Brodhead on Interconnected Knowledge and the 21st Century University

         It is a great pleasure for me to return to Tsinghua University, and I thank you, President Chen, for your welcome. The last time I visited this campus, Tsinghua awarded me an honorary degree, one of the greatest honors I have ever received.  Since that visit, I have taken pleasure in watching Tsinghua continue its remarkable ascent. I was delighted to read in the news recently that Tsinghua had unveiled China's first domestic cloud computer, and that Tsinghua and one other Chinese university were ranked as the top universities in the emerging BRIC economies. Now, in the United States, people feel that their personal status is raised when the status of their university goes up. So as a degree-holder from Tsinghua University, I say: Keep it up!

         Chinese universities have been very much on my mind in the last few months. Let me mention a few salient events. In September 2013, China's Ministry of Education gave establishment approval for Duke Kunshan University, a joint venture university being created by Duke, Wuhan University, and the Municipality of Kunshan that will open its doors in August 2014. In October 2013, the Schwarzman Scholars program, on whose advisory board I serve, had its groundbreaking on the Tsinghua campus. Also in October, an ambitious document was issued by the associations of leading academic institutions in the United States, Europe, Australia, and China describing the characteristics of research universities and the policy environment needed to support them. In November 2013, I traveled to Chicago to meet with 12 Chinese university presidents and a comparable number of American university presidents at an event featuring a speech by Vice Premier Liu Yandong. A few days later, Madame Liu and American Secretary of State John Kerry spoke at the Fourth Annual US-China Consultation on People-to-People Exchange in Washington, D.C.

         As this list suggests, China is scarcely foreign territory any more for the president of a major American university. Far more than when I came to Tsinghua in 2006, the Chinese and American higher education systems have become deeply interconnected, linked through a web of personal relationships, inter-institutional projects, and national initiatives.

         In fact, Chinese-American university relationships have gone far beyond finite collaborations for fixed purposes. My experience these last few months makes me feel that we are arriving at a new stage in which these sets of institutions have begun to help each other think. Today, the universities of China and the United States confront a shared paradox. We've arrived here for different reasons, derived from the different phases of social development we have currently attained, but we have a similar landscape before us.  On the one hand, it is clearer than ever that research universities are critical to continued social and economic development; on the other hand, there is a growing perception that universities face challenges delivering the full value the public expects from them. To meet this heightened expectation, universities can't only stick to established practice. They need to think afresh about the good they have the potential to supply and then ask how they can best supply it. One key benefit higher education institutions can offer each other around the world is to help with this work of thinking about education's methods and goals.

           The document issued last October by the American Association of Universities, League of European Research Universities, the Go8 in Australia, and the C9 in China is a case in point. (Its formal title is the "Hefei Statement on the Ten Characteristics of Contemporary Research Universities.") I am unaware of anything like this document in the history of higher education. It is remarkable not just for the global breadth of its signatories, but for its depth of reflection on the function and value of research universities.

         As background, this document understands that modern development and higher education have a complex symbiotic relationship. Across the world, the progress of development has opened the doors to education to multitudes who formerly lacked such access, enriching their lives and equipping them to participate in more complex economic and social processes. Meanwhile, the increase of trained intelligence in the population has fueled the economic dynamism that, along with other products, creates growing educational opportunity. The massive expansion of higher educational opportunity that marked what economists Goldin and Katz have called "the Human Capital Century" gathered steam in the United States in the decades following World War II. In China, this expansion has happened at an even more accelerated pace in the years since 1998. Now both countries are busy asking how educational access can be yet further expanded to prevent the hardening of social inequalities, and how the quality of broadly distributed education can be assured as well as the quantity.

          Within the general landscape of higher education, research universities occupy a distinctive niche. Major research universities are relatively few in number and serve a relatively select portion of the population, but their impact on their societies is disproportionately large. Research universities are where the great discoveries have been made that lead to new economic activity and improved quality of life: work conducted at research universities has enabled the crucial innovations in modern information technology, environmental sustainability, and health care, to name only a few. And far more important than their specific research results, major research universities have a key role in producing a certain kind of person or citizen. Students trained in great research universities have gone on to play leadership roles in virtually every sector of modern societies.   The same schools that are leading places of inquiry and discovery are also the training ground for habits of creative problem-solving that are key requisites of modern life.

