Universities must rediscover the value of listening to those beyond the campus

We should build education and research on an embrace of others and a regard for diversity that does not stop at the campus gate, says Teruo Fujii

September 1, 2021
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When I assumed the presidency of the University of Tokyo (UTokyo) in April, the Covid-19 pandemic was continuing to rage in Japan and throughout the world. For more than a year, our students, like many others, have had to make the difficult adjustment to online classes and try to pursue their academic endeavours despite restricted access to campus.

The pandemic has revealed more clearly than ever the paradox of globalisation. While the worldwide circulation of people, goods and information has brought us together in some ways, it has also increasingly fragmented human society along the lines of nationality, race, gender, religion and income. Our increasing proximity to others has simultaneously created deeper divisions among us. The rapid global spread of the virus and our immediate need to isolate ourselves is symbolic of our era, when borders and boundaries are easily crossed by some and yet sealed for others.

One important lesson from the pandemic for institutions of higher education is that we must rediscover the value of listening to the voices and feelings not only of those around us but also of those beyond our campuses, regions and national boundaries. The immediate need to distance ourselves from others – from our students, colleagues, friends and even families – has made us acutely realise how precious they all are. As the president of Japan’s leading national university, I am determined to create a campus environment where every member of our university community acknowledges the value of others and becomes fully committed to engaging in dialogue. Our education and research must be premised on this embrace of others and the appreciation of diversity.

These values are particularly resonant for UTokyo. For many years, our institution has struggled to attract talented female students and faculty. And while we have been fortunate to welcome increasing numbers of international students – they now make up 15 per cent of our student body – there is still much more we can do to attract young people from all over the world. We also want to welcome more researchers from abroad to join our numerous cutting-edge research projects.

In terms of gender, UTokyo’s campus environment unfortunately still reflects the overall social dynamics of Japanese society, which is ranked 120th out of 156 countries in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index. We have already been working to remedy our gender imbalance through various policies, including providing housing subsidies to female undergraduates and allocating special research funds for female faculty. In my first act as president, I appointed new executive vice-presidents so that a majority of UTokyo’s nine-member board is female. This reflects my commitment to creating a management team that incorporates diverse ideas and expertise from both inside and outside the university. This move may not seem so special to the rest of the world, but it attracted considerable attention in Japan. It marked the first time that any national university in Japan achieved gender parity in its executive line-up. I am determined to do much more during my tenure.

For my six-year term, I am preparing a vision statement to be called “UTokyo Compass”. It will cover a range of issues, from education to research to management, but the unifying theme will be my unwavering commitment to advocating dialogue among people and organisations with different values and ideas and creating a diverse, inclusive and empathic community.

For example, while continuing to support students’ learning experiences on campus, I will also encourage them to engage more closely with the larger society. I want them to leave their comfort zones and confront directly the challenging issues of the day, including gender equity and environmental protection. They can then bring their experiences back to campus to further enrich their study in our classrooms and laboratories. To this end, the university will strengthen our experiential activity programmes in collaboration with partner corporations, NGOs, NPOs and other organisations. Those on-site learning experiences will help to create a pedagogical synergy between our campuses and society.

I will also promote more collaborations with industry. While maintaining our valued traditions of academic independence and integrity, we will reach out more to corporations that share and support our values of dialogue and diversity. We plan to support more young tech entrepreneurs from various backgrounds who are committed to changing the world. There are already approximately 400 UTokyo-affiliated start-ups, with the top five alone having a combined market value of more than $12 billion (£8.7 billion). I hope to increase this number to 700 firms, with the goal of raising another $10 billion in start-up capital over the next 10 years. By strengthening this synergy with industry, I will make our university an essential and responsible contributor to the global economy.

Finally, as an engineer by training, I am deeply committed to using our understanding of the world to enable better and more responsible management of our planet. UTokyo’s Center for Global Commons, established last year, has launched discussions about stewardship of internationally shared resources. This endeavour requires us to commit ourselves not only to other people but to animals, plants and other living things. I will push for continuation of this robust dialogue to advocate for an environment that is more hospitable for every species on our planet.

As I write this article, the pandemic continues to rage in many parts of the world. Here in Japan, we are still keeping socially distant from each other while our borders remain tightly controlled. The on-screen interactions with my colleagues and students inside and outside Japan are convenient, but like many, I also long for more direct encounters. As we emerge from the pandemic, I hope we will remember this strange feeling of both proximity and distance and reflect on the importance of engaging with others in sincere dialogue to create a better university and a healthier earth for all.

Teruo Fujii is president of the University of Tokyo.

The Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2022 will be published at 00:01 BST on 2 September. The results will be exclusively revealed at the THE World Academic Summit (1-3 September), which will focus on the interrelationship between universities and the places in which they are located.


Print headline: Into the great beyond

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Reader's comments (1)

....narrowing a lumbering multiverse into an agile seamless universe. Such heavy lift !! Basil jide fadipe.