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Challenges of Higher Education

University of Mumbai

As delivered.

Thank you, Vice-Chancellor Welukar. Thank you, Secretary Kumar, and thank you to everyone who has welcomed me here so warmly. Thank you to all these distinguished guests, students, and faculty members. It is a great privilege to be here at the University of Mumbai, on this very beautiful and historic campus situated in one of the most vibrant cities in the world.

This is my first visit to India. One of the great benefits of being Harvard’s President is the opportunity to continually experience new people, new places; to listen, to learn, and to exchange ideas; and especially to see firsthand education’s transformative and positive effects at home in the United States, and in countries around the globe. Here in the world’s largest democracy, I’ve found an almost palpable energy, the energy of youth, of inventiveness, and of aspiration. On the very first day of India’s independence, Prime Minister Nehru noted that India was, as he put it, “on the verge of bold advance.” There no can be no doubt that India is very boldly advancing.

Recent statements by your Human Resource Development Minister Kapil Sibal, who is also an alumnus of Harvard’s Law School, reflect the central role of higher education in driving economic progress and social mobility in the 21st century. Ambitious goals to increase the number of colleges and universities in India over the next eight years are intended to open the doors of opportunity to an ever growing share of your college-age population, from 15 percent at present to a hoped-for 30 percent by 2020.

The earliest leaders and champions of this institution could scarcely have imagined such aims. In 1862, when the University of Bombay awarded its first degrees, eight men – four candidates for bachelor’s degrees and four candidates for medical degrees – made their way into a single room, their certificates resting on a table that was covered with a scarlet cloth. In his inaugural Convocation address, the Chancellor urged the students to, and I quote him, “…recollect that you are no longer pupils of any single school, but graduates of a University.” He continued, “Your standard must henceforth be … [that] of the whole educated world.”

That imperative, uttered 150 years ago here in Mumbai, foreshadowed the future of higher education and one of the greatest challenges universities face today, the challenge of navigating and leading in a world growing more and more globalized.

The “whole educated world,” as he put it, has more parts than ever before in human history. Consider the exploding numbers of students seeking tertiary education. Here in India, higher education enrollment grew by a factor of six between 1971 and 2007 – to nearly 15 million. Over the same period, enrollment in the United States doubled to nearly 18 million. More recently, China has orchestrated a stunning ascent, with its number of degree earners soaring from about 800,000 graduates in 1998 to more than 5 million graduates a decade later.

The “whole educated world” is also a far flatter world. Technology has altered forever the ways in which we gather information and communicate with one another, distances once spanned in days are now spanned in seconds. This unprecedented connectivity is complemented by global mobility, heralding a borderless age in which students can move more easily, faculty connect more readily, and ideas flow more freely. In 2010, 3.7 million students traveled outside their home countries in pursuit of higher education. At the same time, research collaborations between and among faculty continued to flourish. In 2008, more than three-quarters of scientific articles published in international journals were the product of at least two institutions, and one in three articles was authored by a global team.

But connectivity and mobility do not necessarily confer understanding. The world is, in one sense, flatter, but it is also multifaceted and complex. New electronic devices have unleashed torrents of information. With the confluence of different cultures comes a variety of histories and heritages, perspectives and beliefs. If universities do not build capacity – through the study of history, language, literature, and religion – if they do not build capacity to make meaning and to make sense of the world, to absorb and to interpret differences and contrasts, we will be crippled in our ability to fulfill our potential, to become the truly global institutions that the world needs.

Our aim at Harvard is to give students the tools necessary to navigate a world that is both flat and not-flat, the tools necessary to adjust to the circumstances of life, however surprising they may turn out to be, however filled with change they may be. Our General Education curriculum aims to connect the arts and the sciences to undergraduates’ lives through innovative courses. And learning about India and South Asia more broadly is a critical part of undergraduate study. Professors Sugata Bose and Amartya Sen introduce students to the history of modern India and South Asia, and Professor Tarun Khanna and his students explore the potential of entrepreneurship and innovation to help address some of the region’s intractable dilemmas.

Complementing these offerings are courses in South Asian arts, culture, and language – opportunities for students to consider Bollywood films in the context of Indian cinema and literature; to study and to play classical South Indian music; to read, to write, and to speak eight of the languages of India. In one course called “Love in a Dead Language,” for example, Professor Parimal Patil guides students through classical works in five genres, considering and questioning the different representations of love. Another course introduces new generations of women and men to enduring texts like the Bhagavad Gita and the Ramayana through a survey of the narratives of Hindu tradition.

To paraphrase India’s beloved son Rabindranath Tagore, who traveled to Cambridge and delivered a series of lectures at Harvard shortly before receiving the Nobel Prize in 1913, work that is driven by pure necessity is left in ruins when necessity changes course. Year after year, I watch with pride as women and men follow paths that are plotted by interest, rather than paved by necessity; interests that inspire and challenge them; interests that often lead them to make concrete, positive differences in other people’s lives. An interest in public health, for example, led one of our students to co-develop a text message system that reminds pregnant women and new mothers about wellness appointments. With the support of Harvard’s South Asia Initiative, she spent most of last summer in Bangalore field testing the system while serving in an internship with the Karuna Trust.

