Editors' note: we are very pleased to mark the start of 2011 with Karen Hanson's  thought provoking response to Nigel Thrift's 'A question (about universities, global challenges, and an organizational-ethical dilemma)' . Karen Hanson's response is the tenth in what is turning out to be a fascinating - and diverse - series of responses that are lined up below in reverse chronological order (from date of publication):
- A (not ‘The’) UBC response to Nigel Thrift’s questions on global challenges and the organizational-ethical dilemmas of universities 
- A University of Alberta response to ‘A question (about universities, global challenges, and an organizational-ethical dilemma)’ 
- A Universiti Sains Malaysia response to ‘A question (about universities, global challenges, and an organizational-ethical dilemma)’ 
- A Columbia University/Millennium Promise response to ‘A question (about universities, global challenges, and an organizational-ethical dilemma)’ 
- An IIE response to ‘A question (about universities, global challenges, and an organizational-ethical dilemma)’ 
- A Northwestern University response to ‘A question (about universities, global challenges, and an organizational-ethical dilemma)’ 
- A Cornell University response to ‘A question (about universities, global challenges, and an organizational-ethical dilemma)’ 
- A further [Bristol University] response to ‘A question (about universities, global challenges, and an organizational-ethical dilemma)’ 
- Responding [for George Mason University] to ‘A question (about universities, global challenges, and an organizational-ethical dilemma)’ 
Karen Hanson  was named Provost of the Bloomington campus  and Executive Vice President of Indiana University  (IU) on July 5, 2007. Prior to being appointed Provost, she served as dean of the Hutton Honors College  from 2002 to 2007 and chaired the Department of Philosophy  from 1997 to 2002. A faculty member in the Department of Philosophy at IU since 1976, Provost Hanson is also an adjunct faculty member of Comparative Literature, American Studies, and Gender Studies. She has won numerous campus and all-university teaching awards, along with a Lilly Fellowship and a number of research grants. She received a B.A., summa cum laude, in Philosophy and Mathematics from the University of Minnesota in 1970, and her Ph.D., and A.M., in Philosophy from Harvard University in 1980. Her principal research interests are in the philosophy of mind, ethics, aesthetics, and American philosophy. She's published many articles and essays in these areas and is the author of The Self Imagined: Philosophical Reflections on the Social Character of Psyche and a co-editor of Romantic Revolutions: Criticism and Theory.
Please note that we are accepting additional contributions to the 'Question ' series through to April 2011, a year after it was launched.
Kris Olds & Susan Robertson
Nigel Thrift’s thought-provoking question, “Are universities optimally organized to address the fundamental ‘global challenges’ that exist, and at the pace these challenges deserve to be addressed? ” comes at an interesting time in the history of North American universities. Many of our best institutions have been grappling with financial problems in the wake of the worldwide economic downturn— reduced endowments, pressure to hold down tuition costs, and, in the case of public universities in the United States, dwindling state support—and so have been engaged in vigorous self-examination and, often, organizational change. Wise decisions about organization efficacy and appropriate deployment of resources require a clear sense of core mission and best opportunities. Some institutions facing financial challenges have claimed to find ways to do more with less, but some have begun to think they may need to do less with less, and that has added a grim urgency to the identification of core mission and crucial activities.
Vice-Chancellor Thrift has rightly noted that universities have by and large “taken their ethical responsibilities to the world seriously, ” and the responses to his question throughout this past year have underscored that fact. Universities understand themselves to be constitutively dedicated to good aims—education, the creation and preservation of knowledge, service to society—and yet Vice-Chancellor Thrift, and many of those who have commented on his post, take it as evident that universities are not “optimally organized” to pursue the most pressing ethical or social problems. Vice-Chancellor Thrift notes that his question about whether the world’s universities are “really doing all they could to mitigate and even head off the risks ” of global challenges (such as climate change) is merely rhetorical. The answer, he says, is “not really .”
Optimal Organization and a Variety of Good Ends—
While I am inclined to agree with this assessment-- of course universities are not doing all they could do to address the problem of, e.g., climate change— I am also inclined to think that this, by itself, does not suggest morally deficient institutional organization. What, after all, would it be for a university to be doing all it could to address the problem of climate change? Would this require that all of a university’s resources—its degrees programs and research budgets-- be dedicated to topics we know to be implicated in this problem? That would be unreasonable not only because there is a positive case to be made for research and education in a variety of other areas of vital concern but also because none of us is in a position to be sure that we know all and only the topics that are implicated in this problem.