 

The Tensions in Research University Missions

         The Hefei Statement is a powerful piece of thinking because as it articulates the value research universities produce, it recognizes that these values exist in tension. Specifically, the Statement argues that while societies everywhere demand short-term benefits from research universities, the most profound benefits societies derive from universities are of a different nature and are not so easily named or defended. In the words of the document, "universities also are storehouses of knowledge and broad capabilities that provide an underlying state of preparedness -- a kind of information- and capacity-based insurance and broader vigilance -- that business, government, and communities can draw upon to help deal with the unexpected and the unknown. This ability to respond quickly and creatively drawing on a significant breadth of capabilities ... becomes more important as the volatility of the world increases and the unexpected becomes the norm."

         In this way of thinking, universities do not exist primarily to produce answers to specific questions or people equipped to do specific things. They are a space of exploration, places where questions are asked and mental skills are developed without reference to immediate use alone, thus laying down a body of powers and understandings that can later be activated, brought into new combinations, and put to uses that could not be foreseen at the time they were first developed.

         Since the public pays for research and education, it will naturally want to see the return on its investment, and there is no avoiding this expectation. The key challenge for research universities, therefore, is how to win a margin of public protection for their deep mission, how to fend off short-term pressures so they can do the unique things that meet society's long-term needs.

         The university presidents' meeting in Chicago, which took place soon after the Hefei Statement was released, was a frank discussion of this problem in China and in America. The comments of the Chinese presidents made clear that the issue of university autonomy in China is not just of concern to foreigners. The Chinese leaders spoke freely of this need. They identified achieving the appropriate degree of independence as an unsolved problem that will have to be addressed if their universities are to reach their fullest potential. Though details have yet to be worked through, in principle your state partner does not disagree:  Madame Liu's speech at that meeting cited the recommendation from the Third Plenary Session of the 18th CPC Central Committee that more autonomy be given to school authorities in the running of schools.

         Through our longer history, American universities have established habits of independence not yet fully achieved elsewhere. But at this meeting, American presidents made clear that we too are beset with pressures: decreased state funding for public universities, an uncertain funding environment for basic as opposed to applied research, and a general public inclined to measure the worth of education in terms of immediate job placement and starting salaries for graduates.

         None of these questions is easy, but even were we to get the problem of external relations -- what the Hefei Statement calls the "policy environment" -- right, universities still face another, internal question: if we require some freedom from the world's short-term demands in order to deliver a greater long-term value, are we delivering that value to the fullest extent, and how could we do better? How can the education we supply today be best designed to supply the world's needs tomorrow?

         I have worked in higher education for nearly forty years, first as a scholar and teacher, then as a dean in charge of undergraduate education at Yale, and now this is my 10th year as a university president at Duke. The longer I have worked in this field, the more I have come to think that higher education's important goal is not the mastery of distinct subject fields but the development of deep habits of mind. For purposes of academic organization, we divide the university into Natural Sciences, Social Sciences, and Humanities; we divide it further into Physics, Economics, Philosophy and the rest. But to name the traits that education should cultivate, we need very different words: active engagement; strength and breadth of curiosity; the urge to pull separate bits of knowledge together into new insights and to apply old lessons to new problems in new ways; the ability to think independently but also to work in teams; the will to use one's intelligence for the common good.

         What if, instead of starting from the familiar map of academic disciplines, we started with this list of goals, then worked backward to ask how such habits of mind could be developed?  I believe we would design university education somewhat differently.  There is no set formula for cultivating these mental characteristics, but in the United States, putting the question this way has led to renewed interest in the idea of liberal arts education. Liberal arts education isn't just a matter of requiring students to visit random unrelated fields and fulfill their curricular obligations. Beyond its formal requirements, this model of education aims to engage multiple forms of intelligence to promote an active, integrative mind that's naturally disposed, when it comes upon a new fact or situation, to use existing knowledge to try to grasp it, while updating preexisting understandings in this new light.

         The push for shortcuts and quick payoffs has produced negative talk about the liberal arts in the United States in recent years, and defense of the university's mission has required defending the value of this broad preparation. Two years ago, members of the U.S. Congress asked the American Academy of Arts and Sciences to convene a Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences, which I was asked to co-chair. The commission was composed of 53 men and women of high achievement from every sector of society, including educators, businessmen, diplomats, judges, elected officials, artists and actors, and filmmakers. When the committee met, it quickly agreed that its real mission was to make the case for the foundational social value of a broad and inclusive concept of education that equips students with multiple skills. Although this commission contained many distinguished scholars and academic leaders, among them the presidents of Stanford, Harvard, and the University of Pennsylvania, some of the most eloquent voices on behalf of liberal arts education came from non-academics. James McNerney, the CEO of Boeing and former chair of the US-China Business Council, told us that high-tech manufacturing requires skilled engineers, but that beyond a certain level, people will not advance unless they have a broader array of skills, especially skills at communication and interacting with culturally diverse others -- liberal arts training par excellence. General and Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, who headed US military and diplomatic efforts in Afghanistan and who, incidentally, holds an advanced degree in Chinese history from Nanjing University, testified that in the globalized modern world, weapons can only do so much to promote national security. Equally essential are the understanding of foreign languages, foreign histories and cultures, and belief systems different from one's own: classical social science and humanities fields within a liberal arts education. Norm Augustine, longtime head of Lockheed Martin and a principal proponent of improved science and technology education in the United States, argued that the single greatest weakness in US education is in history, and that the study of history develops core skills for creative workers and good citizens: collecting the evidence, making persuasive arguments, and weighing the value of conflicting interpretations. 

