Remembering the future of higher education

Close your eyes and imagine a university. If you are a graduate of a university, yourself, it will be hard not to picture the institution of your own youthful studies. You will likely envision some buildings, perhaps rendered a bit fuzzy with time and distance, but still recognisable. Keep your eyes closed and you will begin to feel the place, possibly, even recalling the distinctive scent of old books, or college cooking, or the brand of disinfectant used to clean the library.

Keep those eyes shut a little longer. If you are a university professor or administrator, then you might begin to imagine, instead, your current institution. Still, the siren’s call of nostalgia will be hard to shake, and you will almost inevitably start to compare the buildings, the curriculum and the people of your present haunt to those of your most impressionable years.

If you continue this thought experiment just a bit longer, your mind’s eye may begin to wander off to one of the historic and iconic universities of the past – the University of Bologna, the University of Oxford, or even that upstart-come-lately, the University of Cambridge (founded in 1209).

Perhaps you have visited one of these, and have been inspired while strolling among the medieval arcades and porticos, or exhaling beneath the Bridge of Sighs, or punting on the River Cam. Even if you have no personal experience of such places, your imagination can probably render a romantic pastiche of ivy covered halls and shady quadrangles.

Whether you linger here or are inspired to open your eyes and return to your present day challenges and opportunities, no matter how long your eyes are closed, you are unlikely to visualise the university of the future, the university of some remote or indefinite tomorrow, the university that has yet to come. Why is this so?

Remembering to think about the future does not come naturally for most people, and academics, assuredly, are people. Insulated as we are from the rigours of the changing seasons, we no longer habitually put something aside for winter; with ready access to easy credit, prudence no longer compels us to save for the proverbial rainy day; and, ignorant of (or insensitive to) the impact of our consumption of natural resources, we consume with reckless abandon, notwithstanding occasional (and so far mostly symbolic) gestures toward sustainability.

Detached from our agricultural roots, as well as from common sense, we are just as likely to devour our seed corn, overextend ourselves with debt, and overexploit our rivers, oceans, aquifers, mines, and forests. Future generations, who have neither voice nor vote regarding the choices we make, are thereby left to fend for themselves.

And, why not? Consciously or unconsciously, we are facing enough present challenges in serving our present day academic communities. And, what have future generations ever done for us? As little, it seems, as many of us are prepared to do for them.

Even if we want to remember the future, what future is it that we should be remembering? “The future is like everything else, no longer what it used to be,” poet and philosopher Paul Valéry famously wrote.

By this, he seems to mean, first, that the futures imagined or predicted by our predecessors seldom are realised. Indeed, when we remember past futures, it is easy to sneer or scoff at them, usually because technology or industry or population have dramatically out-paced, or under-performed, what was anticipated. Such scoffing is almost too easy.

Discourse of the future

More meaningfully, however, Valéry appears to mean that the discourse of the future is itself radically unfixed. “…[W]e cannot now think of it with any degree of confidence in our inductions,” he explained. Not only will different todays imagine or predict different tomorrows but, depending on the spirit of the age, people will also think about the fundamental nature of the future differently.

Alas, when our generation remembers the future, it is usually to indulge our fascination with the unknown. Whether that be the undiscovered country, the future of the human race, or even, more prosaically, the weather, we love to play the roles of forecaster and fortune teller. Pollyanna and Cassandra, by turns, inform our thoughts about the future.

Will tomorrow bring us personal jet packs or a zombie apocalypse? Will planet Earth colonise other worlds or, due to our lack of preparedness, will it be demolished by an errant asteroid? From these familiar points of view, the future is either something to be embraced or something to be dreaded and, if at all possible, to be avoided.

I like to think, however, that the calmer and more calculating among us are willing and able to assume an adaptive approach to the future, seeking to make the best of, and avoid the worst of, whatever is most likely to occur, and basing judgments on prevailing trends rather than either utopian thinking or nightmare scenarios.

Although there is no single mythological or literary character who serves as the symbol for a calm and calculating posture toward the future, as catastrophe has its Cassandra and progress has its Pollyanna, I would nominate Penelope, the wife of the Greek hero Odysseus.

Penelope was no hero, certainly by archaic measures, but she did cope coolly and competently with difficult and fluid circumstances. As a result of her innovative deceptions, a door was kept open for the best possible outcome – the increasingly unlikely return of her husband to Ithaca – while simultaneously forestalling the worst possible outcome – marriage to an unworthy suitor who would undoubtedly deprive her son of his patrimony.

This calm and considered adaptive mindset was well represented in 1965, when five exceptional academic leaders, from five very different parts of the world, convened a gathering of university presidents, rectors, and vice-chancellors. This gathering served both as the inaugural meeting of the International Association of University Presidents, or IAUP, and as the dedication of Wroxton College, Fairleigh Dickinson University’s international campus in northern Oxfordshire.

The purpose was to encourage higher education leaders to remember the future, not as Cassandras or Pollyannas but, rather, as Penelopes.

