Despite the collapse of the Northern Ireland Executive, academics throughout Ireland are under great pressure to make cross-border cooperation a reality.
Malcolm Skilbeck, former deputy director for education at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, told delegates at a conference in Armagh that they had a moral responsibility to take the lead.
"The universities are well placed to become leaders in the cross-border dialogue that is so badly needed as a counter-balance to the tensions and violence in other spheres," he said.
"They need to report and communicate to a wider public what they are doing in this regard, to undertake and publicise initiatives, and to establish as part of their internal organisation procedures to facilitate and extend cross-border cooperation. This is a challenge that should draw in presidents and vice-chancellors and their deputies, deans, senior administrators and heads of department."
The two-day event was opened by the Irish Republic's education minister Noel Dempsey and Northern Ireland's minister for employment and learning Carmel Hanna in one of her final official duties. It was attended by seven of Ireland's nine vice-chancellors.
Ms Hanna said: "I believe that north-south cooperation offers us the potential to enhance higher education standards on the island. This in turn will allow us to develop the island as a centre of excellence to attract students and investors from abroad and thus make a significant contribution to our... development."
Mr Dempsey confirmed that plans to launch a north-south research initiative under the Republic's national development plan were nearing completion.