 

The Versatility of Liberal Arts Education

         If I were to look for a classic product of liberal arts education, I could find one in Chinese history: Yung Wing, Yale Class of 1854, the first person from China to graduate from an American university. As he recounts in his autobiography, Yung Wing had an offer by a benefactor to pay his full way through college if he would agree to return to China as a missionary. He declined, on the grounds that he did not want his life's work delimited in advance. After he graduated, he returned to China where he worked rather aimlessly as a translator, then a clerk in a tea house, where -- in recognition of his verbal powers -- he was asked to write an appeal for foreign aid following a major flood. This plus his entrepreneurial ventures getting tea out of rebel-held areas won him notice as a clever man. In consequence, Yung Wing was asked to advise the Chinese government on how to close the knowledge gap in the field of technology. At this point he returned to the United States to buy machine tools for China, equipment that, on Yung Wing's advice, could manufacture not just specific needs but the machinery to meet many further needs -- steamboats, for instance, in addition to rifles. Having established a base for technological education in China, he was then asked, in an early human rights initiative, to document abuses of Chinese migrant workers in the New World. This report ended the virtual slave trade in coolie labor to Peru. Later still he drew up plans for a national bank.

         How was Yung Wing able to participate so constructively in so many different domains? Not by having been trained in a narrow, specialized way in any of them. He could move from one newly arising situation to another and play a role in building his nation in each because he was smart and enterprising and because he had a highly various, highly mobile set of skills. He perfectly exemplifies what the Hefei Statement means when it speaks of "a storehouse of broad capabilities that provide an underlying state of preparedness. . . . that business, government and communities can draw on to help deal with the unexpected and unknown."

         If we want a more contemporary example of the versatility broad preparation breeds, we could find it, paradoxically, in the 20th century's most famous dropout. Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, enrolled at Reed College, then one of the most noted liberal arts colleges in the United States, but he soon dropped out. But we would be wrong to think that college had no value for him. It's no surprise that Jobs was an early student of information technology and computer gaming, but he himself claimed that the most valuable thing he ever studied was a calligraphy course he took at Reed. It's the combination of technology with aesthetics, the power of design that Jobs first learned to appreciate through calligraphy, that gives Apple products their visual distinction and functional appeal. When Jobs first introduced the iPad, he showed an image of a crossroads at the intersection of two streets called Technology and Liberal Arts, and he announced that innovation is the product of conjunctions.  "Technology alone is not enough," he said.  "It's technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields the results that make our hearts sing."

         There is no magic formula for the form of education I am advocating. No university or national system has devised the surefire secret for training the sort of thoughtful, versatile graduate who will make a difference in the world. But what I find striking nowadays is the recognition by universities that they need to ask themselves the question, and the willingness to experiment in exploring possible answers. At Duke this year we are introducing a program called Bass Connections that will create, alongside the traditional school and department-based curriculum, a complementary curriculum based not on disciplines but contemporary problems. Students in our undergraduate and professional schools will be able to access a broad, integrative curriculum addressing the issues of global health, energy, information, education and human development, and the study of the human brain. Each will draw on the range of disciplines that must play a part in successful solutions in these domains, including the sciences, economics, ethics, psychology, law, policy, and the study of culture. As students become deeply engaged, they will be able to pass from enrollment in courses to active participation in research teams and first-hand experience in real-world settings.

         We do not regard this as a replacement for traditional training, but we do believe will have an important effect in producing students who are wide ranging, skilled at integrating perspectives and domains of knowledge, and committed to using their intelligence to solve real-world problems. Though still in its pioneering phase, I have already met undergraduates working on teams with faculty, graduate students, and postdocs to test the success of programs to prevent school dropout in rural areas, to devise smartgrid elements, and to explore the boundaries between good and bad forms of stress. Our programs at Duke Kunshan University will feature the same cross-disciplinary, problem-solving pedagogy.

