World insight: think beyond ‘narrow academic pursuits’ to tackle global problems

Universities should take responsibility for the betterment of society, says Michael Crow

May 18, 2016

It’s hard to underestimate the scale and complexity of our global challenges, particularly as the world’s population continues to grow. This can seem overwhelming, but can, in fact, be a powerful motivator to rethink the role of higher education and the ways that our institutions can be productive, disruptive forces for positive change and progress.

This begins with the notion that universities should take responsibility for the betterment of society; that we can and should be measured by the impact that we have on the public good. It is no longer sufficient to simply excel academically.

Education should move beyond singular academic disciplines as the point of focus and towards multidisciplinary programmes and schools capable of understanding and solving complicated real-world problems. Just understanding those problems is not good enough.

Why shouldn’t engineers work with social scientists, for example? Why not encourage arts students to intersect with economists or public policy professionals? Emerging fields are benefiting from the integration of the sciences – biology, chemistry, physics, technology and more. This is not only intellectually engaging, it also positions us to ask new and better questions to find critical answers.

Why not create schools focused on exploration or sustainability and outcomes, or other new conceptualisations for science itself?

At the core of this push is the belief that our capacity for learning and adaptation will define the progress that we make. That’s why we want to expand the population of lifelong “master learners”, students, indeed citizens, who are capable of thinking critically and who possess a breadth of knowledge to meaningfully engage the shifting challenges of a rapidly changing world.

We are ambitious in this pursuit. The more we can produce master learners who are thinking beyond narrow academic pursuits and more broadly dedicated to improving society, the more we can have a major impact on the outcome of humanity. But making this happen also requires expanding access – prioritising inclusion over selectivity.

At Arizona State University, a public research university, we operate on the premise that identifying and engaging talent from every neighborhood – and, ultimately, every corner of the world – makes us better prepared to confront grand challenges, redress social and economic inequalities, address shortages of educated workers and dreamers, and increase prosperity. Rather than pursue the time-worn and elitist model that presumes world-class learning can be derived only by limiting opportunity, we are dedicated to demonstrating that access and excellence can go hand-in-hand.

This is not without hurdles, which is why we emphasise innovation throughout the university, rethinking the structure of departments, emphasising multidisciplinary centres and schools that demand fresh thinking to succeed, and employing new technologies to increase the ways that students can learn. In turn, our expanding population of qualified students pushes us to pursue innovations to accommodate their needs and help them achieve their potential.

Our E-Advisor tool, for example, helps students stay on track and make progress towards their degree, improving our four-year graduation rate by 20 percentage points since 2002, with an increasingly diverse student demographic. Our use of adaptive learning software allows maths professors to identify whether students are absorbing new concepts, then work with them to close gaps that may cause them to stumble when they move on to more demanding courses.

Our web-based electrical engineering programme, the first accredited degree of its kind in the US, makes it possible for digital learners to perform lab work on their laptops – and watch (and re-watch) professors’ video presentations to raise their comprehension levels. We have found that on-campus students create hybrid digital and classroom experiences to suit their learning, raising the chances that they will meaningfully engage and succeed.

But as important as these tools and techniques are driving innovation and expanding opportunity. No one institution can do it alone. As useful as competition can be in the battle for students, faculty and research funds, too often we limit our capacity for shared impact.

The new PLuS Alliance, involving Arizona State University, King’s College London and the University of New South Wales, showcases this commitment to collaboration. Involving more than 60 jointly appointed faculty members at the start, this tri-continental partnership aims to tackle real-world challenges involving sustainability, global health, social justice, and technology and innovation. This multidisciplinary endeavour allows us to extend the range and depth of brain power by tapping into qualified learners from around the world.

We cannot say with certainty what the outcome will be. But the more fruitful we are in constructing an inclusive innovation ecosystem, the more we have the chance to surmount barriers and achieve results not yet imagined. Getting there requires letting go of the static model based on exclusivity and tradition, encouraging faculty to think and act beyond the confines of their academic disciplines, and continuously assessing our organisational design and the ways knowledge is produced.

While we may not know the eventual results, we can be sure that engaging with other institutions around the globe increases our prospects for transforming the planet.

Michael M. Crow is the president of Arizona State University

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