Another example of an interest that led to action – and one that garnered some attention and praise here in India – is the forthcoming Murty Classical Library of India. An appreciation for Indian classical literature and a concern to make it more widely known outside of this country inspired Harvard student Rohan Murty to establish the project. The world’s foremost scholars will translate 37 titles from 9 languages, each book printed in the original language and English, each bringing your nation’s rich literary history to readers around the world.

Universities, like the people within them, must embrace change, reimagine possibilities, and revitalize continuously. Given the proliferation of online communication tools how might Harvard enhance and extend our programs of education and research? How can we use the 21st century’s opportunities to embrace the kind of global learning that your first Chancellor called for in 1862? These are some of the questions we are asking ourselves and beginning to answer, in part at least, through a new University-wide initiative focused on teaching and learning. Our faculty are introducing new experiments and new approaches at a steady pace. One of my favorite examples of innovative teaching is from Professor Michael Sandel, whose course on “Justice” has gone global through its online presence. In China, and Japan, and South Korea – he found when he travelled – he has become a celebrity. People lined up around the block or tried to scalp tickets just to get into his lectures. But he is teaching all of us, as well as his students, in another way, too, showing how to take advantage of technology to internationalize this popular course in moral reasoning.

In addition to online lectures that have garnered more than 6 million views on YouTube, Professor Sandel’s experiments in global education are bringing students from around the world together in ways that seemed inconceivable just a few years ago. One group of students from China, Japan, and the United States recently debated ethical issues posed by natural disasters, with each of the groups of students in their home country connecting digitally in order to have the interchange. This month, another group from Japan and one from the United States will discuss citizenship, democracy, and equality.

They will ask: Is a global ethic possible or is human sympathy limited by our affinities? Should the arbitrary circumstances of a person’s birth dictate his or her opportunities? Michael Sandel is asking questions that are at once very old and yet still very new. Questions that have perplexed thinkers and philosophers for centuries, yet still confront students who are seeking how to live their lives today. And Professor Sandel has employed new technologies to engage voices in a global conversation about core values and shared challenges.

Other questions demand not a bringing together, but a sending forth. As I speak, students in our graduate Schools of design, business, government, and law are working here together in Mumbai to explore rapid urbanization in one of the most densely populated cities on earth, seeing firsthand what Suketu Mehta called “the incandescent life force of [Mumbai’s] inhabitants.” And this month two hundred students in our Business School’s M.B.A. program are working with businesses here in Mumbai and Chennai, global immersion experiences that are eye-opening and mutually beneficial. These students are learning that in this world that is, in one sense, flat, there are still diversities and differences, and that in this world knowledge is the most powerful currency.

Through the knowledge we create, universities contribute to society in direct and measurable ways. This is an important part of higher education’s purpose, one that will take on increasing significance as we continue to address problems that have no respect for borders. Emerging economic trends in India, for example, will shape futures around the world, and Harvard is studying them at the Business School’s India Research Center, located right here in Mumbai. The development and adoption of cleaner and more sustainable energy sources will help to protect natural resources, such as water. And Harvard is promoting their use through the Energy Technology Innovation Policy research group at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center. At the same time, through Harvard’s Global Health Institute, through its School of Medicine and School of Public Health, we are working to curb undernutrition in children, to address the needs of elderly populations, to improve human health at every stage of life. Through our partnerships here in India, Harvard is pushing the frontiers of problem-based knowledge.

But as we contemplate all that we can and must do to address the urgent needs of health, prosperity, sustainability and other problems in the world around us, we must not lose sight of another critical aspect of universities’ purposes. As we search for solutions to pressing problems, for ways in which to apply knowledge and make it useful, how can we maintain our deepest commitments to inquiry fueled by curiosity, to knowledge pursued for its own sake, to truths that transcend our home and place, and, to return to Tagore, that transcend our immediate necessities?

For education is also about larger necessities. It is about values and meaning, about stepping back from the urgent present to see it clearly and critically and thus to be able to imagine a world that is different, a world that we build, not just for today and tomorrow, but for the tomorrow that follows decades and generations hence.

Humanity’s full measure consists of what is measurable and what is immeasurable, of professions that drive us to new ends and pursuits that carry us to new heights. Feats of engineering and explorations of history. Innovative technology and thought-provoking art. Science and song. We need both the natural and social sciences to help us understand the world and our place within it. And, to quote one of your alumni and the director of Harvard’s Mahindra Humanities Center, Professor Homi Bhabha, “We need the humanities, as we do the atmosphere, for they allow us to draw the breath of human life and art.” Behind every problem solved, every question answered, lies another opportunity to define, to interpret, to seek meaning. Universities are stewards of an unbroken and endless chain of inquiry.

This is the tremendous capacity of higher education, the capacity not only to act in the present, but also to transcend the present, looking to the past and to the future as we consider who we were, who we are, and who we may become. In a world better connected and more complex than ever before, we consider these questions not as citizens of a single university or even of a single nation. We consider them, just as the first class of the University of Bombay was urged to consider them 150 years ago, as citizens of the whole educated world.
Thank you very much.