World view: All for one, but none for all

July 13, 2001

Universities need radical restructuring to cooperate in addressing global problems, argues Sheldon Rothblatt.

The red carpet was not exactly rolled out for President George Bush during his visit to Gothenburg last month, but a polite gesture was made in the shape of a carpet, possibly Persian, laid for him in a side room of the city hall.

The visit of the United States president coincided with a meeting of the European Union Summit. There was much buzz about the Kyoto Protocol. The Bush administration will not endorse it, but after publication of a National Academy of Sciences report, the president conceded that global warming was a reality. Nothing better unites the Europeans than an American leader who will not commit to lower carbon emissions by 2010.

While summit participants discussed global trade, missile defence and the environment, a conference on "Knowledge and Learning for a Sustainable Society" was taking place at Gothenburg University that was co-sponsored by neighbouring Chalmers Technological University. The conference dealt with greenhouse gases, abrupt climate changes, ocean currents and the effects of ecological policies on economic performance - whether, for example, emissions trading should be allowed or whether the hecatombs resulting from foot-and-mouth disease constitute constraint of trade.

"Transparency", "harmonisation" and other elements of Eurospeak were the lingua franca. The tone of presentations was measured, scientific and academic, but ideological flare-ups occurred, most notably whenever the topic turned to the role of international business in promoting a sustainable environment.

The opening sessions, however, were of a different order. The questions focused on the modern university's capacity to address environmental and social issues. They included: can the university create the scientific and technological knowledge required to address key issues? Is the academic culture, its values, its modes of investigation, its capacity for internal cooperation and above all its reward system suitable for today's commitments? And is the internal organisation of knowledge appropriate? Can the university transfer its largely disciplinary base and subject loyalties into a smoothly coordinated system devoted to the general good?

I am confident that the scientific and technical achievements of the research university provide the knowledge base essential to resolve, or at least mitigate, many kinds of ecological and health problems. Whether the politicians can make the necessary commitments, or whether the numerous interests that comprise contemporary society can agree on aims, is a far more intractable problem.

My confidence is based on the two scientific transformations and several technical interludes of the past half century. The first transformation was in particle physics, which I recall as a golden age at Berkeley in the 1950s and 1960s, when the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory produced what then appeared to be an unlimited supply of Nobel laureates. The second is the transformation in the medical and biological sciences, producing a revolutionary understanding of how the body works. Both are linked through the discovery of the chemical building blocks of nature and the use of high-speed and powerful computing to provide manipulations, modelling and correlations.

The ability to generate the knowledge exists. Furthermore, the academic culture is prepared to apply that knowledge to problem-solving.

The reward structure, however, is a thorny question that research universities have not adequately confronted. The public knowledge of today is closely correlated with teamwork - among disciplines, between disciplines and in research teams and centres straddling separate universities and national boundaries. How is credit to be apportioned, the grain separated from the chaff? The extraordinary individualism that came into universities via Humboldtian ideals of originality is not so relevant when the tasks are multiple, and discovery and application are nearly synonymous in many fields.

New universities often create transdisciplinary departments and programmes. All universities have research units that borrow academics from the disciplines, temporarily or long-term. Some institutions have created shared institutes, such as Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on urban affairs, or Gothenburg University and Chalmers, whose joint Centre for Environment and Sustainability administered the Gothenburg conference. Disciplinary specialisation, organised into departments or their equivalent, is the basic structure of research universities. Departments provide a home, a history and a sense of institutional loyalty that are necessary but no longer sufficient.

A strong case exists for weak internal divisions that encourage easy movement across subject boundaries. Vested interests should be avoided, so that fiefdoms and their petty bureaucracies cannot develop. Cross-disciplinary units can then dissolve when no longer functional. The funding and reward systems would have to be defined in ways that do not subject such freedom to haggling. Some of this is already happening. The real difficulty is where to situate the humanities and the social sciences in this universe of movement, teamwork, applied knowledge and public service.

If I have great confidence in the possibilities of a high-technology civilisation to address certain kinds of problems, I have none whatsoever in the university's record for transmitting a culture of dignity, compassion, human worth and decency in these days of mindless self-absorption, trivial amusement and gluttony.

Sheldon Rothblatt is professor of history at the University of California, Berkeley.

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