         On the Chinese side, I am seeing a similar exploratory engagement with a version of education not limited to traditional disciplinary specializations. In the past decade, many leading Chinese universities have devised their own experiments in "interconnected knowledge." Here too, instead of adhering to a single model, different schools are trying different things--the ambitious Education Scheme for Arts and Sciences at Fudan University, the great books model at Sun Yat Sen University, the new experiments at Zhejiang University, not to mention Tsinghua's own liberal arts curriculum.  In reading the reforms agreed to at the Third Plenary Session, I see what appears to be a national commitment to this broader, less rigidified model of education. The announcement pledges to examine a "multi-evaluation system" to make college admissions less dependent on a single test's metric for success. Another reform states that "efforts will be made to cultivate all-round students," a recognition of the special value that is produced when different dimensions of intelligence are developed in a single mind.

         My point is that the challenge of having to face hard questions about the trained mental powers societies need can be a good thing for research universities, a spur to exploration and innovation. In this period, we have a great deal to learn from each other's efforts, since none of us is guaranteed to have the right answer in advance. Higher education has always advanced through the sharing of bright ideas and best practices across national boundaries. The system we in the United States regard as "American" is a hybrid of elements derived from medieval France and Germany, Reformation England, nineteenth century Germany, and more recently, the imported brainpower of faculty and students from East and South Asia. At the meeting of Chinese and American university presidents in Chicago, I saw an emerging forum for just this sort of exchange. We will all benefit by being good trading partners in ideas.

 

Bridging Cultural Differences

         This leads me to a word about a final form of education sorely needed in our time: learning to understand and work productively within the context of cultural differences. We are all aware of China's rapid emergence as a global power, of which the rise of your universities is both an effect and a cause. After the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union dissolved, many in the West predicted that we were entering a new global order that the United States would dominate as the single superpower. Like many sage predictions, this one, if it ever was true, did not stay true for long. What Fareed Zakaria calls "the rise of the rest" has created a multipolar world, in which both China and the United States can claim superpower status.

         Now, history has taught that the collision of great powers can be highly destructive if they become trapped into defining one another as enemies. It is my hope, as it must be the hope of every thoughtful person around the globe, that we can do better than to replay the Cold War with a substitution in the cast. The United States and China are bound to be competitors, but it is not yet settled whether their competition will take a mutually damaging form or, perhaps, the sort we speak of in business and athletics, where competition makes every player better.

         Education will be of the essence in determining how this question is settled. The chief guarantee of a positive future is for large numbers of people on both sides to have a chance to experience each other, to trade simplistic caricatures for a subtle understanding of each other's cultural particularities, and to learn how to work together on a basis of mutual understanding and respect.  It has been 35 years since the U.S. and the PRC established diplomatic relations, and the People to People Exchange our governments have committed to involves many levels of exchange, but given how deeply people's mind-sets are shaped in their youth, the bilateral flow of students is the most critical element.

         In the current generation, large numbers of Chinese, including virtually every Chinese university leader, have had the experience of studying in the West.  I am glad that the traffic flow is in the process of becoming more two-way. The Schwarzman Scholars program will be a prestigious, highly competitive honor drawing future Western leaders to study in China. At Duke, we are happy to have nearly one thousand Chinese students studying at our campus in North Carolina, but we will be even happier when our best students and your best students can learn together at Duke Kunshan University.

         I close with a quotation that I have always found inspiring. Wilhelm von Humboldt was one of the principal inventors of the new model research university created in Berlin in the early 19th century which all modern universities are derived from. Humboldt defined the essential spirit of the research university this way: "Everything depends upon holding to the principle of understanding knowledge as something not yet found, never completely to be discovered, and searching relentlessly for it as such." This claim -- that no one has the whole truth yet, that the truth is something that can only be progressively discovered, advanced toward in better and better approximations through an ongoing act of inquiry -- this is the creed that animates the modern research university: the Hefei Statement eloquently restates it, but it scarcely improves on it. In this concept, faculty members are explorers and discoverers, not primarily authority figures; students and teachers are there to search together; and every idea, however final it may seem, not only can be, but needs to be, questioned, tested, reconsidered, for knowledge to keep advancing.

         No research university ever perfectly lives up to this ideal, but all universities become better when they remember this ideal and strive to make it real. For all their challenges, this as a moment of opportunity for universities, to the extent that we are pushed to keep asking and coming up with better answers to the question what a university at its best can be. None of us can find the answer alone, but we can make progress if we work together. I welcome all Chinese partners in this shared quest.