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The New U.N. University

January 13, 2011

It’s not exactly Model U.N., but since November the United Nations has given colleges a new way to work with the organization. "Academic Impact," as the initiative is known, has attracted 540 colleges and universities from around the world. How much the colleges will actually do, however, remains to be seen.

To join (which is free), all colleges must do is to demonstrate at least one “activity” -- or program -- that is consistent with Academic Impact’s 10 basic principles, such as promoting human rights or encouraging global citizenship. Many colleges already have programs that meet that standard, and they can use them to fulfill the requirement. All they must do then is to submit to the U.N. a summary of how their program fits, so the U.N. can bring it before the larger Academic Impact community, and others, if they wish to, can create similar programs.

The idea, though, has been six years in the making. Then U.N. chief of the Civil Society Service, Ramu Damodaran -- who now serves as chief of Academic Impact's Secretariat -- pitched the program in 2005 during the triennial conference of the International Association of University Presidents. The idea, he explained, was to model it on the U.N. Global Compact program -- an initiative that connects thousands of businesses -- as a means for universities to exchange and swap ideas centered around values promoted by the U.N.

Attendees at the conference liked the idea, and so did U.N. officials. After his election in 2006, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon made Academic Impact his personal project, culminating in the initiative's official announcement in 2008 at Fairleigh Dickinson University. Over the course of the next two years, a U.N. team led by Damodaran came up with 10 basic benchmark principles by which the program could be defined. From there, he set out to recruit as many colleges as he could to join.

The finer details of the program are still in development. “What will happen later, which we have not yet planned, is ... some sort of peer review by a group of universities of the initiatives being taken by initial members,” says Damodaran. “And I think this is going to be important because I think in the beginning we will be fairly relaxed. We certainly don’t want a situation where 540 universities say they observed a speech and say they fulfilled the initiative. But the U.N. has refrained from being too specific about what constitutes or what does not constitute an activity because I think that’s for universities to consider and decide.”

How the U.N. will collect and share the data is also still to be decided. Already though, the sharing is seeing practical results.

“Chuo University is working assiduously in water management,” said Damodaran. “And I have universities that want to launch similar programs specific to their locations.”

Universities have taken a range of steps to comply with Academic Impact’s obligations.

Perhaps Fairleigh Dickinson sits at the top of the class. The program's most vocal advocate is the university's president, J. Michael Adams, who recently blogged an optimistic introduction to the initiative for the Huffington Post. Fairleigh Dickinson also hosts Academic Impact’s website, and its president and his assistant also hold the two highest-ranking elected leadership positions in the International Association of University Presidents, Academic Impact’s top partner.

Other participating colleges report minimal demands made on their time after signing up. At Macalester College, media relations manager Barbara Laskin explained that, “since joining, there has not been any further request for action, and absent that we have not engaged in any planning as to fulfilling the obligations.”

After Richard Stockton College announced its membership, spokesman Tim Kelly explained that he thought his college would be able to use its existing programs to fulfill the one “activity” requirement. If so, it is unlikely much more will be done than filling out the annual submissions paperwork.

This was unsurprising to Damodaran, the initiative's overseer. "We certainly don’t expect every university to come up with an immediate new program," he said. "We recognize that universities -- if they do wish to do new programs -- will take some time to evolve. But what is important is that they realize that the programs they’re already doing have a specific global -- and hence a U.N. -- context.”

The Santa Barbara Graduate Institute -- a small postgraduate institute formed in 2000 that takes a holistic approach to teaching -- has a different story. President Allan Hoffman explained that during a meeting in November at the U.N. headquarters in which Secretary-General Ban formally kicked off Academic Impact, he made many new contacts with other university presidents and with U.N. organizers. “We’re at the early beginning at looking at students doing international work,” he said. “We might have [new] experiences within our curriculum that are international-focused. The settings would be with the idea of addressing some of those issues -- peace and conflict, violence or violence prevention.”

Cornell University is taking the program seriously. “In addition to prominently displaying our plan for Academic Impact on our International Gateway website, Academic Impact asks each participating college or university to actively demonstrate support of at least one of those principles each year,” explained Linda Schmidt, of the international relations division. “Cornell demonstrates all of these principles, and our website addresses at least one activity under each principle. We will reach out to our academic units annually to supply new examples that showcase activities that support these principles.”

Damodaran explained that the focus for 2010 was to build a member roster. With more than 500 participating universities, he feels he accomplished that. In 2011, he plans to cultivate the new relationships.

 

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