Why the world needs a new model for universities

Civil conflict, terrorism and public health scares are only some of the concerns causing unprecedented disruptions across communities worldwide. These crises take on greater immediacy and importance today due to their increasingly global nature.

Just as diseases like Zika and Ebola can now travel around the world as quickly as a plane can fly, regional conflicts that once only decimated local populations now also ensnare countless nations across the world and displace tens of millions of people far from their homes.

But along with the threats inherent in an increasingly globalised world also come remarkable opportunities. Popular movements demanding justice and civil rights, ideas around social and political reform, arts and culture that were once limited to their local regions – all can spread widely and quickly today, fostering a new global community. This is the nature of today’s deeply interconnected world.

For Columbia University in the United States, and universities around the world, the question has become 'how do we address – and even exist in – this new reality?' What role do universities have in this new global community and culture? And how can a university innovate to best leverage its considerable resources – intellectual, financial, reputational – to fulfil its mission of helping the world tackle grand challenges?

Global hubs

Eight years ago, Columbia University President Lee C Bollinger had a vision for how universities could engage with the world of today and tomorrow: that our universities must globalise just as our challenges have also globalised. President Bollinger envisioned a series of global centres across the world that could serve as conduits to local, regional and global knowledge, expertise and networks.

Through these global hubs, the university could offer its students and faculty a way to learn with, from and in the world. By directly connecting with different regions, university communities could not only share their own expertise and knowledge with peer institutions and audiences around the world, but could also bring back an enriched global perspective to their ‘home’ campus.

To create these meaningful bridges with the world, Columbia University established the Columbia Global Centers in eight culturally and geographically important cities, first in Amman (Jordan) and Beijing (China), and then expanding to Paris (France), Mumbai (India), Istanbul (Turkey), Nairobi (Kenya), Rio de Janeiro (Brazil) and Santiago (Chile).

While each centre began with different areas of focus based on their region’s most pressing issues, what they had in common was the goal of addressing the particular interests of faculty and students on-campus, as well as building strong partnerships with local institutions and communities.

The centres developed relationships with local and regional universities, companies, governmental bodies and non-governmental organisations – as well as with academics, policy-makers, professionals, social workers, artists, writers and others working in their local communities.

Columbia University is now better able to connect with professionals and experts who, when brought together, can bring the necessary discussions to the forefront of national and regional agendas. Columbia’s global centres harness these new opportunities to drive forward research, education and dialogue around the world.

Globalisation at home

In addition to programmes in different regions, a key part of this educational mission is to bring discussions around global concerns back onto Columbia’s campus.

Creating programming around these regional discussions and featuring global experts who can directly address these issues gives students greater exposure to the challenges crises pose and helps provide faculty with an enriched, and perhaps more nuanced, understanding of issues in their areas of study or interest.

In October, for example, the centres hosted a symposium on strengthening refugee access, equity and inclusion; a discussion on the US presidential election with journalists from each of the eight centres’ cities; an event seeking to unravel and assess the complexities and challenges currently facing Turkey’s democracy; and a panel focusing on Brazil, its political and economic crises and what its future may hold.

These kinds of on-campus programmes both supplement and reinforce the regional centre programmes – creating a dynamic exchange of knowledge both from the university and back to the university.

Nationalism vs internationalism

For Columbia, its global centres also represent a very purposeful response in the growing debate between internationalism and nationalism.

This struggle is seen in the rise of right-wing parties in Europe, the Brexit vote, attacks on multinational institutions and trade and the rhetoric around the US presidential election – all of which reflect a drive toward nationalism that the world has not seen since the lead-up to World War II. This mindset is exactly what universities must push back against as this perspective will cripple the quest for knowledge and discovery.

The importance of ongoing, multi-way dialogue in the 21st century demands a new way of thinking for all institutions of higher learning. Each university needs to create opportunities for students and faculty to broaden their sources of information as global knowledge is needed to address global challenges.

Universities all over the world are globalising and many institutions have reached beyond their original campuses through a broad spectrum of initiatives and investments around the world. But the ability to nimbly convene – on the ground – diverse audiences and foster cross-cultural and multidisciplinary dialogue is a new step for global universities.

This is a new model for higher education, designed to further the engagement of universities with this new world. In this way, universities can expand their capacity as agents of positive change, improving lives near and far.

Professor Safwan M Masri is executive vice-president for Global Centers and Global Development at Columbia University; and director of Columbia Global Centers, Amman, Jordan.