NYU president on global universities, ‘idea capitals’ and ‘talent snowballs’

Universities are more important than ever to the development of great cities and knowledge economies, argues John Sexton

May 22, 2013

Over the past 10 years, New York University has established itself as a global network, with full campuses in New York, Abu Dhabi, and Shanghai complemented by smaller ‘study-away’ sites on five continents.

Our primary mission has always been educational: to encourage young people to embrace ecumenism, bridge divisions with respect and comprehension, and confront complex global problems with nuance. Yet there is also a utilitarian case to be made for the development of ‘global’ universities.

Richard Florida of the University of Toronto has described the evolution of a “spiky” world, in which talent, resources, and opportunities are clustered in specific locations.

As the world’s great economies are driven less by production and more by ideas, the landscape in which we find ourselves will be defined by these “idea capitals”.

Such capitals have existed through the ages, but their influence was typically local or regional. In this century, however, their influence will be global.

Just as the thought leaders of the Italian Renaissance flowed through Milan, Venice, Florence, and Rome, so in the coming decades those who generate ideas will move easily between Shanghai, New York, London, Abu Dhabi, and other key cities.

In the competition for the talent that develops and sustains idea capitals, universities play an essential role.

The Democrat senator and sociologist Daniel Patrick Moynihan said nearly 50 years ago: “If you want to build a world class city, build a great university and wait 200 years.”

His insight remains true today - except the 200 years have become 20.

Universities attract faculty, researchers and students who not only produce but also consume the intellectual, cultural, and educational activities that pull in more talent.

And the most intellectually energetic scholars want to live in an environment that is as alive as they are: a leading genomicist wants to talk not only to other peer genomicists but also to philosophers, political scientists and artists, to listen to a great opera, to attend a stirring play.

As Jeffrey Lehman, the vice-chancellor of NYU Shanghai, has noted, this accumulating “talent snowball” extends to students as well.

Great teachers attract great students, who in turn develop knowledge of and affection for the city in which they study, going on to become the creative innovators who sustain the city’s continued growth and prosperity.

Lehman has written: “As a strategy for talent development, this is ultimately much more effective than one that requires young people to go overseas for their education and then requires massive efforts to persuade them to come home. It draws talent into the city at the moment when talent is most mobile, and most impressionable.”

The greatest dividends will flow to those cities that embrace the interdependence of global idea capitals and develop synergies among them.

Likewise, the most successful universities will be those that incubate and attract global citizens.

The economic landscape has been fundamentally changed by globalization, but it is one in which the influence of universities - and the cities they anchor - is perhaps greater than ever before.

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