Of course, as the discussion of the original question makes plain, it is really a variety of “long emergencies” that are at stake, and we might well understand many of them—unsustainable development, educational and income inequality, pandemic disease, absolute poverty, etc.—as interrelated. Hence, insofar as our university resources are devoted to education and research in any of these areas of concern, we could thus defend our ethical standing, even though the question of organizational effectiveness would remain open.
I would take a harder line, however, and insist that much of what we do in areas not obviously related to the identifiable long emergencies is morally justifiable, and it is not a defect of our institutions or their organization that we devote resources to these areas. For example, education and research in the humanities cannot be robustly defended in terms of its likely contribution to solving the problem of global climate change or poverty, but that would not be a good reason to abandon it. (Some research in the humanities does indeed have intriguing if somewhat more oblique applications to our global problems. For example, a group of faculty in Indiana University’s departments of history  and English , mainly medievalists, are embarked on a humanistic study of innovation, and their perspective will surely enrich the work of their colleagues in science, business, and policy studies. And our faculty in area studies programs, by helping students and the broader society better understand the distinctive cultures of the parts of the world on which they focus, thus also help maintain a framework for understanding and addressing social problems in those areas. But I would want equally to defend, e.g., the scholar of Romantic poetry, whose teaching and writing is directed simply, centrally, to better understanding of Romantic poetry.) The humanities, with their focus on meaning and interpretation, are worth preserving in the university, even in the context of our long emergencies.
How can this claim be sustained, if we do indeed need to regard ourselves as on “a war footing” against a host of catastrophic problems? I don’t in the least disagree with the call for universities to be more cooperative with one another and to be more fully internationalized. Answering that call should not, however, involve neglecting all activities that do not directly contribute to solving those problems. In particular, answering that call would not, should not require jettisoning the university’s responsibilities to sustain inquiry into questions of value and meaning, to support critical and analytical study of the human condition and of the artifacts—including literature, art, music, religion—that respond to and enrich the human condition. Will this inquiry help avert those catastrophic problems? Probably not. But note that there seems to be a fairly straightforward utilitarian ethics implicit in Vice-Chancellor Thrift’s metaphor of a “war footing,” and one of the standard objections to utilitarian ethics is that it may be unlivable, because it can lead to the loss of personal agency and the loss of the possibility of projects that give an individual’s life personal meaning. There is, after all, almost always something I could be doing that would better conduce to the greatest good for the greatest number than whatever I am at the moment engaged in, in my particular life circumstances; and utilitarianism seems to demand that I turn to this, that I seek always to maximize general welfare, rather than attend to the activities and projects that are connected to my individual interests, talents, context, and aims. But it is a serious, perhaps fatal, objection to a scheme of ethical obligations that, in making boundless demands, it would deprive a person’s life of individual meaning.
If it seems that is only from a position of contemptible privilege that one would defend supporting [another] study of Wordsworth’s “Intimations of Immortality,” in the context where one is acknowledging that desperate conditions of absolute poverty are darkening the short lives of other human beings on this planet, it should also be acknowledged that this juxtaposition dooms as well support for scientific inquiry that is not clearly and immediately directed to the most pressing practical ends.
Moreover, it is not in fact obvious what sort of organization is best suited to address the long emergencies. I agree with Vice-Chancellor Thrift that we should be alert to prospects for effective collaborations across state and national boundaries, but I also agree with President and Vice-Chancellor Stephen Toope’s suggestion that, in general, research collaborations are built from the bottom up, from teams and groups that are already engaged and focused on identified problems. Most crucially, the determination of the most effective political and organizational structure to deal with issues of common property and resource use is an empirical matter, not something that can be determined a priori. This is one of the lessons of Indiana University’s Workshop on Political Theory , the working group founded by Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom  and her husband, Vincent Ostrom . (The Workshop is itself an example of the extraordinary effectiveness of a grass-roots, self-organizing faculty/student organization, an organization that has partnered with governments, funding agencies, academic institutions, individuals, and communities around the globe and that has in turn become a leader in theoretical and applied studies in natural resource management and sustainable development.)
Local Interests and the Social Compact—
I would argue as well that it should not be regarded as a matter of myopia or global neglect for a public university such as Indiana University to be sensitive to local— that is to say, state— regional, and national issues and priorities as well as global concerns. Presumably a case does not need to be made for the value of educating the citizens of the state, as they will be among those in the next generation to face and try to solve the long emergencies. But it may need to be said, in the context of this discussion of global engagement, that the very existence of the public university depends on a social compact recognizing the public benefits of this institution. Now, while it’s undeniably true that addressing a problem—such as climate change-- that threatens life on this planet does, to put it mildly, promise public benefits, it is entirely possible that our relevant publics, in order to provide resources to help us address this problem, require additional, more immediate reinforcements of the value of their investments. Public support and appreciation of the value of the university, of higher education and non-commercial research, of the university’s claim to be a common good, is a fragile thing, and I don’t think we can reasonably expect it to be entirely free of local self-interest.
