The global future of higher education is focus of presidential panel

Six university presidents from three continents took to the stage Oct. 12 in Tudor Fieldhouse for a wide-ranging Centennial Celebration conversation on the future of higher education in a global world.

The panel, moderated by Rice President David Leebron, consisted of Università di Bologna Rector Ivano Dionigi, Italy; Tianjin University President Li Jiajun, China; Koç University President Umran İnan, Turkey; Princeton University President Shirley Tilghman; and Jacobs University Bremen President Joachim Treusch, Germany.

“Although some of the pressures that we face today as universities here in the United States are perhaps peculiar to American universities, many of the challenges that we face are common to universities all over the world,” Leebron said, citing endowments, research and teaching. “What does it mean to be a global university in this very internationalized world? What will our sources of funding be in the future? What will digital education mean for the physical university as we go forward?” Leebron said in his opening statements. He asked panelists to share their concerns and hopes for the future.

As rector of the West’s oldest university in continuous existence, Dionigi stressed three characteristics necessary to preserve the uniqueness of universities’ roles in their communities and around the world: continued historical relevance and impact, universities as harbingers of the future and solidarity amongst the disciplines. “While the university must always be a place of specialization, it must also be the place for unity and alliance of different knowledges,” he said.

Tilghman, president of the institution that Leebron said most influenced Rice, Princeton, stressed two themes: persevering and sustaining the role of research universities in the U.S. in face of declining government funding support and the education of future generations. “There is a growing concern about how we are going to afford to educate the number of young people that we are going to have to educate if we are, in fact, going to have a vibrant society,” she said. “Having a postsecondary education is absolutely critical going forward if you are going to have any chance of a middle-class life and being able to raise your children and send them to college as well.”

Jiajun, who traveled farthest for the panel, emphasized the role universities play in the advancement of society, both locally and internationally. “If we look back at the past 100 years in China, the development of Chinese universities was always closely linked to the development of Chinese society,” he said. “We must also be willing to work with research universities all over the world to face global challenges. It is most important for global universities to speak in the same language to bridge and to overcome differences between different nations, religions and cultures.”

İnan, the Stanford University-educated electrical engineer president of the almost 20-year-old private Koç University in Istanbul, highlighted the vital role of universities as the glue that holds together generations. He likened this bond to an appointment. “A university education is an appointment between the generations,” he said. “The university chooses the best faculty that it can and brings them to that appointment, and then it recruits the highest caliber of students. This dialogue between the students and the faculty is the education.”

Treusch, president of the 11-year-old Jacobs University Bremen, an institution that was greatly influenced by the Rice model, underscored the importance of universities as places where borders need to be crossed geographically, ethnically and intellectually. Jacobs has nearly 1,400 students from 110 nations. “Essential is that students know what a globalized world really means,” he said.

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