University Presidents Assembly, 2005 Beijing Forum, November 17, 2005.

2005 Beijing Forum

The Harmony of Civilizations and Prosperity for All: Asia’s Opportunities and Development in Globalization

November 17, 2005, 

University Presidents Assembly

Address of Jeffrey S. Lehman

“University Leadership and Healthy Globalization” 

Good morning.

The theme of this morning’s assembly is university leadership and its impact on Asia’s opportunities and development in globalization.  It is an honor for me to be here and to share a few thoughts on this timely and vital subject.

My thesis this morning can be summarized quite succinctly:

Globalization is beneficial but risky.

Universities can contribute to the process of healthy globalization in ways that other institutions cannot.

Universities must contribute to that process if Asia and the world are to reap the full benefits of globalization while avoiding its pitfalls.

What are the benefits of globalization?  They are economic, cultural, and humanist.

The economic benefits of globalization are familiar to us all.  Early in the nineteenth century, the economist David Ricardo wrote about how, when countries allow their citizens to trade with one another, the principle of comparative advantage means that the overall well-being of individuals in both countries will increase.

But these benefits carry a risk.  Free trade leads countries to specialize, and the logic of free trade will often lead countries to become dependent on imports of some goods that might seem essential to their sovereignty, like food or oil.  Economic interdependence often means national vulnerability as well.

The cultural benefits of globalization are equally familiar.  Anthropologists have taught us much about how, when two cultures come into contact with one another, a process of mutual influence takes place whereby each is changed.  The benefits can be merely additive – as where Americans come to appreciate both Whistler and Tang Yin, or Chinese come to appreciate both Qin music and the cello.  Or they can mean the creation of something entirely new, an exciting fusion of multiple influences.

But these benefits carry risks as well.  To the extent some cultural practices require intense and focused practice in order to be maintained, they can be obliterated in the process of mutual contact.  In the extreme form, we might witness a bland homogenization of world cultures, a loss of global cultural diversity. 

The humanist benefits of globalization are the deepened awareness that individuals feel of their connection to the rest of the species. We are affirmed whenever we recognize ourselves in people from different cultures.  We are ennobled when we appreciate that people everywhere share a joint responsibility to care for the planet we all inhabit.

But these benefits also carry their own risks.  The world is vast, and difficult to navigate.  For everyone, identity is built in part from a sense of belonging to smaller communities that are distinct from one another.  A culture, a nation, a region, a home town.  We need to ensure that our participation as citizens of the world is compatible with our ongoing identities as citizens of particular nations.

Who are the actors that can contribute to healthy globalization, promoting its attendant economic, cultural, and humanistic benefits while paying careful attention to its countervailing risks?

The first actor is obviously government.  Citizens everywhere depend on their governments to promote their interests worldwide, and to protect their interests against the competing interests of citizens from other countries.  Since healthy globalization benefits the citizens of all countries, it is natural to expect that governments will work towards globalization.

But as crucially important as governments are, we know that they are sometimes imperfect in promoting the well-being of their citizens.  In my country, and I suspect in every country, the people who lead governments owe their power and authority to complex, and often competing, webs of interest.  Their continued authority may require them to demonstrate visibly to their publics that they are tough negotiators on behalf of their people, that they are doing everything possible to ensure that they are getting at least their fair share of any additional value created through cooperation.  The result may be a prisoner’s dilemma, a stalemate in which healthy interdependence cannot be promoted because neither government can risk activities that could be portrayed as weakness internally.

A second actor is business.  Globalization creates new profit opportunities, and so business ventures are natural agents for greater transnational integration.

But here again we must recognize the limited nature of the leadership that businesses can provide.  Business leaders have fiduciary obligations to their shareholders and other beneficial owners.  Those obligations require them to remain focused on risk and return, and their impact on the market value of their organization.  There is only limited room in their role for attention to the non-economic cultural and humanistic benefits of globalization.  Even more importantly, there is only limited room for attention to the cultural and humanistic risks of globalization, or to the political dangers of interdependence and vulnerability.

