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Northwestern Buffett Institute for Global Affairs

New University Alliance Addresses Persistent Global Challenges

What role should universities play in addressing global challenges such as climate change, inequality and, now, the novel coronavirus pandemic? That is the question university leaders worldwide, myself included, have begun to explore in earnest as the complexity of the global challenges we currently face demands collaboration and action from every sector of society.

Universities are perhaps best poised to serve as central nodes in the network of actors that must come together to address today's global challenges. They already serve as hubs of connectivity­ bridges to and from different parts of the world, deeply rooted in local communities yet inclusive of people, perspectives and cultures from across the globe. Universities are also the birthplaces of some of humankind's most significant discoveries and innovations- from x-rays and ultrasounds to solar power and rocket fuel to e-mail and webcams-and that legacy continues with universities worldwide taking the lead on developing vaccines, smart personal protective equipment and other interventions to combat COVID-19. Universities also enjoy the luxury of the long view, more so than corporations tied to seasonal sales cycles and national governments tied to short-term election cycles.

As many have noted, higher education institutions have "moved from the periphery to the center of governmental agendas" and are now seen as crucial sources of policy innovation and social impact. Yet they are also highly decentralized places where strategic coordination and collaboration can be difficult without the structures to support it.

The U7+ Alliance of World Universities, launched in 2019, is one such structure that shows promise of yielding novel solutions to pressing global challenges. It is the first coalition of university presidents dedicated to defining concrete actions universities can take to collectively address global challenges in coordination with government leaders worldwide.

SciencesPo hosted the first U7+ Summit in Paris last year as a precursor to the 2019 G7 Summit, under the high patronage of French President Emmanuel Macron. The inaugural U7+ Summit included leaders from 20 countries and 47 universities representing more than 2 million students around the world. It concluded with a set of concrete commitments to tackling global issues ranging from climate change to inequality to the ethics of artificial intelligence.

Commitments are of course easy to articulate and much harder to fulfill, but the U7+ Alliance has made impressive progress over the past year, despite the global travel restrictions, stay-at-home orders and other aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic that have made fast fossils of traditional forms of collaboration.

Alliance members from Senegal to Singapore have self-organized into working groups, each of which is dedicated to taking concrete actions to address a global challenge–small yet critical and collective steps toward achieving the Sustainable Development Goals 193 countries have adopted.

Leaders from 21 universities have already begun collaborating to develop and publish specific targets for improving energy efficiency and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The working group, led by the University of Toronto and University of Edinburgh, developed a framework for taking inventory of how universities are monitoring and doing their part to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. "Many universities are just beginning to formulate how best to develop carbon offsets for emissions. there is an opportunity to develop best practices for less carbon intensive internationalization," the group reported.

Another U7+ working group, led by the Université de Montréal and composed of university leaders from more than a dozen universities worldwide, has spent the past year exploring how higher education institutions can support the ethical development and use of digital innovations and artificial intelligence. The group published a position paper this year that set forth 16 recommendations for "how universities might bolster their leadership role in the responsible use of technology in society." The paper proposes a new Digital Innovation and Artificial Intelligence (Dl&Al) Academic+ Network that promotes cooperation between universities, public agencies, firms and civil society organizations that can "speak as a single voice on core Dl&AI" issues. "Universities can exercise strong leadership, alongside tech companies and governments, in developing and promoting guidelines about how data sciences and digital innovation should be handled," the group reported.

Other working groups have focused over the last year on issues closer to "home," yet no less significant in fostering meaningful solutions to global challenges. The University of Ottawa and the Université de Bordeaux, for example, are working alongside Osaka University, the University of Cape Town, the University College of London and more than half a dozen other institutions to develop new approaches to fostering global citizenship - those that "develop self-reflective people, capable of adjusting their values and behavior, with flexible problem-solving skills and the ability to adapt to complex and unfamiliar environments."

Another group of nearly a dozen universities led by Sciences Po and the University of British Columbia has trained its attention on developing new ways to incentivize and reward students for demonstrating good global citizenship. Morocco's Université Mohammed VI Polytechnique will make a civic engagement learning program a mandatory part of its bachelor's degree program and Sciences Po integrated mandatory civic learning into all of its undergraduate education programs. Efforts such as these to foster global citizenship are critical to developing the next generation of global leaders.

These are but a few examples of the U7+ Alliance's work in its pioneer year-work that will continue this November when my home institution, Northwestern University, will convene university leaders from 20 countries spanning six continents in partnership with Columbia University, George town University and the University of California, Berkeley. This year's Summit will build on work U7+ Alliance members initiated in France last year to develop commitments to addressing key issues including climate and energy, inequality, technological transformation and, now, preparation for global health crises, including the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Summit arguably couldn't come at a better time, as the pandemic rages on, demanding radical new forms of collaboration among actors within and outside of the academy. The world is on the verge of a global reset in which traditional paradigms, political alliances and modes of operating no longer hold. In today's global environment, innovation and change are coming from collaboration across disciplines, sectors and  geographies-not  traditional  silos of expertise, geography and culture. The new genius is a collaborative genius, and universities are perhaps best situated to foster it as gateways to and from the world.


This article originally appeared in the November 2020 Group of Nations G20/G7 Global Briefing Report.  View the full report below: