university leaders on how to build in ethical values and does that mean having a curriculum that is for your community, your university’s mission rather than trying to copy other – even if ‘world–class’ – universities?

Salmi: My plea to universities is that to improve quality and relevance of programmes it is more about being unique, expanding your niches, rather than imitating universities at the top of the rankings.

Harvard University is unique. The culture of Stanford is very different. Cambridge and Oxford are different. Cultivating uniqueness rather than imitating is an important principle.

The first example I mentioned was Arizona State University, which is less selective as one of the biggest universities, and is striving to be excellent at the same time as inclusive.

There are examples in Africa, too. For instance, the University of Dakar at the end of the colonial period used to have the top tropical medicine curriculum in the world, but there has been a trade-off [since] between quantitative expansion and quality and something has been lost out of that.

The University of Ibadan, Nigeria, used to be the best Anglophone university in Africa in the 1960s. Over the years, with the political travel of Nigeria, it went down. But it was unique with its own personality and curriculum.

It is not about trying to become Oxford or Cambridge but about trying to be top in Ghana or Kenya in relation to the needs of the country.

A good example is KAUST [King Abdullah University of Science and Technology] in Saudi Arabia, which is trying to become a world-class university by focusing on the needs of desert society and the desert economy and tailoring their research programme and curriculum to the needs of transforming the desert into a vibrant economy.

It is about enforcing a culture that is very clear about ethical dimensions and very strict in case somebody does not behave properly. You carry out due diligence and where there are rumours you do background checks. You have to be fair, but if there is any doubt, you have to be very careful.

UWN: What does ethical leadership of higher education systems look like and how is it achieved? And is it different in developed and developing countries?

Salmi: You want any system to be based on honesty. In the political world that is much more difficult to achieve. Very often the sphere of higher education reflects the wider problems in society. It has to do with countries trying to encourage and sustain ethical values and that comes from national leadership.

Very few countries have a policy of promoting equity. A good example would be Ireland, also Australia and to some extent the UK with the Office for Fair Access. I don’t think the latter has been very effective but at least it is on the national agenda.

One problem with many countries is that they assume equity is about money, that is, let us make sure that low-income students are not barred from university because of lack of funds. But this is not the only factor. It is also about academic preparation, information and motivation.

Often by the time you reach university level it is too late. If you are told from an early age that engineering is a man’s job, you will not be surprised at the lack of female applications.

Often there are elites, for instance in the UK they go to so-called ‘public schools’ [which in fact are private fee-paying schools]. The problems you see in higher education have their roots in the lower levels, at primary and secondary education levels. So it needs a comprehensive approach.

At the institutional level Nordic countries are notable, especially for supporting students with special needs; the US also, to some extent. They have special offices dedicated to special needs. In many countries they just think of something simple such as ensuring the physical environment is open to wheelchair students.

But in many universities even that is not on the agenda yet. I was visiting a university in Romania recently where they had to carry a student to the third floor because there were no elevators. It happens in many parts of the world.

The point is that if you are trying to achieve equity, the target groups may be more numerous than you realise – low income, gender, which is about not only access but the type of programmes girls go to and leadership positions at the top of universities, then there are the minorities, LGBT [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender] students, indigenous groups, minority language groups and people with special needs.

We often don’t have a comprehensive view; it is too narrow, focusing on low-income students.