First Take: Innovating Universities

by | Oct 16, 2012

Engineering students at Los Andes University in Bogotá measure the main quad. Photo by Harlan Downs-Tepper.

The next decade of higher education in Latin America will have a very important influence in the future of Latin America itself. It is in universities that most of the public and private leadership will be educated. It is in universities that many of the ideas about how to promote social, economic and political development will be shaped or re-shaped. Universities will continue to provide numerous direct services to many of the communities of which they are a part, from hospitals to legal clinics, from day cares to high schools, from technology incubators to museums and concerts, from open enrollment courses or lectures for the public to narratives about the identity and culture of the peoples of Latin America. In addition, the growing importance of a university education in gaining personal freedoms will continue to stimulate growing demand for access to university in Latin America. What the leaders of higher education in Latin America do over the next decade will determine how pivotal universities become to the future of the region and how they keep up with the reinvention of universities taking place in the rest of the world.

In response to these demands, higher education in Latin America will continue to grow: more universities will be established, more students will enroll, more people will work in universities. This growth will stimulate some innovation in higher education. Some of this innovation will result from the desire to serve new groups of the population, all the way from universities for ‘the people’, the most socially marginalized of all aspirants to higher education, to elite globalized universities for students aspiring to global leadership roles. Some of this innovation will result from the desire to perform the core activities of research, teaching and extension in new ways, more efficient or with higher quality; for example, using technology to support improvements in the quality of instruction, or creating new curricula or forms of organization to improve the quality of instructional programs. Much of the growing demand for access to higher education, for example, is likely to be met with online modalities or hybrids of higher education, in an attempt to reduce costs and to provide students the flexibility to continue higher education while working. Some of the innovation will result from the need to find new sources of funding and to contain costs.

We already see the signs of these innovations such as programs of accreditation to improve quality, efforts to internationalize universities, some efforts to build “world class” universities alongside efforts to build universities for some of the most socially marginalized students, growing use of online education for a variety of purposes, a growing number and variation of private universities. These innovations, while important, will not significantly transform the institution of the university. They represent incremental improvements, rather than disruptions, which, while important, do not fundamentally alter the social role of the university. That social role has only exceptionally changed, in Latin America or elsewhere. 

In order to more deliberately contribute to the economic and social development of Latin America, however, universities should seek a second kind of innovation, one that expands their mission towards the promotion of a culture of innovation. This innovation must take place not just inside universities but in society, and universities should incorporate in their mission the promotion and diffusion of social innovation to foster greater social inclusion, poverty reduction and sustainable human development. This is a more far-reaching proposal than the notion that universities should assume a “third mission” of economic and social development, which has been part of the discourse of higher education over the last three decades. For the most part, the “third mission” of the university has been interpreted as fostering the relationship between universities and industry as a way to expand the resource base for research and to facilitate economic development through the systematic adoption by industry of research and technology generated in the university. While the “third mission” is a very important re-interpretation of the classical mission of “extension,” it is insufficient to contribute to the innovation ecosystem that Latin America needs in order to find a niche in a highly inter-dependent global economy and in order to successfully address the persistent and pervasive challenges of social exclusion and unsustainable environmental practices.

To address these challenges, the nations of Latin America will need to engage in an unprecedented effort of creation of innovative practices, ideas, technologies, and, more importantly, in educating an abundant supply of entrepreneurial leaders. They will need to educate entrepreneurs who pursue ambitions that exceed the resources they command, to use Howard Stevenson’s definition In order to be an engine of innovation and of innovators, universities will not only need to explicitly focus on educating leaders and entrepreneurs, but will need to themselves develop an entrepreneurial culture. The urgent challenge for Latin American universities is to become entrepreneurial universities; this will require changes to their institutional culture, organization and practices. It is not a challenge that will be successfully addressed by incremental change; it is an adaptive challenge that will require transformational leadership within and outside the university. Addressing this challenge should be the primary goal of efforts to recruit new leadership for Latin American universities.

To some extent, calling for universities in Latin America, and elsewhere, to transform their social role runs against their conservative culture. Universities have traditionally valued stability, predictability, and a deliberate isolation from external shocks, from the “real world,” in order to be conducive environments for teaching and research since the 19th century, and to the task of promoting contemplation and study of religious doctrine earlier. Some universities have misinterpreted that notion of “autonomy” as a lack of accountability to the societies that support them. In spite of the stability and conservatism of university mission and culture over the years, there are historical precedents of radical transformation of the university’s mission in Latin America and elsewhere. They were, however, the result of extraordinary social and political developments in the external environment and the result of extraordinary leadership.

