The power of positive thinking

Harvard’s huge fundraising and the US’ big lead in Moocs show that we can only learn from the American ‘can-do’ spirit

September 26, 2013

 Ambition is the ultimate virtue in the US and Harvard University has it in spades.

This week, the institution launched a campaign to raise $6.5 billion (£4.1 billion) by 2018: that’s almost as much as the UK academy’s largest endowment (the University of Cambridge had £4.6 billion in 2012) and would add to Harvard’s existing cash pile (estimated at £20.1 billion in 2012).

The scale of the campaign is all the more impressive because the university is bound to achieve it. Nor is the ambition restricted to the sum involved: alongside staples such as financial aid, Harvard says it will use the money to “develop new approaches to teaching and learning” and to rethink what higher education is for and how it is delivered.

The US elite have thrown themselves into the digital revolution in a way that has caught others - including UK universities - on the hop

Drew Gilpin Faust, Harvard’s president, is quoted as saying: “Higher education is being challenged to reinvent itself, and we embrace this opportunity for a campaign that aims to do more than merely extend or reinforce long-standing strength and eminence.”

It remains to be seen what this will mean beyond the rhetoric that is required when asking supporters to reach deep into their pockets, but there is no denying that Harvard has set its sights high, or that there is a need for such leadership.

In the past couple of years, the US elite have thrown themselves into the digital revolution in a way that has caught others – including UK universities – on the hop.

The unveiling last week of the first massive open online course offerings via UK Mooc platform FutureLearn comes 18 months after leading American competitors such as EdX, Udacity and Coursera pioneered the model.

Whatever the arguments about Moocs and the potential threat they pose to university business models, there has clearly been an element of catch-up in FutureLearn’s development. It also remains the case that while the most selective US universities have jumped into Moocs, the universities of Oxford and Cambridge still watch from the sidelines. Whether such boldness proves inspirational or reckless remains to be seen, but the US has held true to its pioneering spirit, perhaps taking the view that the greater risk was choosing not to respond to dramatic social change.

Meanwhile, writing in our features pages this week, Russell Foster, professor of circadian neuroscience at Oxford, argues that optimism and ambition are vital qualities in research, and tells of being driven out of the UK in the late 1980s by a pervasive gloom hanging over the sector. The lack of ambition among his peers and a scolding received for being “too enthusiastic” led him to conclude that the UK’s tradition of reaching for the stars had succumbed to inertia. He went, of course, to the US, although being an optimist (and for family reasons) he later returned.

Foster is relatively upbeat about the state of science in the UK today, but his is still a cautionary tale about the risks of pessimism and the attractiveness of the American “can-do” culture to the brightest and best.

Grand plans must be underpinned by investment, of course, and Harvard’s fundraising campaign underlines the advantage the top US universities have in this respect. But if it is true to its word and intends to invest not only in itself but also in the collective future of higher education, then three cheers for its ambition.

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