From the bottom up: everyday experiences of excellence

Academics from top-ranked universities describe what makes their institution a world-beater

October 8, 2009

'The entire person is cultivated' - Duncan Wu, Professor of English

Georgetown University is not an Ivy League institution, but it is more sought after than some that are. This year it admitted 18 per cent of those who applied to it; of those, 95 per cent were among the top 10 per cent of their graduating class. It is, in short, a bastion of excellence.

I came to Georgetown from the University of Oxford nearly two years ago, and every class I've taught here has contained a respectable proportion of students of Oxbridge standard. Regardless of that, however, they all have a serious desire to excel. That is, I think, related to the institution's Jesuit ethos, summed up in the phrase "Cura personalis". The concept of cultivating all aspects of one's being is no mere window dressing. It is related to a university-wide commitment to social action: many students (and colleagues) work to assist those less privileged than themselves both at home and abroad.

There's nothing smug or self-congratulatory about this; it is understood to be a crucial element of the educational process. I wasn't aware of its significance when I first arrived, but I have since come to regard this Jesuit tradition as the jewel in Georgetown's crown. It's one reason why I'm proud to be a member of its faculty.

'Research enjoys unusual support' - Christoph Bode, Chair of Modern English Literature

Eight years ago, Ludwig-Maximilians University, Munich, made me a job offer I couldn't refuse, and I haven't regretted accepting it.

LMU is a top institution - one of Germany's officially designated "elite universities" - and the reasons are obvious.

First, it attracts large sums of outside funding, in the humanities and in the natural and life sciences. No other German full university attracts more funding from the German Research Foundation.

Second, research is embedded in an unusually supportive environment - both our administration and the state of Bavaria have the ambition to keep LMU a world-league player.

LMU's international appeal can be shown in numbers: no other German university hosts more researchers from abroad. It can't be the beer alone.

But location is important: LMU's campus is in the Schwabing district, with its bookshops and cafes, in the heart of this cosmopolitan, multilingual city that is known for its liberality and laid-back attitude. Big ideas need a stimulating, non-restrictive environment. LMU has it.

'Ideas matter, and so do the people who have them' - John D. Brewer, Professor of Sociology

Aberdeen is the fourth university in which I have worked, and it is by far the best.

All universities parrot the rhetoric of "vision"; at the University of Aberdeen it is real and practised. The language of internationalisation is not used to hide narrow economic concerns, and "spin-off" companies or "contributions to the local economy" are not the measures by which people are valued. At Aberdeen ideas matter; and so do the people who have them. I am made to feel that I count, that I am wanted for more than my economic value.

No modern university can ignore budgetary constraints, but scholarly virtues persist in Aberdeen. Civility has not been destroyed by the macho culture of managerialism, and people with bright ideas are given the opportunity to develop them.

It is the scale of the vision that distinguishes Aberdeen. Bettering a local competitor or one-upping the neighbours is small time; "big ideas", in the teaching curriculum and research, make for "big people" at Aberdeen, able to traverse local, national and international arenas. Buying into big visions helps to realise them; I feel that I carry the University of Aberdeen with me whatever stage I'm on.

'Tradition and innovation' - Elizabeth Rechniewski, Senior Lecturer and Chair of French Studies

One of the strengths of the faculty of arts at the University of Sydney is the sheer extent and diversity of its research and teaching programmes, with 38 departments and programmes offering about 52 majors.

Another lies in its balance of tradition and innovation: the oldest faculty in Australia's oldest university, the faculty of arts is clustered around a sandstone quadrangle and cloisters modelled on the colleges of Oxford. But over the past decades it has forged strong links with Asia, to better reflect the geographical and political place of Australia in the world, and has built on its unique position at the intersection of Europe and Asia. The faculty has retained the strong disciplinary base of traditional departments but has created centres, research clusters and teaching programmes that cut across department, and even faculty, boundaries. Although I am in the department of French studies, I also teach European studies and comparative literature.

The faculty has overcome the "tyranny of distance" by forging a network of agreements with overseas universities to promote exchange of students and staff, making it one of the liveliest and most diverse faculties in the world.

'Being well led, you can concentrate on scholarship and teaching' - Lionel Smith, James McGill Professor of Law

I came to McGill from the University of Oxford in 2000, attracted by an innovative faculty of law in a vibrant, bilingual city.

McGill in Montreal has flourished on the world stage, even though it operates in a challenging financial environment of mainly public funding. The university has a long history of reaching the highest standards of scholarship, and everyone at McGill - faculty, staff and students - shares a commitment to maintaining these standards.

McGill benefits from strong and engaged leadership, centrally and at faculty level. When you feel well led, you can concentrate on scholarship and teaching, confident that decisions will be made for the protection and promotion of the university's fundamental values.

The students are outstanding, both academically and in terms of their varied life experience, especially at graduate level. They come from all over the world. The result is that the teaching experience - whether in the classroom, or in supervising graduate research - is challenging and rewarding. Overall, it's a fantastic place to work: an exciting, intellectual environment in a cosmopolitan and diverse setting.

'Curiosity is encouraged' - Hong Bing, Associate Professor at the School of Journalism, Fudan University

"Fudan" means "heavenly light shines day after day". Having spent more than 16 years in Fudan University, Shanghai, I would attribute its international standing to the quality of its faculty and students, who jointly enshrine the heavenly light of education and translate it into competitiveness.