The most significant change of higher education, globally, took place when Wilhelm von Humboldt, as Minister of Education of Prussia, chartered the University of Berlin in 1810. This change was supported by the larger project of the Enlightenment, transforming the medieval university into a university committed to advancing truth through inquiry and discovery, rather than transmitting revealed truth; a university committed to promoting independent thinking, and a university committed to enlightening the public, a counterbalancing force to the state. Under the influence of Wilhelm’s brother, Alexander Humboldt, who had explored vast regions of the American continent, the university charter expanded to include new fields of study. Berlin became a model that first transformed other European universities and then other universities in North and South America, and in many ways perfected with the creation of the ‘land grant’ universities in the United States. These changes in Latin America were also bolstered by the social and political developments following independence.

Even before the establishment of Berlin University, some of the leaders of the independence movement had spent some time contemplating what role universities should play in the creation of a new political order. Venezuelan independence leader Francisco de Miranda, for instance, visited Yale and Harvard Colleges in his travels in the United States in 1784. Sixty years later, as first President of the University of Chile, Andrés Bello—who had a deep admiration for Alexander Humboldt, whom he had met in his youth in Caracas—engaged the university in several initiatives to improve public education, part of his efforts to construct a new narrative, a new identity, for the newly independent republics. It was one of the founding faculty members of the Facultad de Humanidades y Filosofía of the Universidad de Chile, Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, who wrote an essay “Memoria sobre Educación Comun,” proposing the creation of public education systems, after a study tour of Europe and the United States, supported by the Chilean president. The establishment of the new Latin American republics brought about the first important transformation of many of the Latin American universities. The second deep transformation of the Latin American university took place at the beginning of the 20th century, with the creation of the “Centros de Estudiantes” and Federaciones de Estudiantes Universitarios, which in 1918 led to the Reforma de Córdoba, a student movement calling for deep reforms in university governance in which relations in the university community would be defined by the common search for knowledge, not formal authority. Córdoba called for much greater voice and power for students themselves and for science and inquiry as methods to find truth, in ways that echo Thomas Jefferson’s ideas reflected in the “Academic Village” at the University of Virginia.

The 20th century saw a significant expansion of access to higher education in Latin America through the creation of many new universities. This expansion brought with it new forms of organization, the emergence of private universities as well as experimentation away from the European model and towards the model of the U.S. research university. Most of the universities, and most of the variation in organizational forms which exist in Latin America today, were established in the 20th century. This gave way to the emergence of the teaching university, and it also provided access to tertiary education to groups beyond elites. Some of the new universities adopted variations of a “third mission” engaging in various activities that fostered university-industry collaboration. In some cases, students and faculty engaged significantly in political activism, contributing to political transitions to democracy and opposing authoritarian rule in various ways. States understood for the first time in the 20th century that universities were social actors, sometimes contentious. In this context, the concept of “university autonomy” from the state became a highly valued principle as a way to protect the university from attempts to control it. These changes, however, while important, are very much in line with the social mission Humboldt imagined for the University of Berlin.

The challenges of the 21st century call for a much deeper transformation of the Latin American university of an order comparable to the changes just mentioned, and therefore equally challenging to bring about. This transformation would engage the university in shaping a narrative about what role the nations of Latin America will play in an increasingly global economy, in promoting processes of sustainable human development in the ways defined by the United Nations Development Programme: promoting economic growth, social development, and environmental protection in an inclusive, equitable and secure manner and including initiatives to alleviate poverty, advance human rights, gender equality, cultural diversity, international understanding and peace. This challenges current practice in Latin America, where the public universities have rules and statutes that are guided by the national development plans as developed by the executive branch, and where private universities often do not see themselves as having responsibility for shaping national discourse on national or regional development. Assuming this responsibility might place universities, and their leaders, at odds with the state and other influential groups, at least at times. If universities assume this role, university presidents might have to use the bully pulpit to challenge economic and social policy in order to expand the discourse on ways to advance human development; they may have to call for greater efforts to curb poverty and foster social inclusion, to question how governments balance the pursuit of security with the protection of basic freedoms of individuals and to challenge the lack of entrepreneurial activity of business groups as they call for innovation. In short, universities and their leadership may have to help shape more ambitious aspirations for social and economic development and thus have to challenge the status quo. This will inevitably create tensions, not just for university presidents but for trustees, many of whom have business interests connecting them with industry and government.

