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Northwestern Buffett Institute for Global Affairs

Northwestern Buffett Convenes Faculty to Discuss the Role and Future of Global Universities

On May 1, members of the Northwestern Buffett Global Council and Faculty Advisory Council convened to reflect on and discuss critical questions facing university leaders worldwide: How will the impact of global universities shift because of the COVID-19 crisis? What should be universities’ global impact in the aftermath of the crisis? How can universities continue and even amplify their commitment to global learning, research and engagement? Council members’ reflections on these questions and more will inform discussions among leaders from more than 50 universities and 20 countries leading up to the U7+ Alliance of World Universities Summit Northwestern will host this November. Here are six central points from the Northwestern Buffett Global and Faculty Advisory Councils’ conversations:

  • Universities are global actors of great significance. We offer tested models for cooperation across borders and can play an important role in addressing problems that governments cannot solve on their own. While most governments only have the capacity to react to the current moment, universities are able to look to the future. Key global issues universities should address in the aftermath of COVID-19 include the impact of global economic depression on poverty, food security, injustice and inequality. Universities can also play a critical role in illuminating how the effects of economic depression may contribute to rising nationalism, increased migration, weakened states and armed conflict.
  • During a time of great global uncertainty, universities are a source of stability in the world. Now, more than ever, universities must serve as models for the world. When we open, how we open and how many of us survive the COVID-19 pandemic will be an important signal to the global community about our global future and, moving forward, we must make crisis response routine. There is comfort for students, parents, and citizens in seeing a thoughtful, orderly and planned response to crises as they arise. We must also demonstrate inclusion, equity, and transparent leadership in our response to the global crises. This may not happen in other sectors, so we must show the world what is possible here.
  • COVID-19 reveals a need for a new narrative for our time and universities are uniquely positioned to develop that narrative.  As centers of creativity and innovation, universities must create narratives that provide perspectives on the future—on rethinking what capitalism requires, social safety nets, the role and power of collective action, the rise of social movements around access to health and myriad other topics. Universities are also uniquely poised to guard against narrow, divisive or nationalistic narratives in the public domain through scholarship, thought leadership, the arts and other media.
  • Increased use of digital technologies, out of opportunity and necessity, is changing universities. Now is the moment to decide how we want it to change us. Because of this crisis, universities have been forced online. This requires us to think about the nature and value of immersion experiences online and in person, and universities need to get better at both. As we get better at remote teaching and learning and improve capacities for collaborations at a distance, we should emphasize creating more inter-university and international coursework and research. With more academic content migrating to the digital domain, we should also take this moment to consider how we can help the developing world meet their needs through reference materials, online courses and lectures and consider opting for remote collaboration, even when travel is once again permitted, to serve as responsible stewards of the environment as well as university budgets.
  • The crisis is an opportunity to harness our collective connections to teach in a new, more collaborative and cross-border ways. Preparing the next generation of global leaders means teaching resilience, adaptation, humility, flexibility in the face of disruption, the importance of collaboration and trust and social intelligence, in addition to subject matter. It also requires creating more “borderless” and interdisciplinary learning opportunities.
  • Universities must promote science as well as knowledge about the human condition amid and in the aftermath of COVID-19. Universities are key to developing medical and technical solutions to the global pandemic, especially through collaborative research, yet we should also emphasize our work to better understand the human condition through philosophy, the arts, economics and basic research across fields. We must also leverage our multidisciplinary expertise during the recovery phase to prepare for future crises and help build public immunity against misinformation. In addition to collecting and disseminating data on the COVID-19 crisis, we must also help the public interpret that data, and play a role in vetting the information that is shared by the media and governments.

Ultimately, Northwestern Buffett’s council members advised that university leaders within the U7+ Alliance of World Universities and beyond emphasize the contributions that universities have to make to governments and global communities, and deemphasize the short-term needs of universities in the COVID-19 context. In the words of one council member, “We should not focus myopically on recreating a world that was. Rather, we should focus on bringing into being a world that will be.”