Universities need to lead in serving humanity

Students sit on the steps of Wilson Library on the campus of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, North Carolina, U.S., September 20, 2018. Picture taken on September 20, 2018.  REUTERS/Jonathan Drake - RC1E672B16D0

Today, more than ever, we are in urgent need for universities to lead the charge in thinking much more openly, creatively, and ambitiously about the challenges we face in local communities and across the planet.

Given the urgency, scale, and magnitude of the challenges we face—unprecedented numbers of refugees across the globe, persistent income inequality, and devastating loss of fertile land at the same time as exponential technological developments posing radical changes and threats to everything from our jobs to our security to our very own humanity—universities are best positioned to address them.

However, higher education institutions—including governments, businesses, and philanthropic entities that invest in them—have not always worked together with the urgency and clarity of purpose needed to serve humanity.

Funding models have pushed universities into adopting a mentality of scarcity, competing for a narrow pool of resources rather than favoring a mentality of abundance that would incentivize stretching for new goals and creating new opportunities.

And too many private and philanthropic investments in universities have focused on implementing incremental initiatives rather than on system-wide changes that would yield the best outcomes. 

Going forward, we need to build new types of funding models and partnerships that reverse these counterproductive approaches. We need to focus on partnerships that further the urgency and clarity of purpose of serving humanity, incentivize a mentality of abundance, and seek big impact system-wide approaches. It is only when we deploy these approaches that we can drive toward three of the most critical shifts needed in higher education.

Shift #1: From universities investing in their reputation and financial security to investing in solving some of the most critical challenges of our time

Marketing and fundraising alone will not guarantee a university’s reputation and financial security.

Only a university that dedicates itself to solving pressing challenges will be assured the relevance and support of its community, and attract top talent, philanthropic money, and research funding.

As the adage says, “You are what you measure.” While not perfect, current impact reports are important in quantifying university contributions, mostly in economic terms. For example, Stanford University claims that its enterprises generate $2.7 trillion in annual revenues and over 5 million jobs, roughly equivalent to the 10th largest economy in the world.

Harvard claims that its living alumni have created over 146,000 for-profit and nonprofit ventures, over 20 million jobs, and annual revenues of $3.9 trillion—greater than the gross domestic product of Germany, the world’s fourth largest economy.

But impact is not limited to jobs and revenue.

Sometimes universities are best positioned to address the problems at their doorsteps. For decades, American University of Beirut’s (AUB) hospital and medical staff have been at the forefront of tending to the injured in Lebanon regardless of sect, origin, or financial ability. Carrying that kind of burden can only be understood by the unique location of a university like AUB, where urgent and immediate needs trump long-term, headline-grabbing initiatives.

Other universities build a niche for themselves working on the less visible challenges, like my own alma mater, McMaster University in Canada, which is quietly working on some of the most daunting health issues of our time. In a recent visit, I was struck by its extensive research to understand and address learning difficulties in the classroom—from the rise in autism, ADHD, and other special needs. CanChild’s research and inclusive education model is openly available online and will soon offer toolkits and trainings for communities around the world.

Many universities have impact in their communities, but we do not value this impact enough. We should applaud universities humbly chipping away at inequity and building more inclusivity.

New measurement frameworks, such as the Times Higher Education University Ranking to measure institutions’ success in achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals, are a welcome new development and elevate the public perception of the universities most committed to service to humanity.

Overall, the existing models of building reputations through rankings and endowments are working in the favor of a few elite universities. Universities that want to join the ranks of excellence cannot compete in this model as it stands. They are better served, and can better serve, by shifting to a strategy that focuses their partnerships, resources, and talent in solving real problems. This is what will guarantee their relevance, improve their reputation, and sustain their futures.

Shift #2: From universities making modest efforts to increase inclusion in student bodies to making education open for all regardless of status and financial ability  

Scholarship programs like those offered by big foundations are important and have had a marked impact on the lives of thousands of students in the U.S., the Middle East, and around the world. But they cannot be the answer alone. The number of young people who deserve a quality higher education far outweighs what philanthropy can offer. Even massive contributions to endowment funds will only reach a select, lucky few every year.

In the meantime, inequality in access to education continues to grow. In the U.S., access to higher education has become one of the most divisive socio-economic barriers in recent times. In the Arab world, youth from the highest economic background are three times more likely to go to university than the young people from the lowest economic tier, and only one percent of refugee youth everywhere continue to higher education.

Every life changed by a university scholarship or financial aid is a success story we should celebrate. Scholarships that focus on eliminating financial barriers for students before or during universities are essential for students who would not otherwise continue their education. But for every scholarship student, there are millions more who do not get that chance.

Universities must refocus their efforts from raising funds for a few select students to opening education to everyone. With advancement in technologies and improvement in online learning, concerns about maintaining small class sizes or trying to limit campus space no longer hold.

The universities most committed to service to humanity will also be the most inclusive. And make no mistake: This is not just a privilege of top universities that can afford it.

The University Innovation Alliance is comprised of universities as diverse as Georgia State to Purdue. The 11 universities came together with a common goal of innovating within their universities to significantly increase access to education. Today, low-income students in the U.S. are eight times less likely to earn a bachelor’s degree than high-income students (7.4 percent versus 60 percent). Together, the universities set an achievable goal of increasing that number to 30 percent by 2022.

At the same time, some of the world’s top universities are broadening access to education through online learning, whether it is fully accredited degrees, new credentials, or massive open online courses (MOOCs). A review of the offerings on platforms such as edX, Coursera, and Udacity reveals a growing list of opportunities for young people who speak English and have an internet connection.

These types of innovative initiatives are only the beginning. More universities need to play their part in scaling up access to higher education while also considering the special needs of those who are harder to reach.

Initiatives to increase inclusivity on university campuses result in positive outcomes, but, to truly have an impact, universities must adopt new approaches that make higher education available to everyone.

Shift #3: From offering new skills and tools for the rapid changes in today’s workforces to preserving and reinforcing our ethics and values amid radical technological change

This is without a doubt the most challenging and uncertain shift. Universities are already bearing the brunt of the pressure to prepare graduates who are instantly employable, even as changes in work accelerate.

A shift by universities to help make education more accessible will help and will also magnify a change in who we consider to be students. Early impact studies of MOOCs show that short online courses and credentials have had the largest uptake among adults who are educated and already in the workplace. They enroll in popular courses like coding, data analytics, and supply chain management to get ahead in their careers or in anticipation of career changes.

This development has spurred some universities, such as Northeastern University, to think about education as membership-based, where students no longer spend four years studying for a degree but rather come in and out of university on a regular basis.

Other universities are offering their students the chance to learn and work at the same time so that the transition from school to work is seamless. For example, at Waterloo University, one of the world’s largest and most successful providers of cooperative education (combining classroom-based education with practical work experience for credit), just over 96 percent of its co-op graduates obtain a full-time job within six months of graduating.

But, cooperative education, lifelong education, and even MOOCs still fall into the category of incremental change—it is simply not enough.

We live in a time that is not only already experiencing tremendous technological change, but that has inconceivable technological capabilities.

Rapid progress in manipulating DNA, creating parallel worlds and simulations with virtual reality, and relying on artificial intelligence are just three areas of stunning breakthroughs and profound challenges.

These trends could entirely reshape not only work, but the evolution of life on earth—they pose immense questions and threats to humanity.

Universities must respond not only by teaching more coding, but by thinking deeply about what makes us human—our most cherished human traits, ethics, and values—and how we want to evolve as a society.

As institutions that have helped steer society in the past, universities will need to provide leadership now more than ever. This will be far more important than any short-term fixes universities can make, such as trying to keep up with workforce skills amid accelerating change.

What organization is better positioned than the university in addressing the biggest questions of our time and in doing so serving humanity?