For example, a couple of years ago the president of a significant private Latin American university in one of the most modern and industrialized regions in that country ended a successful 26 year tenure after he publicly protested the assassination of two of his students in the campus by police forces as part of their efforts to curb drug trafficking, which created some tensions between the office of the president of the country and the board. That president led some of the most entrepreneurial efforts in adopting a third mission for the university.

But if universities are to transform themselves into engines of innovation, economic as well as social, they will have to do much more than have outspoken presidents with ideas to contribute to the national dialogue on the future for the nations of Latin America. They will need to proactively seek to shape the policy agenda, by bringing attention to topics that should be on the agenda, and by contributing positions that stimulate policy debate. This would make them a significant policy actor in the democratic process, particularly important in societies where civil society is not sufficiently organized or powerful to partake in the process of policy formation. They will also need to explicitly provide students opportunities to develop entrepreneurial skills and aptitudes. To do this will require more than increasing the number of courses in entrepreneurship or leadership, although that would be quite valuable. It will require fostering opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration of students and faculty in the design of innovative solutions to social and economic challenges. It might involve broad efforts of curricular reform, which seek to align programs of studies explicitly with the development of entrepreneurial, leadership and 21st century skills more generally. This will require establishing more fluid communication between universities and various industries and fields of practice. It might mean that all students must perform some form of service-based learning that can be used as a context of practice for entrepreneurship education. It will require engagements in new activities beyond teaching and research, such as massively large-scale science and technology projects, contracts with governments and industry, consulting, incubating enterprises and promoting spin offs, engaging in patenting and licensing, selling services of various kinds and in general fostering a culture that is open to experimentation and innovation. Doing this effectively will require organizational support in the form of offices that liaise with industry and government, or that support technology transfer, patenting and licensing of intellectual property. In particular, it will require seeking new forms of organization and interaction such as innovation labs, and rethinking pedagogy and the roles of faculty and students, bringing them together with a variety of stakeholders to make room for more innovative and authentic forms of engagement in which students and faculty and new partners learn together as they seriously attempt to find solutions to significant social problems. Universities would benefit from external governing boards that represent a mix of views, including industry, government officials, local leaders in the private and public sectors and intellectuals as a way to steer the university toward engaging more broadly with the world outside the university.

Why should universities assume this task? Some might argue that this broad- based focus on social and economic innovation takes the university too far away from the core missions of advancing knowledge through research and of educating students, and that the specific social contributions of the university should best be defined not from explicit intent or mission but as a result of the aggregate of the individual efforts of faculty members and students, exercising their academic freedom. In a nutshell, critics might argue that universities should advance private, not public, purposes. But universities receive much support, in the form of public funding, tax exemptions and donations, because they are expected to advance purposes bigger than the private purposes individuals could advance in a competitive market. They are the beneficiaries of a form of social trust that demands in return some accountability to the society that offers such trust and support. The last three decades have seen, at the global level, important education reforms designed to increase the accountability of education institutions—except for universities. This demand for accountability, part of a broader movement demanding transparency in governance of all institution, including government institutions, has finally reached the universities. A proactive response for this growing demand for university accountability would be to engage the university in tackling some of the most important social challenges facing Latin American societies, turning it into a source of social and economic development of the many communities of which it is a part.

There are three paths universities might travel to exercise this responsibility for supporting sustainable human development in Latin America.

The first is to study the challenges of sustainable and inclusive development, with a focus on the design of innovative technologies, including social enterprises, programs and policies. Understanding the causes of social exclusion, for example, such as why some students do not learn what is expected of them in school, or understanding the obstacles to sustainable human environmental interactions, or the causes of social violence or gender inequality, or the barriers to economic growth or to entrepreneurship, or the solutions to improving the quality of life in cities, or to improving housing in low-income communities, requires the best efforts of centers of research and study. Studying many of these social challenges would benefit from new forms of organization of the production of knowledge, cutting across disciplinary boundaries, engaging scholars with practitioners working on those topics, establishing institutional partnerships that allow the benefits of scale and that may help generate resources adequate to the task. Some of these challenges may require the engagement of large teams, rather than individual faculty members. They might require, because of their scope, inter-university collaboration.

