Virginia president puts academic freedom at heart of China speech

'Unrestrictive' governance is vital if universities are to attain world-class status, says Teresa A. Sullivan

November 13, 2017
Climber in China

Universities cannot be “world class” without academic freedom and “an unrestrictive style of governance”, the president of a leading US university has told a conference in China.

Giving the keynote speech at the Seventh International Conference on World-Class Universities, organised by the Centre for World Class Universities at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, University of Virginia president Teresa A. Sullivan said that relaxed governance controls were “the most important” factor for global excellence in higher education.

In a keynote speech entitled "Thinking locally, acting globally: higher education in a global century", Professor Sullivan set out to define what a world-class university was. “Everyone seems to agree that research power is important,” she said, but truly world class universities “must be committed to discovering new knowledge through research and they must also be committed to disseminating new knowledge through effective teaching”.

She said a top global university should be a “multiversity”, including public service and cultural enrichment in its mission as well as teaching, research and scholarship. It must “break down traditional academic boundaries to allow for cross-disciplinary collaboration” to address 21st-century problems and it must also be connected globally, “because no university that aspires to be among the world’s best can be isolated in the 21st century”.

She added: “I want to mention one final defining quality, and this one might be the most important. To be truly world class, a university must practise an unrestrictive style of governance. The university’s governance structures must relax controls sufficiently to allow faculty creativity to flourish. A university is a community of scholars and entrepreneurs above all, and a community of this kind cannot thrive in a tightly restricted environment.

“University governing bodies that govern with a closed fist constrain innovation and entrepreneurship; governing bodies that are open-handed create an environment in which innovation and entrepreneurship can flourish. Only in such a setting can a university become world class. A world-class university should be a meritocracy in every respect – in organisation and leadership, and in teaching, research and service.

“Academic freedom is an essential quality for a world-class university.”

Professor Sullivan cited the 2011 World Bank book The Road to Academic Excellence: The making of world-class research universities. “The study found that even fledgling universities have the potential to grow into top-quality research institutions within two or three decades if – and only if – several conditions are present: top academic talent; adequate financial resources; and above all, a governance structure that protects faculty autonomy and academic freedom.”

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