The distinguished assembly of university presidents included Dr Peter Sammartino, president of Fairleigh Dickinson University, USA; Dr Young Seek Choue, president of Kyung Hee University, Republic of Korea; Dr Rochefort Weeks, president of the University of Liberia; Dr Jaime Benítez, president of the University of Puerto Rico; and Carlos P Rómulo, president of University of the Philippines.

Other notable speakers at the historic 1965 meeting included historian Arnold J Toynbee, financier Jean Paul Getty, economist Lady Barbara Ward Jackson, international educator Kenneth Holland, and (in absentia due to illness) statesman Adlai Stevenson. Proceedings of that meeting were subsequently published as The Fairleigh Dickinson International Conference on Higher Education, edited by Peter Sammartino (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1965).

The most prescient prediction emerging from the 1965 conference was also the most ambiguous. Recognising that he and his colleagues were experiencing a liminal moment in world history, Dr Young Seek Choue described two possible futures for the world (and for higher education), one of darkening shadows and the other a new dawn of human fellowship.

At the crossroads

Choue explained, “Now, we are at the crossroads. One road will drive us into the abyss of total destruction of the earth if human beings employ their lethal weapons irresponsibly. And the other will lead to prosperity for generations to come, but it demands tolls – the price not in monetary value but in human love, devotion, and sacrifice.”

According to Choue, it would fall mainly to the intellectual leadership of the world, meaning the universities, to promote cooperation, mutual understanding, and the common prosperity of humankind – choosing the dawn over the dusk, genesis over genocide.

In this poetic and philosophic moment, Choue captured the essential vision of his fellow IAUP founders, and what would become the driving principle of the organisation, at its best, for the next 50 years.

This is the organisation that championed the International Day of Peace, established the IAUP-UN Commission for Disarmament Education, Conflict Resolution and Peace, and helped launch the University for Peace in Costa Rica.

This is the organisation that partnered with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to launch the United Nations Academic Impact programme and establish, in partnership with the Institute of International Education and the Qatar Foundation, the WISE Seminar on Education Leadership. In addition, international meetings and conferences of the IAUP continue to promote their founders’ vision of academic diplomacy.

Regrettably, we appear not to have budged from the crossroads described by Choue in 1965. So it was that from 22 to 24 May 2015, the IAUP returned to where it all began, holding its 50th Anniversary Meeting in northern Oxfordshire, making use of many of the same venues that hosted the organisation in 1965, and following basically the same format.

There, more than 150 delegates celebrated the wisdom and foresight of the IAUP’s founders. However, in addition to looking back upon the past 50 years of the organisation’s history, participants also looked ahead to the next 50 years, giving consideration to what the current generation of academic leaders must do to prepare our institutions for the challenges and opportunities of 2065.

Passion and conviction

One highlight was the keynote address given by Dr Inwon Choue, current president of Kyung Hee University and son of founding member Dr Young Seek Choue. Dr Choue’s address, titled “1965, The Dreams Ever Onward,” paid respect to the founders’ vision for global higher education. However, Choue also gave voice to the tasks that still lay ahead for the current generation:

"In furthering the dreams half a century later, I would submit that several tasks lend themselves for consideration: ‘the task of undertaking a quest for the value of being a human and the open universe, alongside the civilisational achievements’; ‘the task of continuously talking about hope and despair, a shared future for the humanity’; and ‘the task of passing on our passion and conviction to the next generation’. When the challenging spirit of the ‘global collective wisdom’ elicits such tasks, the repeating history may find a different path. I would say that this is what our era demands. I would also opine that those tasks or purposes are yet another calling of higher education."

Conspicuous in his absence from the proceedings was Michael Adams, former president of Fairleigh Dickinson University and former president of the IAUP, to whom this volume is dedicated. As often as Michael invoked the traditions of IAUP, and the wisdom of its founders, it was the future of higher education that preoccupied him.

Until his untimely death in 2012, he never stopped urging friends and colleagues to remember and prepare for the future. And, it is from Michael’s 2011 IAUP Inaugural Address, “Bridges Across Time and Space: Honouring the past, creating the future,” that our new collection of essays and speeches takes its title, Higher Education as a Bridge to the Future.

What does it mean to be a bridge to the future? At the very least, it means that academic leaders must take very seriously our moral obligations to posterity – factoring into our discussions and decisions the well-being of generations yet to come. It also means taking an adaptive view toward the future by performing the valuable, rewarding but often hard, even grinding and unglamorous work needed to preserve and improve our institutions.

Additionally, by serving as a bridge to the future higher education leaders should reflect upon the futures dreamed up for us by our predecessors, not merely to honour the past, but also so that we may continue with all the good work that remains to be done.

Fifty years hence, will it make any difference? Will anyone care either about the dreams of 1965 or our further dreams of 2015? I believe that someone will, as long as our dreams are worth dreaming; therefore, let us endeavour to have as much faith in our successors in academic leadership as our predecessors had in us.

Jason Scorza is vice provost of academic and international affairs at Fairleigh Dickinson University, USA, and secretary-general emeritus of the International Association of University Presidents.

Adapted from “Editor’s Introduction: Remembering the future” in
Higher Education as a Bridge to the Future: Proceedings of the 50th anniversary meeting of the International Association of University Presidents (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2016).