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Universities in a Changing World

Asia Society at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, Mumbai, India

As prepared for delivery

Thank you, Nita Ambani, and thank you, Sunil Mehta, for welcoming me today. And so many thanks to the Asia Society and to Bunty Chand for organizing this marvelous opportunity to have this conversation with all of you. I look forward to discussing the future of higher education and innovation with such a distinguished group. This is my first trip to India, and I cannot tell you how excited I am to be here – in a country that is so diverse, that is so energized, and that is so vital in shaping the world of the 21st century.

 As I explore the streets of Mumbai, perhaps I can best describe my reactions by borrowing words of an India luminary, who said: I feel truly in the midst of “a buzzing, humming, living entity going through a most remarkable time, like no other.” I am quoting not a politician, or a business leader, or a literary figure, but in fact the great batsman Rahul Dravid in a speech that he gave last month. He was describing not the economy or any other dimension of public life, but rather India’s beloved sport of cricket. While I cannot claim to understand the game, even after four hours of watching the movie “Lagaan,” I am struck by the capacity of sports to express the spirit of a society. Now I know many of you right now are a little dispirited about the last few matches. But, as an experienced Boston Red Sox fan, let me assure you that this will pass. You will be, I am confident, removed from mourning to exhilaration in short order.

As Dravid put it, Indian cricket “in this last decade … [has brought together] more than ever before … people from vastly different cultures, who speak different languages, follow different religions, [and] belong to all classes of society…” In the team locker room, he counted 15 languages being spoken. The game has embodied and represented India’s rising prominence and confidence, certainly in your World Cup victory last spring. The game has represented as well the creative and often difficult tension between tradition and innovation. And, as Dravid described so well, it has represented the productive drive of India’s remarkable democracy and diversity.

As a historian of the American South, I have spent much of my life thinking about a complex heritage of racial and ethnic communities and the legacies of a colonial past in the southern United States, and I am awestruck by India’s diversity and how that succeeds. The United States and India are both extraordinary pluralistic democracies, the world’s oldest and the world’s largest, and I am also struck by the ideals that we share.

We value innovation, imagination, and the entrepreneurial spirit.

We value unity in diversity.

We value the education of our children as the foundation of civic life and opportunity.

We also face many of the same challenges in realizing these ideals.

One of these challenges, in which I know the Ambanis and others of you are deeply involved, is the quality and reach of primary and secondary education, the foundation not only of a successful civil society and a growing middle class, but the basis of talent that universities depend on. Pre-university education is an area where both of our countries have a lot of work to do.

But perhaps an even more pressing challenge is the explosive demand for higher education. In an increasingly interconnected world where ideas and information, people and capital circulate with almost instantaneous ease, these are exciting times. Knowledge has become the primary driver of social mobility and of the prosperity and well-being of individuals and nations. As India’s Knowledge Commission recently observed, “Education is the key enabler for the development of an individual and for altering the socioeconomic landscape of a country.” As a university president, I wake up every day exhilarated and humbled by the opportunities that are unfolding before us – opportunities to nurture discoveries and ideas that not only shape the course of knowledge but that reshape the world.

Yet the strains and obstacles facing higher education in the United States, in India, and across the globe, are formidable.

Some are financial. The recent economic crisis has affected university funding worldwide – challenging historically strong systems from Great Britain to the state of California, even as demand and expectations rise.

In the United States, our inherently costly liberal arts model of higher education faces serious issues as students take on increasing debt in student loans, and these debts across our country recently exceeded one trillion dollars.

India, despite having the third largest university system in the world, generating an estimated 14% of the global talent pool, faces a serious shortfall of top talent for its developing economy. Your Resource Development Minister, our Harvard Law School graduate, Minister Sibal, has estimated that to meet demand India needs to create 800 universities and 35,000 colleges by 2020. The National Knowledge Commission more recently put the target for new universities at 1,500.

Yet, within the concept of the global knowledge economy itself there are contradictory assumptions. We are eager for research that can drive economic development. Yet, I worry that that may lead us to embrace the short-term, the low-risk, and that we may eclipse the broader questions and the humane perspective that must guide sustainable and long-term development. In our rush to address immediate and pressing crises in health care and water, and to find solutions for energy needs and for sustainable agriculture – all of which are vital to our future well-being – I worry that as we seek to address these problems, we risk undervaluing the free-roaming skepticism and curiosity from which our deepest understandings often emerge – and that we may also neglect the arts and the humanities, which nurture the critical and the creative perspective. Prime Minister Nehru described it well when he said that universities stand “for humanism, for tolerance, for reason, for the adventure of ideas, and for the search for truth.”

The global conversation about knowledge and innovation raises these fundamental questions: What do we want from higher education? How are we to reimagine the university in a more and more globalizing world?

Earlier this month, Prime Minister Singh spoke to the annual session of the Indian Science Congress about science and innovation, and he mentioned 2010-2020 as India’s “Innovation Decade.” In that speech he asked the question – “what is the role of science in a country like India?” adding, “There is no simple answer.” I would agree.

We want to solve society’s most urgent problems. We also want to fathom the universe, and understand who we are. We want to be able to imagine a world different from the one we live in now. How can we develop minds that are capable of this kind of imagining? What is the role of institutions in nurturing the growth of those minds? We must educate students for a world of uncertainty and rapid change, for a landscape that will require them to improvise, for problems global in scope that may only be solved through cultures, and languages, and perspectives that are emphatically local. How do we do that? How do we best use and evaluate the information that is pouring from our digital devices at every moment of the day? India’s great writer, Rabindranath Tagore, warned a century ago that, as he put it, by “devot[ing] our sole attention to giving children information … [we unwittingly] accentuat[e] a break between the intellectual, physical and the spiritual life. … We may become powerful by knowledge,” he added, “but we attain fullness by sympathy.”