Modes of Engagement—
The upshot is that, even on a “war footing,” the domestic economy must be served, the young must be educated, and art and values beyond material measure must be sustained. Of course, this qualification of Vice-Chancellor Thrift’s message is not meant to suggest any hesitancy about the imperatives of institutional cooperation and international engagement.
For more than half a century, Indiana University has supported and benefited from the consortium of Midwestern universities that is the Committee on Institutional Cooperation  (CIC), and, for much longer than that, IU has been actively engaged in tackling global problems. As we have considered and re-considered our institutional identity and our core missions, our commitment to international engagement has not faltered. We understand this engagement to go far beyond study-abroad programs, international recruitment of faculty and students, international service-learning opportunities and area studies and language programs, important as these all are. We understand this engagement to go beyond a variety of joint and dual degrees programs, such as those we have with Sungkyunkwan University , and institutional partnerships, such as the Bi-National Asian Studies Center, an IU partnership with Australian National University , important as they are.
IU’s contributions to the solution of major global problems have come not only from the work of individual researchers and the collaborations they have identified at other universities and research centers, but also from interdisciplinary training and research centers such as the Workshop  and the Anthropological Center for Training in Global Environmental Change , which focuses on human ecology and agriculture, forestry, and fishery systems all over the world, and which, like the Workshop, is especially sensitive to the highly variable local issues that are relevant to resource management and sustainability.
Also crucial are interventions in the form of institution-building and technical assistance. Just after World War II, Indiana University played a role in the founding of the Free University of Berlin , and in 1964 was one of the founding members of the Midwest Consortium for International Activity  (MUICIA). Among the MUICIA institution-building projects in which IU played a leading role were the development of the National Institute of Development Administration  in Bangkok; the establishment of sixteen teacher education colleges in Thailand; the development of the National Institute of Public Administration in Indonesia; faculty and curriculum development for Kabul University ’s School of Education; and a variety of faculty, curriculum, and government development projects in Bangladesh, Peru, and Ghana. IU served as the lead institution for the Institute Teknologi MARA Cooperative Program , which for ten years provided a two-year IU undergraduate curriculum in Malaysia for more than 5000 government-sponsored students who subsequently transferred to more than 160 U.S. universities (including IU) to finish undergraduate degrees. Khanya College , an IU distance education program funded by foundations, enabled hundreds of black South Africans to gain entry into formerly all-white South African universities. IU helped to establish the Southeast European University  in Macedonia, which has tripled the number of ethnic Albanian students enrolled in higher education in Macedonia; and, with USAID and private foundation support, IU helps sustains programs at the American University in Central Asia , thus supporting one the bulwarks of democratic education in the region.
The Workshop on Political Theory has, with USAID help, mounted the Sustainable Agriculture and Natural Resource Management Collaborative Research Support Program with partners in Mexico, Kenya, Bolivia, and Uganda, and with the Center for International Forestry Research and the International Food Policy Research Institute; and the Workshop is also the home of the Consortium for Self-Governance in Africa , led by Workshop Research Associate (and former Liberian president) Amos Sawyer. IU’s Mauer School of Law also works in Liberia, through its Center for Constitutional Democracy , which has a primary focus on Myanmar, but also has projects in Central Asia as well as Africa; and the IU School of Nursing , the Center of Genomics and Informatics , and the School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation  (now transforming into a school of public health) have formed with the University of Liberia  a Partnership in the Health and Life Sciences in order to train more than 1000 new Liberian health care workers within the next six years. The IU School of Medicine ’s AIDS project  (AMPATH) with Moi University in Kenya has treated over 100,000 HIV-positive patients, has protected babies by blocking mother-to-child transmission, and has prevented HIV/AIDS through educational outreach, which has also involved TB screening and the delivery of treated bed nets to prevent malaria. The medical effort has also led to food and income security programs, skills training and micro-financing efforts, and programs of educational support for AIDS orphans.
More examples of successful international engagement and dedication to global problems could be cited, but I hope the point is clear. We do understand universities to have moral obligations and those obligations extend beyond our state and national boundaries and beyond our current generation of students and faculty. But it is possible to attend to those obligations, and to find new ways to partner with others in order to address the long emergencies, and yet attend to local expectations and to the realms of knowledge, understanding, and aesthetic value not so directly tied to practical concerns. It is possible, too, to shape local and national expectations so that our local and national constituencies understand their stake in these global issues. That educational task, another of our institutions’ moral imperatives, may be the key to the organizational transformations that will best address the long emergencies.