And this is why I believe universities have a special leadership role in the process of healthy globalization.  The universities I know best are all committed to three functions:  learning, teaching, and serving.  The effective performance of those functions demands that they maintain a particular kind of culture.  And, I would submit, that culture is especially well suited to the promotion of healthy, thoughtful, careful globalization.

A university’s learning function, its research function, entails the search for knowledge, understanding, and truth.  A great university is committed to the proposition that knowledge and understanding are ends in themselves.  We believe that it is always good to know things, even if that knowledge makes us unhappy or afraid.

The search for truth requires us to be deeply self-critical.  It requires us to be always aware of the limits of our knowledge.  It requires us to be always open to new arguments, new challenges, and new perspectives.

I would submit that this requirement forces us to think of ourselves as transnational institutions.  Because in every field of inquiry, the most promising new arguments often come from afar.  The richness and complexity of our understanding depends crucially on the extent to which we seek out ideas from every part of the globe.

A university’s teaching function entails the preparation of young people for lives of contribution and service to society.  A great university is committed to constantly revisiting the question of what each generation of students needs as preparation for the world that it will confront as adults.

I would submit that in the twenty-first century this requirement also forces us to think of ourselves as transnational institutions.  Today’s students will live and work in partnership with people from other cultures and other nations.  To be effective, they must have developed a transnational perspective on the human condition.  They must be open to new ideas, new ways of thinking, new ways of feeling.  They must be comfortable and excited by the world’s radically varied texture without rushing to presume some variants of human culture to be superior and others inferior.  They must embrace a vision of universalism that reinforces and is reinforced by pluralism.  They must willingly engage with people who are different, participate in their efforts to improve the conditions of their lives.  They must be prepared to advocate for certain humanist values, even while listening carefully and respectfully to those who might reject those values.

A university’s service function also leads us in the same direction.  Almost every university understands itself as having a special duty to serve one or more geographic communities.  Those communities may be cities, states, provinces, or countries.  But almost every university believes that, in addition to conducting research and teaching students, it has a duty to ensure that its overall activities as an institution provide visible benefits to those communities.

Today there can be no question that service to our local communities requires attention to the impact of globalization on those communities.  We need to help them to understand the ways in which greater worldwide and cultural integration will create new opportunities for their citizens to distribute the fruits of their productive labors.  We need to help them to understand the ways in which those same processes will also create new sources of market competition.  We need to help them to prepare for the dynamism and for the volatility to come, so that they can prosper in the new environment.

And the same impulse to serve requires us to support research, teaching, and other activities that call attention to shared global problems that could be exacerbated by the processes we are describing.  Rapid worldwide industrialization strains the resource capacity of our planet, at the same time that it multiplies the dangers to our planet’s ecosystems.  Perhaps the greatest failure of markets is the ease with which individual market actors are able to externalize some of the costs of their activities.  Many of the people who understand that fact the best are found in universities, and it is our responsibility to ensure that their insights spur us forward in the quest for more sustainable modes of existence.

The core missions of learning, teaching, and serving impel universities towards leadership in the process of healthy globalization.

And yet, too often, universities do not provide the full extent of leadership that they might.  Why is that?

One reason is that universities are sometimes overwhelmed by local, short-term, small-scale pressures.  We need to balance budgets, find teachers for courses, hire staff, and show our public and private overseers that we are operating efficiently and effectively.  Those are all legitimate demands.  But more and more, the overseers of universities are asking them to go further, to use the language of business to frame their priorities and organize their operations.  When taken to an extreme, such pressures can crowd out the possibilities for leadership in the domain of healthy globalization.

Another reason is a sense of competition with other universities.  Our greatest contributions to a healthy globalization will often come through collaboration with other universities.  But we don’t always trust other institutions, especially when they are trying to recruit our faculty and our students.

And of course there are other reasons as well.

But my point this morning is this.  We need to recognize and then transcend those challenges.  We need to do the work that is necessary to think about our entire planet, to think long-term, to think large-scale.  We need to find ways to work together with our competitors to promote a larger set of goals.

The potential benefits of globalization – economic, cultural, and humanistic – are vast indeed.  But the risks are also serious.  Healthy globalization requires the full and engaged leadership of universities.  And that is why the presence of so many universities here today, at this year’s Beijing Forum, is an opportunity – for higher education and for all of humanity.