Fundamental to both the humanities and the sciences is the capacity for interpretation – the ability to combine intuition and reason to make sense of the world around us. To understand not only the measure of things but their meaning. This capacity lies at the heart of innovation. It lies at the heart of what universities do.

In India, dedication to global collaboration and to the breadth of the liberal arts has deep roots. The ancient university of Nalanda, which Harvard economist Amartya Sen is helping to revive, was a model center for the exchange of ideas and international collaboration 600 years before any similar institution appeared in the west. By the 7th century, Nalanda drew students from all parts of Asia, combining innovation in math, science, philosophy, and the arts with Buddhist studies and applied fields that included health care, medicine, engineering, and architecture. We might say that India, in an earlier globalizing era, invented the kind of higher education we still aspire to.

At Harvard, connections to Indian learning and achievement are clearly evident, and sometimes astonishingly close at hand. I recently learned that Rabindranath Tagore gave my colleague Professor Sen his first name, “Amartya,” when he was born. I am myself at Harvard very much the beneficiary of the wisdom and insight of high-level Indian advisers and administrators – including the dean of the Business School, a senior adviser to the president for global strategy, and the director of our Humanities Center, Homi Bhabha, who is here with us today, a key leader in Harvard’s commitment to the humanities and to collaboration across disciplines. Distinguished students from India are part of every one of Harvard’s 10 Schools. There are about 225 Indian students this year, which is the fourth highest number of any country in the world. More, this year for the first time, than from the United Kingdom.

As faculty and students increasingly crisscross the globe, we benefit enormously from our intellectual exchanges with India, which I am proud to say go back nearly a century and a half to Harvard’s first courses in Sanskrit, and they continue today in our highly energized South Asia Initiative, under the distinguished leadership of Tarun Khanna, which through its office here at the Harvard Business School Research Center in Mumbai brought more than 50 students to South Asia last summer. We look forward to expanding our already burgeoning partnerships and projects, and to build connections to the expanding landscape of higher education across India.

If this open and cross-disciplinary stance toward education is an ancient one, the model itself is forward looking. It tells us not what we know, but what we can learn. Harvard’s Task Force on the Arts recently described its version of the knowledge economy in similar fashion – as one in which students “know,” and I quote, “that, on graduation, they will be entering a new and rapidly changing economy in which fertile imagination, inventiveness … improvisatio[n] … empathy … [and] a capacity for collaborative creativity … will be at least as important as the bodies of knowledge they will acquire in their classes.”

In more concrete terms, a current Harvard College senior from India described how he came to Harvard to “engage in cutting-edge research as a sophomore … row on the Charles as part of the novice crew team, learn Spanish, and pursue [an] interest in technology at the same time.”

As I prepared for my trip, I was pleased to discover that this idea has even made it to Bollywood. The message of the hit movie “3 Idiots” is that education should not be mechanistic and narrowing, but an expression of wonder, questioning, and curiosity that comes not from the prescriptions of parents and teachers, but from students’ exploration and discoveries. Every year I tell the entering freshman class at Harvard College to experiment and to follow their curiosity, and I remind them that before Galileo defied the wisdom of his day he had to defy his father, who wanted him to be a doctor. I might also add that Galileo wrote dramatic dialogues to convey scientific analysis to a broader audience.

None of this is easy. We are constantly reframing our approaches to teaching and learning. And yet we can unleash innovation and creativity in deliberate ways. Steve Jobs, whose innovative genius has been much discussed this year, made it his stated purpose in life to combine the sciences and the humanities to change the world. Near the end of his life, he said that the reason his company Apple resonates with people is not just innovation, but, as he put it, because “there’s a deep current of humanity in our innovation.” It is perhaps no surprise that his inspiration for perfecting Apple’s greatest engineering products was drawn from the arts – a prized bootleg tape of The Beatles perfecting and refining, over and over, the song “Strawberry Fields Forever.” It is no surprise, either, that he said he learned the power of intuition and experiential wisdom on his trip to India when he was 19. At his famous product launches, Jobs would unveil a highly anticipated device using words like “revolutionary” and “intuitive” and then show the image of two intersecting street signs, one saying “Technology” and one saying “The Liberal Arts.” “[T]he intersection of humanities and science,” he once remarked, “there’s something magical about that place.”

India’s own Anand Mahindra, a graduate of Harvard College and a person who studied film at Harvard as an undergraduate, and who has gone on to be a leader in business and technology, understands that relationship well and speaks eloquently of the importance of the humanities. “The humanities … teach you not a particular skill or technology, but to think and to question. Conflict resolution and creating a better world do not come from an improved piece of software or a better engine or technology but from people who can break free from their rigid points of view.”

The best education is about just that: the freedom – the imperative – to think, to imagine, to challenge, to change. Innovation with a deep current of humanity is what research universities exist to do. Our purpose is not just to create better jobs, but to create better lives – to foster creative thinking that we distinguish from information or received knowledge, to unsettle assumptions, to open our minds, and to expand our shared sense of possibility.

Tagore described the university as the place for “a common pursuit of truth,” a place where, perhaps a bit like a cricket team, we are all in it together. Where an executive from Tamil Nadu at the Harvard Business School’s Executive Program this year shares a suite with seven students who speak five different languages. Where a Harvard freshman designs a text messaging system to remind rural Indian mothers about prenatal care. Where we speak the languages of science and poetry, because we need both. The university, as Tagore put it, “teaches us to respect [our real] differences … yet remain conscious of our oneness, and to know that perfection of unity is not … uniformity, but … harmony.” There is no team, no conversation I would rather be a part of than this one, here with you today.