Fudan counts about 2,500 full-time teachers and researchers. To boost its academic standing, each year since 2005 it has recruited 100 scholars from first-class international universities, one third of whom are leading scholars in their fields.

Blessed with a university culture that encourages intellectual curiosity, critical inquiry and creativity, more than 26,000 Fudan students are cultivated for their future careers through rigorous training. Many Fudan alumni have become accomplished scholars, influential politicians or successful businessmen.

In recent years, Fudan has established strategic partnerships with a number of top institutions, among them Yale University, the London School of Economics and the University of California, Los Angeles. More than 20 international programmes have been established in Fudan.

The university's motto is "Rich in knowledge and tenacious of purpose, inquiring with earnestness and reflecting with self-practice". The single goal of Fudan is to cultivate more and more all-round talents for modern China. Emulating other successful institutions at home and abroad, the university has been carrying out a series of daring experiments to integrate the various disciplines and to utilise the abundant resources of a comprehensive university. After years of exploring and practising, Fudan has established its own unique curriculum and management system, both of which continue to improve.

'We must work to avoid a boom-and-bust story' - Andreas Hess, Senior Lecturer in Sociology (currently research fellow at Yale University)

Whatever one thinks of rankings that measure such complex aggregates as entire universities, University College Dublin's high position can be interpreted as an acknowledgement of the institution's collective effort, particularly in relation to the crucial task of internationalisation, both of staff and students.

Apart from that, the very notion of University College Dublin having been a "sleeping giant" - a phrase often invoked by Hugh Brady, our president - presupposes that not everything was bad before the regime change and that not everything changed just because a new administration arrived.

The high ranking should not make us uncork the champagne bottle prematurely. We still have a long way to go to be able to maintain such a position over time. In the light of reduced funding from the Irish Government, we will have to make even more of an effort to ensure that what looks like a success story now doesn't appear just as fireworks or as another Irish boom-and-bust story.

The main problem remains that the university's top positions have been filled with scientists or medics and that the university is layered with people who truly believe in the management jargon that has come to prevail in higher education. James Joyce and Flann O'Brien would surely have a field day commenting on the bureaucratic newspeak that is now omnipresent at their alma mater.

'Novel nexuses of knowledge' - Adeeba Kamarulzaman, Professor in the Faculty of Medicine, University of Malaya

The University of Malaya was established to produce skilled and educated men and women to lead and shape the development of a new and independent country.

Having played a significant role in forming a generation of leaders in the traditional fields of law, medicine, engineering and the arts and social sciences, the university now has a critical role in redefining the place of academic institutions in a complex, interconnected world.

Universities can no longer be places for intellectual pursuits alone. To meet these new challenges, the University of Malaya is looking outside its traditional boundaries to form alliances and create novel nexuses of knowledge to address, inform and create practicable solutions for the myriad issues and problems that face the nation and the world at large.

The ultimate yardstick for measuring the success of a university is the improvement it generates in the lives of the people it serves. Therefore, the needs of society have to be at the centre of each university's activities.

‘Challenging but exhilarating’ - Shelley King, Associate Professor of English, Queen’s University, Canada

What makes Queen’s a top university? Goodness knows. It certainly isn’t deep pockets, as we work to meet the financial challenges that seem to be central to any discussion of higher education in the first decade of the 21st century. Nor is it a general feeling of cheerful amity – we’re as opinionated a group of academics as you’ll find anywhere (just ask anyone in a department undertaking curriculum renewal). But the energetic debates that take place across the campus reflect a quality that defines us at all levels, from administrators through faculty and staff, and that quality is passion: for our university, for our research and for our students.

One and all, the people I meet inhabit Queen’s with an intensity that is sometimes challenging, but always exhilarating.

The university also consistently attracts ¬– and retains – a talented group of students, both graduate and undergraduate, who make teaching here quite simply one of the best jobs I could imagine. A recent survey of first-year experience asked students what they found most engaging about their courses. This typical response reflects the best of what Queen’s offers: “In a class where the professor is so excited, so passionate about what’s being taught, it makes you want to learn and work harder.”

‘Small-group teaching is especially rewarding’ - Daniel Geary, Mark Pigott Lecturer in United States History, Trinity College, Dublin

As an American who has taught at universities in the US and UK, I have a distinct perspective on why Trinity College Dublin stands among the world’s best academic institutions. Yet many of Trinity’s best features are obvious to anyone who works here: the excellent research environment and the correspondingly high quality of scholarship among staff, the strong sense of collegiality across disciplines, its distinguished history, and its beautiful campus in the heart of one of Europe’s most vibrant capital cities.

One of the things I most enjoy about teaching at Trinity is working with students in settings that allow me to engage with them individually. Like most of my colleagues in the department of history, I convene a year-long class on a topic of my choosing for which student numbers are kept low. In my “American Politics and Culture” class, a maximum of 18 students divide into two groups for discussion. In this environment, nearly all students participate, not just the most vocal handful. Over the course of a full year, I connect with each student as a scholar and a person. The ideas and energy that emerge in our discussions feed into my own research.

Trinity’s emphasis on small-group teaching makes higher education here an especially rewarding experience for students and teachers.

Times Higher Education-QS World University Rankings 2009: full coverage and tables

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