The Future of American Higher Education in the Global Knowledge Marketplace

Joseph E. Aoun, PhD


Robert E. Muh Alumni Award Lecture in the Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
October 26, 2011

I’m deeply honored to receive this award, especially in the company of so many friends, teachers, and colleagues.

Tonight, I’m going to talk about American higher education in the global marketplace. I’m going to assert that engaging in globalization is a profoundly disruptive endeavor in higher education. I will also try to venture some new ideas and solutions.

My perspective on these issues has been shaped by my own personal journey, by my education as a linguist, and by my career in higher education.

Lessons from Linguistics
Noam Chomsky and Morris Halle, who helped launch the linguistics department at MIT, were the first to assert that the mind is not a sponge that absorbs languages, but that we are endowed with innate language ability. This revolutionized the field, and with it, the purpose of linguistics became very simple—to characterize this innate ability, to model the universals that hold true of all languages.

In the nineteen sixties and early seventies, the investigation of the universals was based on the deep study and understanding of the English language. However, there were critics who said that other languages do not fully fit into a straitjacket based on English and a few Romance languages. In the late seventies, the time when I joined MIT as a doctoral student, the investigation of world languages exploded. The results led to a breakthrough that became known as the principles and parameters approach: a theoretical refinement and enrichment of the universals, coupled with an understanding of the dimensions along which languages change, vary, and distinguish themselves.

The lesson is that bringing the global dimension had a somewhat positive disruptive effect on the field of linguistics; and this lesson has influenced my way of thinking about the global dimension in higher education.

In addition to a rigorous, multidisciplinary, and global approach to issues, linguistics also gave me an understanding of a systems approach to the world—how systems evolve and how you can model variation among systems. And this also has become extremely valuable in my practice in higher education and in my thinking about globalization.

The Globalization of American Research Universities
American research universities are heavily engaged in globalization. By globalization, I’m not referring to internationalization—the longstanding practice of bringing students here—but to the relatively new phenomenon of American universities going overseas. Like every university president, I became interested in this issue. And for me personally, it represented a natural evolution because I had opportunities to live, study, and work on different continents and in different systems of higher education.

Why are American universities globalizing? First, there is enormous demand in the emerging world. In India alone, nearly half the population—about 500 million—is under the age of 25. The government’s goal is to move from 15 percent to 30 percent postsecondary attainment in the next 10 years. This will require 10,000 universities and 50,000 colleges. Second, advances in technology have opened up new and potentially low-cost possibilities to connect to these students. In addition, there are opportunities to innovate in ways that are not possible at home and to enrich the research enterprise. And frankly, there is an economic calculation: New markets could be a great source of revenue.

Finally, for many institutions, there is also a fear of being left behind. The American system of higher education doesn’t have the advantage of first mover in these markets. The Australians and the British were there before us.

American universities are responding to these drivers in multiple ways—opening campuses, forging partnerships, and providing targeted technical expertise. Some institutions have a gold-rush mentality. Others are adopting what I call a Sesame Street approach, assuming that it’s very easy to take a successful domestic model and export it abroad with just a few modifications. This is what Sesame Street tried to do about 30 years ago when it translated the program into 63 languages—and it didn’t work.

The results of these various efforts have been mixed. Some institutions have been successful. A number of institutions have closed up shop. Some are struggling for students. And we are now seeing the beginning of a backlash. Some well-known universities have been asked to leave a country.

The Perspective of the Emerging World. We need also to consider globalization from the perspective of the emerging world. What are they expecting? What do they need? Education is linked to national pride and national governance, and leaders in the emerging world are realizing that higher education is the engine of growth. They need more educated citizens, and they need the research and innovation that will foster development.

Some countries are saying they can achieve these goals by acquiring or buying the brand. Some others are more thoughtful and sometimes more provocative. For example, at a recent US-India education summit, Sam Pitroda, advisor to India’s prime minister, asserted that the American system “ . . . is not scalable, it’s not affordable, it’s not sustainable, and it’s not adaptable.” So here we are, with the best university system in the world at a time of enormous demand for higher education, and people are saying that our system is not what they really need.

Globalization as a Disruptive Force
Pitroda’s comments underscore that globalization cannot be business as usual. Rather, globalization is profoundly disruptive to fundamental aspects of the American higher-education system—disruptive to education, research, and core values.

Challenges to the Education Model. Let me talk about education first. The educational system in American private and public research universities is based on exclusion. American institutions are proud of the fact that they receive a large number of applications and reject most of them. But this exclusion model clashes with the demand for scalability in the emerging world. And the costly residential model, imported from the Anglo-Saxon world in the 17th century, is clashing with the demand for affordability.

In addition, the American system has focused primarily on one segment of the population—students between the ages of 18 and 22—and required a full-time commitment. But the world is evolving, and institutions moving into emerging markets cannot satisfy need if they focus on young adults and full-time students only.

