NYU Shanghai head: US universities ‘have special global role’

Jeffrey Lehman says American universities have the resources and autonomy to be innovative

March 11, 2016
Jeffrey Lehman, New York University Shanghai (NYU Shanghai)

America’s elite universities have a “special responsibility” to think more ambitiously about their missions and to commit to “innovative experimentation”, the chief executive of New York University Shanghai has claimed.

Jeffrey Lehman said that the top universities in the US generally have “broad missions” and “decentralisation of governance”, which makes them “uniquely situated” for solving the challenges of the 21st century, such as the supply-demand gap of higher education and the need for graduates to be “effective in an interdependent world”.

Speaking during a Times Higher Education webinar on “American Universities’ Place in Global Higher Education: The Next Chapter”, the former president of Cornell University said that it is up to US universities to reflect on what “the 21st century requires of us” and then to experiment with “innovative new ways” of nurturing these ideas.

“Universities around the world can experiment, and they are experimenting. But America’s universities are uniquely well situated to experiment,” he said.

“Not only do they have the resources to experiment, they have the tradition of seeing their missions in dynamic and evolving ways and they are not subject to the kind of stifling, homogenising forms of government regulation that can make experimentation difficult in other countries.”

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He said that since universities’ boards of trustees and academic staff might not always be “willing to accept dramatic changes”, it is “often helpful” for US universities to “start by creating a new self-contained entity within the university”.

He cited the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford – a partnership between Stanford University and Germany’s Hasso Plattner Institute, launched in 2004 – as an “inspiring” example, which he said has been emulated at other global design schools and universities.

“It has proven itself to be an incredibly fertile source of research and pedagogy in the field of design and the emergence of design thinking as an approach to innovation,” he said.

“It’s an example of the sort of thing America’s universities should see as their special role in the 21st century.”

He also referenced his own institution – a joint venture between New York University and East China Normal University – and New York University Abu Dhabi. 

“Can all universities transform themselves into a transnational university? Of course not, and they shouldn’t,” he said. “Some will. And some will be inspired to find other ways to nurture their students.”


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