The second avenue is to educate students to understand these challenges, to take responsibility to help solve them, equipping them with the skills to turn these challenges into opportunities. This will require much greater entrepreneurship and leadership education than is available at present in Latin American universities, with more extensive use of project-based pedagogies focused on authentic social problems, and explicit leadership education. A purposeful education of this kind, as opposed to a more general education designed to prepare students to understand themselves and the world, requires the adoption of different metrics and standards to manage it and measure success. If the purpose of the university is to promote sustainable human development it becomes feasible to monitor progress and to assess impact in ways that are unprecedented in institutions of higher education. This possibility has great transformative potential for the organization and management of universities.

The third avenue is to engage directly in efforts to address some of the challenges of sustainable development, for example, to directly participate, perhaps in partnership with relevant institutions, in improving basic education so that it more effectively includes all students, or directly participate in the provision of health services, or in the design of sustainable agricultural technologies or low income housing. One reason to engage in these efforts is that the practice of engaging directly in social and economic activities will allow the generation of knowledge, the core mission of the university, in ways that purely contemplative and more detached approaches to study simply do not permit. This is especially true for the professions, medicine, law, business, education, architecture and public health. But another reason to directly engage in these efforts is that universities have distinct potential to contribute to solve challenges that are difficult for other institutions to solve. Elementary and secondary schools are of low quality in many places because they lack the scale and the capacity to improve themselves. Ministries of education or providers of education services have not adequately transformed schools. But universities could, not just through their schools of education but engaging the entire university community, contribute to the improvement of public education at the basic and secondary level. Interdisciplinary teams of faculty and students could engage in the design of curriculum to develop up-to-date knowledge in the disciplines, or design pedagogies to foster the capacity to solve problems based on that knowledge, or to foster 21st century skills. They could develop programs to prepare teachers to foster cognitive skills and interpersonal skills such as collaborative problem solving, communication or leadership, as well as intrapersonal skills, such as empathy, discipline, resiliency and management of one’s learning. Universities could open their doors to teachers who wanted to deepen their knowledge in the humanities, in the arts, in engineering, in social sciences. While taking on challenges of this sort would be new for most universities, a way to assess added value is to ask what other institution has a similar capacity to do it. This is the reason that embracing the challenge of promoting social innovation would be one of the most direct forms of accountability, of taking responsibility for the construction of a more sustainable future.

Universities could engage in similar efforts to improve public health, to foster sustainable environmental practices, to promote economic growth, reduce poverty and violence or improve cities.

While taking these goals as the focus of innovation to reinvent universities in Latin America, to give them a new purpose, to proactively respond to what will be growing demands for accountability, is feasible, it will not be easy. Universities in Latin America have insufficiently developed links with social and economic enterprises. A recent study in Mexico, surveying the efforts in “vinculación” in university-industry collaborations of 351 universities, found that these had not increased in the last 20 years. Existing collaborations are very simple, predominantly engaging students in internships and social service, with very few activities that lead to the incubation of enterprises, development of research projects or the greater provision of services.This lack of change in university-industry collaborations is in contrast to the significant changes that took place during the same period in international trade, technology, increase in funding for higher education and expansion in access to universities (Cárdenas, S., Cabrero, E. and Arellano, D. (eds.) “La difícil vinculación universidad-empresa en México. ¿Hacia la construcción de la triple hélice?” (first edition, pp. 29-79), México:CIDE).

This vision of the entrepreneurial university in Latin America faces many challenges. Some will be external to the university. At least in the short term, the policy and regulatory environment, and the practices and expectations of governments and private groups, matter to what universities can do by way of directly engaging in generating social innovation. The most significant challenges will be internal; universities with established cultures may not see it easy to embrace a much different social role that will require faculty and students to engage in different activities, perhaps even in more work, although arguably more meaningful. As in the past, aligning the university with a new social role will require extraordinary conditions, support and leadership.

Fall 2012Volume XII, Number 1

Fernando Reimers is the Ford Foundation Professor of International Education and Director of the Global Education Innovation Initiative and of the International Education Policy Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. In 2012 Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick appointed him to the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education.

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