The world is also questioning the relevance of curricula developed for an American education market to students in other countries. These countries also need new modes of delivery—faster, more connected, with accessible technology and attention to ways of reaching poorer areas.

Finally, there is a challenge to the American system of credentialing. Here, the credentialing is in the hands of the academic institutions. In other countries, however, the credentialing may be in the hands of the government in the form of a national exit exam. This has profound implications.

Challenges to the Research Model. Fundamental aspects of the American research model will also be disrupted, although the picture here is slightly rosier. In the United States, there has been a traditional hierarchy and dichotomy between fundamental and applied research, with the prestige accorded to the former—econometrics versus applied economics, for example, or theoretical physics versus applied physics. But the world is looking for solutions; and solutions, by definition, are going to be pluridisciplinary and translational, combining the fundamental and the applied.

Some leaders in higher education are saying, “It’s great if we go global because we are going to be able to work on the global priorities of this world.” Think again. In the United States, for example, we see the environment as a global priority. But if you ask our counterparts in China, as I did recently, you learn that the environment is not a top priority, and that their focus is on local impacts and local issues. Some aspects that we take for granted in the research domain are going to be questioned.

Cost is also an issue. In this country, we have promoted research and innovation without any consideration for cost. This is not a viable approach in the emerging world and has implications I will return to.

Challenges to Core Values. Globalization has a third disruptive aspect—a challenge to our core values. Academic freedom is a fundamental tenet of the American system. How will American institutions respond in a country that is not democratic, where political interference is commonplace?

In the United States, we believe in access and in education as a great equalizer. But when institutions establish overseas, will they be going after the financial elite only? The American system for promotion is meritocratic. In many places, however, advancement is based on seniority; you have to wait for the full professor to pass away in order to be promoted. And think about gender and other forms of discrimination. Institutions that are invited to countries with this attitude will have to determine how to react.

Thoughtful Approaches to Globalization
For all these reasons, I believe that it is going to be very challenging for American institutions to be involved in global endeavors. How can the system respond to these challenges? The first step is to go back and review mission and core values, to determine what should be reaffirmed and what might be modified.

The answers to these questions reveal fundamental principles, which must be nonnegotiable. I also believe that quality is not negotiable, and that’s why many institutions are not going to give their diplomas overseas. Some institutions have done so, but with a potentially adverse impact on quality.

Once the mission and values have been reaffirmed, the rest is open for thoughtful approaches that can benefit both the host country and the home campus. Adaptability, flexibility, and attention to local needs will be critical.

In terms of education, the curricula must be customized, comparative, and innovative. Some institutions have recognized that they can do abroad what they cannot do at home. Some have developed curricula with a comparative dimension that also enriches the program at the home campus—for example, exploring the way business is done in China versus Western approaches, or comparing Islamic and Western finance.

The notion of scalability is a very difficult one for American higher education institutions because it calls into question the exclusionary model. But scalability and affordability are key for the emerging world. What’s needed are multiple modes of delivery at multiple price points, developed and implemented either alone or with partners.

What about research? Here there are some exciting possibilities. By establishing multiple, interconnected networks of global partners, American institutions can increase the scope and impact of their research, and work creatively on global issues such as urban health, poverty, water, and deforestation from the perspective of local impact and local solutions. Collaborations with institutions, governments, and businesses around the world will also expand and diversify sources of funding.

But regardless of funding, cost issues must be addressed. In India and elsewhere in the emerging world, research and innovation cannot be divorced from cost. Imagine that the imaging machine that might cost $5 million to design and build in the United States could be designed and built in India for $50,000. And suppose the machine is perfected and brought to the American market for $100,000.

So the lesson is very simple. American higher education needs to look at the opportunities and to be a player in the global education marketplace. Research and innovation coupled with cost efficiency will drive research and innovation in emerging markets. If this lesson is ignored, if our institutions do not participate in shaping the endeavor, it’s going to come back to haunt them.

The Social Compact Reaffirmed
Let me conclude with the following. The American system is the best in the world and unique in the sense that it is open, meritocratic, competitive, innovative, and risk taking. American research universities have thrived in the United States because they entered into a social compact by promising to educate the citizens and contribute to the growth and betterment of society through research. This compact gave these institutions—and still gives them—a license to operate in this country, and it justifies the investments society makes in them. It justifies also the fact that universities have nonprofit status: They have a positive impact on the citizens and the country as a whole.

This fundamental social compact does not automatically transcend national borders. It must be reaffirmed with each community and country in which American institutions operate. This is the only way to ensure acceptance and a sustainable partnership—a partnership that must benefit both the host county and the home operation. I think this is how American higher education should globalize, and I think that this can happen.

Thank you very much.