Universities must redouble their international mission


The suspension of international travel during the Covid-19 pandemic has caused many to revisit confident assertions that the 21st century will be defined by smooth and unfettered global links.

In an age of lockdowns, working from home and the return, in some cases, of international trade barriers, many have been tempted to predict a more local, even parochial, future.

In fact, the coronavirus pandemic has reminded us how our future is inescapably global. Viruses – like so many other problems, from climate change to refugee crises and threats to peace and stability – are undeterred by national boundaries. They require action and analysis on a global scale – with the race for a vaccine highlighting some of the most commendable international cooperation seen in recent years.

Sadly, most of the world is not prepared to see beyond the local and national to recognise this paradigm.

But undergraduate education offers an extraordinary resource to lift consciousness to a global plane and set us on a course of international response.

Its fundamental commitment to a more prosperous, inclusive, just and cooperative world allied with its capacity for broad and complex analysis make it arguably the only universally found resource that can achieve this aim. Add in its potential for replacing outdated assumptions with fresh perspectives and its ability to nurture lifelong habits of mind and person and its own worldwide reach, then this ambitious task seems less daunting.

The recent history of undergraduate education demonstrates its potential for this kind of generational impact. In the 1960s, it was crucial in bringing the sciences and technology to greater prominence. In the decades that followed, undergraduate education initiated a new recognition of the arts, not only as objects of beauty or reflections of creative talent, but as fundamental to intellectual, creative and economic growth. In the 1990s, undergraduate institutions began to act deliberately on the conviction that the integrity and quality of academic institutions would be improved if women and minorities were more fully included in their leadership, disrupting what had been an exclusively male and majority world.

And that more inclusive understanding of institutional quality helped to propel a change in consciousness and responsibility worldwide. Today we must call again on undergraduate education to catalyse a historic transformation in thought.

Undergraduate education must become the powerful and innovative engine for citizenship and leadership in this global century. It must engage students in broad interdisciplinary analysis of the major challenges that face humanity, including sustaining and enhancing our environment, protecting and improving global health and reducing global inequality.

It must seek answers on how society can respond humanely and constructively to inescapable pressures for immigration, partly by expanding the distribution of economic productivity more globally, with the aim of shaping a world that chooses reconciliation, cooperation and progress over violence.

It must lead students to consider the nature, causes and direct and indirect effects of these challenges for each nation and people, the responses the world must make, the responsibilities that each citizen of the world must bear.

Further, undergraduate education must lead students to recognise how much, as human beings, we share the same cognitive and emotional lives or the same fundamental needs for security and affiliation, as well as a longing for opportunity, accomplishment and meaning. These powerful commonalities can serve as the foundations for defining common purpose and identifying shared goals.

And further still, undergraduate education must develop in students the intellectual and emotional abilities to move comfortably, respectfully and with humility, across differences that too often divide us. They must build partnerships that bring those commonalities to the surface and generate collective accomplishment.

The success of institutions of higher education around the globe in developing these global habits of mind demonstrates persuasively that these crucial educational ends can be achieved, and in ways that reinforce undergraduate education’s more traditional goals.

The pandemic has challenged the people of the world to restore faith in each other, in their institutions and in facts. It calls on us to put an end to the devastating physical and economic suffering it has wrought and to ensure that suffering on that scale will not recur.

Developing global vision and global talent must come to be seen as essential to the quality and integrity of undergraduate education.

Spirited conversations and innovative curricular experiments in academic communities will shape the best approaches to educating that vision and talent, but sincere and passionate institutional articulation of this revitalised mission of undergraduate education must be the first step as we seek to prepare students to embrace and take responsibility for a global world.

Author Bio: Alfred H. Bloom is the Executive Vice-Chancellor-elect of Duke Kunshan University in China. He was the founding vice-chancellor of NYU-Abu Dhabi (2008-19), and previously served as president of Swarthmore College.