The great unknown

What makes for an outstanding university? Graeme Harper reveals his obsessive 10-year mission to capture the essence of greatness

July 1, 2010

Ten years ago, I began a global project to discover what makes a great university. At first, it was just an academic's hobby; the kind of thing you do in the late evening when your capacity to create or critique grows weak and you start to trawl the web, looking for breaking news. But soon the project became an obsession. By late 2001, I was hooked. In early 2002, I made my first international expedition with this question in mind. Since then, this obsession has been a regular travel companion and it shows its inquisitive face at every passing moment.

I look at it this way. Imagine the world is made up of a series of forces: some we must endure (broadly speaking, many of those mighty forces of nature); some we have the ability to manipulate, through our human ingenuity and invention (for example, our impact on certain aspects of time and of space); and some we preside over (in the large part, forces of our own making). Now, into which category would higher education fit? What is the force behind higher education, and what is the force within it?

Wondering what makes a university great or successful is not personally or historically unique; but human obsessions often lead somewhere, and I think there is something productive emerging from this one.

As a contemporary global concern, the governmental and institutional quest for the secrets that make a university successful has been given much attention. Anyone doing that late-evening web trawl will find hundreds of pages of individual university reports, earnest strategic plans, a variety of styles of mission statement and many political policy declarations. Suffice it to say, my 10-year obsession has meant much reading. International comparisons are difficult to make, so national ones are most often created. Take, for example, the New Delhi-based National Institute of Science Communication and Information Resources' ranking of research performance in Indian universities, or the online academic resources ranking of Chinese higher education ranging from the Hebei Institute of Physical Education to the Shandong University of Art and Design, and from the Central University of Finance and Economics to Shanghai Jiao Tong University. Success is measured, excellence is sought out, ambition is stated. There is no need to add that, globally, individual academics are increasingly asked to validate their contributions to society, business, communities and countries.

If academe ever were a place of studied self-interest, those days are now rapidly fading into memory all over the world. Yet the more investigation that takes place, the more it becomes obvious that when asking what makes a university great, starting in the wrong place often produces entirely the wrong answer.

In 2002, on an informal visit to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, I was absolutely sure I was observing world-class research. I was not there in any official capacity: I was simply visiting and observing.

In the past decade, I have become the ultimate academic tourist, visiting any university I can find, mapping trips to take in more, spending nights in hotels as close to campuses as possible, just to get a glimpse of what those campuses may hold. And there it was at MIT: great research - exploratory, groundbreaking, curiosity-driven research, involving individuals and teams in a seemingly organic exchange of knowledge wealth and knowledge desire. The spark of research engagement was almost too bright to observe. Could this be the key component of a great university?

Perhaps. And yet, at each turn, a discovery such as that at MIT has brought up further questions, and those questions have required more visits. What might be beyond those laboratories? I wondered. I have wandered the grounds of more universities than I dare to name. I have caught planes and buses, trains and trams, and I have driven thousands of miles, plotting out universities in obsessive visitation maps. If there is a noticeboard in your departmental corridor, there is a big chance that, at some point in the past decade, I have read it. If there is a classroom in your building accessible to the public, I may well have stepped into it. But this is not some creepy voyeuristic venture. Rather, it is a belief that the essence of a great university is not one thing alone, not one capacity in itself, but a combination of many human activities, a gathering of important ideals, a coming together of considerable human forces.

To find this essence involves being open to any possibility, observing absolutely everything. The great university exists, or potentially exists, in all universities. This is something I discovered early on and something I believe now even more. I have visited higher education institutions on five continents, but my most recent "work" has been in universities in the UK, the US and Australia.

In November 2004, on a visit to Flinders University in Adelaide, South Australia, I wandered along a campus pathway, in the shade of eucalyptuses on a warm day, just in advance of the hot Australian summer. The pattern of buildings struck me, rising over a leisurely landscape of gum trees and grey-green hummocks, intersecting paths and car parks. What was this university saying to me?

Great universities involve a certain kind of architecture, using that word in its full capacity, meaning a collection of designed buildings, a melding of the man-made with natural confluences of shape and style and human influence. What architectures, then, could make the greatest university?

I worked once with a PhD student whose father was also an academic, and who taught his classes from an upstairs room of an ordinary house in an ordinary suburb of a northern Greek city. The very thought of that was astounding: it grounded an ancient notion that was at once strange and overwhelmingly exciting. How could a university be no more than that? How could it be anything less? The public and the private, the personal and the communal: if a university were all those things, what exact combination would produce a great one?

Buildings in universities are often symbolic, but I have seen even the most senior academic confuse this with what makes a great university and, in so doing, create neither greatness nor the capacity for greatness. Such is our human frailty, perhaps: the physical attributes of locating an ideal are far easier to construct than the reality of it. Alas, starting at the wrong place almost always produces the wrong result. It is an act of courage to stick firmly to the university ideal, rather than resort to short-term restructuring, but all too often this is the chosen option.

After 10 years of this project, I have learned a secret. There is a trick to researching what makes a university work. It is very simple, but I do not recall an academic study ever being done on it. The trick is this: do not ask merely the academics. In fact, leave asking the academics until last. Instead, ask the library assistants stacking shelves, ask the security staff, the cleaners, ask the guy who does the gardening and the woman who drives the post van. Ask people in the street, ask the shopkeepers, the hoteliers, ask the council workers. Ask the cab drivers.

In 2008, with the assistance of my university's human resources department, I initiated a series of What Makes a Great University? expeditions. The first was to the University of St Andrews. I gathered several fine colleagues and headed north. As our destination was "Scotland's oldest university", it was tempting to explore questions about university age and tradition - that capacity of ancientness. Were these things that contributed to the capacity of a university to seek, or achieve, greatness?

Perhaps. But what can be reported unequivocally is that there is a cab driver in St Andrews who knows more about that university than many academics know about their own offices. Not only can he recite the age and historical importance of teaching and learning in subjects that are taught at "his university", he can also outline the holdings of the main library, and he can recall the professors who have spoken in some capacity at one public event or another. This is not just local pride, it is something to do with the capacity of an academic community to create, recreate and contribute.

But what, in essence, is behind that creation and recreation, and how can a university contribute?

"Whatever its local roots," the historian Thomas Bender once wrote, "the university historically has striven for learning that at least reaches toward universal significance."

It is easy to start arguing against this. At a small, relatively rural university in the northern US, I recently considered the universal significance of a short course titled "Developing a local business" in the wider world of global economics or even in the wider realm of human ambition. But I had, of course, misinterpreted: Bender was on to something.

The "reaching toward" is not just about the surface action of that reaching. The point is that to "seek" is at the very core of the university ideal, in its definition and its mission statement. But, more importantly, to seek should be at the core of real action by individuals and at institutions. This value goes well beyond the day-to-day formal acts of teaching. It goes well beyond structured research, managed knowledge transfer or planned community engagement. At its heart, the act of seeking transcends the boundaries of any programme of "university-ness", whatever political or social context this programming may entail. Ten years of exploring this has shown me that creating a great university is much more than creating a constructed academic community.

To take a key example: we often aim to pigeonhole university capacity on the basis of local, regional, national and international influence. But the 10-year evidence - and although it is anecdotal, it is nevertheless powerful - is that strictures of this kind only undermine the potential universality of any university's contribution to the world. In addition, such divisions manifest themselves in a self-limiting exemplification of one capacity versus another, one mode of engagement against another.

In a recent interview with a faculty member at the Future University Hakodate in Japan - a university that is often referred to, and not dismissively, as FUN - I gleaned not insight about advanced investigations into the application of artificial intelligence and robotics in university classrooms, as I had naively expected; I learned instead that this university's declared principles were "openness" and a concentration on "human values". As significantly, perhaps, Future University Hakodate made much of the transforming global environment.

Being all things to all people is not the essence of a criticism of university categorisations. But being able to see, and act, with a global sensibility, and through an engagement with the universal: that is one element clearly emerging as a trait of a great university.

Eighteen months ago, I had the considerable pleasure of speaking at length with the dean of Harvard College about what puts Harvard University at the top of the global league tables. I have been to Harvard many times now, seeking non-voyeuristic inspiration that may answer the question I have been posing.

I am one of those in higher education who openly believes in league tables - not as definers of institutional place and established importance but as drivers of progressive thinking. Let us make universities compete with each other; but let us make them compete on the basis of which ones truly offer real forms of higher learning. Let us construct competitions of discovery, creative and critical action that go well beyond mere statistical measurement of government investment and local resources capacity; competition that goes clearly into the realm of human ambition and the human disposition to explore.

And Harvard? What was the answer to the question of what puts that university at the top of the league tables? This was entirely straightforward: leadership. But not some packaged capacity to take on the role of leader, nor something that comes only through huge financial investment. Rather, the reply from that university, offered openly to an obsessive academic, was that those who enter the institution see themselves as leaders from the moment they enter and at all points thereafter.

Suddenly it was even clearer that we today spend far too much on the accoutrements of higher education and far too little on the creation of what I have come to call "knowledge habitats". Knowledge habitats are those places, physical and virtual, material and conceptual, where knowledge can advance. Knowledge habitats are partly constructed and partly found in the belief and vision of individual academics, communities of those creating and examining and, most of all, exploring. Over my journey, I came to feel that we have been building cathedrals with less and less of significance to offer and celebrate within them. The creation of knowledge habitats, where leadership is not a brand but a sense, where exploration is a core ambition, and both leadership and exploration are a range of actions - now that is essential, and is another key aspect of the great university.

A decade on, what next? The project continues apace; I can see this obsession is yielding results. Early this year, I observed a small liberal arts college in the American South in active pursuit of its academic ambition. A little later, I communicated with a group of Antarctic research scientists looking for new evidence to take back to their African universities and, after that, some adventurous doctoral students in Colorado seeking a new way of exploring their subject, beyond what they thought of as the constraints of an outmoded subject tradition.

In London, I met the head of a well-known university who not only had some of the best tea and biscuits in British higher education but also a belief that whatever else may be occurring, universities could develop and harness their knowledge habitats for the good of all. In Cardiff, I met a businessman who believes in the collaborative potential inherent in the university ideal and only wishes that more could be done to develop it. In Melbourne, Australia, I witnessed a creative exchange between faculty and students that promises to produce individual work of undoubted distinction. In Glasgow, I saw a group of academics and graduate students pressing ahead in practice-led research, firm in their belief in its value, conducting it distinctively, knowledgeably and, most importantly, with determination.

In a world of often opposing forces - financial, political, institutional - one thing is certain: the force of higher education, what it is and what it can be, is most certainly human ambition. As this is of our own making, it seems clear that we are much more than tourists in higher education; instead, as its inhabitants we must take ultimate responsibility for it.

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