Bryan Penprase and Noah Pickus on The New Global Universities

Bryan Penprase and Noah Pickus on The New Global Universities

By Bryan Penprase and Noah Pickus

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Higher education is perpetually in crisis, buffeted by increasing costs and a perceived lack of return on investment, campus culture that is criticized for stifling debate on controversial topics, and a growing sense that the liberal arts are outmoded and irrelevant. Some observers even put higher education on the brink of death. The New Global Universities offers a counterargument, telling the story of educational leaders who have chosen not to give up on higher education but to reimagine it. In the book, authors Bryan Penprase and Noah Pickus chronicle the development and launch of eight innovative colleges and universities in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and North America, describing the combination of intellectual courage, entrepreneurial audacity, and adaptive leadership needed to invent educational institutions today.

What led you to write this book?

NP: We came to this study after thirty years of teaching, research, and academic leadership in American colleges and universities. While our academic backgrounds are very different – astrophysics and public policy – we are both devoted to the transformative value of high-quality, meaningful liberal arts and sciences education. And we share a deep frustration with the inability of universities to find new and better ways to deliver on the promise of that kind of education.

Both of us have also been deeply involved in launching new ventures similar to the start-ups we analyze in this book, having played key roles in the founding of Yale-NUS College in Singapore and Duke Kunshan University in China. In the course of this work, we met many others around the world who were also founding new institutions, and we became intrigued by the possibilities to push at the boundaries of change in higher education. We came away wanting to share those institutional stories with readers who might also find them compelling.

Who is the audience for your book and what do you hope they might get from it?

NP: There are three different audiences for this book. We think that our colleagues in higher education will find value in the courage and intellectual chutzpah that it takes to start a new college or university from scratch. Leaders of future start-up institutions as well as established universities can learn valuable lessons about fostering innovation and change. The growing legion of entrepreneurs who come from outside the academic tradition can also gain from reading this book: we hope it will help them see more clearly how academic culture and priorities within a start-up university share certain characteristics with industrial start-ups but also have substantive differences—and why these differences matter. Finally, we want to help the general public, both in the United States and globally, better understand the value of a broad, integrated education for unleashing creative capacities and building collective understanding.

As participants in start-up ventures ourselves, we are painfully aware of how hard it is to create something truly new and valuable in academic life. As such, our inquiry has been driven by an appreciation of the intellectual challenges and practical trade-offs involved in founding new colleges and universities. We haven’t looked for scandals, written an exposé, or sought to discredit what the various founders have aspired to achieve. Where warranted, however, we have brought an appropriate measure of skepticism, because we wanted to test claims and dig deeper than a public relations exercise. We’ve sought to question superficial claims made by both supporters and detractors, and we want in our inquiry to understand deeply and fully how these institutions have come to life. As a result, our narrative offers few easy solutions; instead, it seeks to inspire others by showing how our founders have, for the most part, successfully completed inordinately difficult journeys, while also revealing tensions that they have navigated along the way.

Given the “demographic cliff” and decreased interest in liberal arts types of education in the US - why would we need new universities? Aren’t there enough universities already? 

BP: While there is indeed a decline of young people forecasted in the coming decades in the US, which by some projections will be 3 million “missing” students emerging from US high schools due to a combination of a lower college-age population and waning interest in the 4-year liberal arts degree in the US, these dynamics are reversed in many other parts of the world. In India alone, over 25 million new college age students are eager for a high-quality education, well beyond the capacity of the Indian university systems. The population of young people in the continent of Africa and other parts of the global south are also surging, and by one projection one in 4 people on earth will be from Africa 2050. This gives an urgency to revitalizing and reinventing higher education in places like India, Ghana, Rwanda, and United Arab Emirates, all of which are countries which host some of the new global universities we describe in our book.

Furthermore, a surge of interest in liberal arts has been sparked across Asia, as the growing economies of East and Southeast Asia seek more creative and entrepreneurial knowledge workers.  Deep connections between interdisciplinary liberal arts learning and creative approaches to business, leadership and academics have been built by all of the new institutions we describe in the book, and especially in the dynamic countries of Singapore and Vietnam, where two of our universities are located. Within the US, the lack of differentiation and innovation within many universities has presented opportunities for new entrants to innovate with new types of engineering and liberal arts education, such as is provided by Olin College and Minerva University.

Can we think of these new universities as “disrupting” higher education? Why or why not? 

BP: Clayton Christensen’s model of disruptive innovation is a powerful lens for analyzing the dynamics of innovation and competition within industry. Some elements of disruptive innovation apply to higher education if we can agree on a definition of the “job to be done” or the mission of higher education. Within the disruption model is the concept of sustaining innovations that increase performance and cost but outpace the needs of consumers.  Universities increase their prestige and usually compete based on research productivity, curricular offerings, and scale of impact in creating new technologies and products – all of which might be considered sustaining innovations. Many of these changes increase the price of higher education, and often are not developed to advance students on their campuses.

The disruption model becomes more complex if we consider “performance” in multiple ways – and universities simultaneously are trying to accomplish multiple missions, which sometimes are in tension with each other. These missions include research impact, graduate education, social mobility, economic development, along with undergraduate education. And some components of these diverse enterprises can indeed be disrupted – such as content delivery for scaled and low-cost undergraduate education. 

The new universities we describe in our book are focused on a different mission however, which is transformative education of the highest quality in a residential setting, and the universities have been designed from the ground up to accomplish this mission. One key contribution of the new global universities we study is to reconsider the outmoded assumptions and structures within undergraduate education and demonstrate success with new and better alternative models. These universities are providing options to students that are qualitatively different from the competing universities in the countries they are based in. This includes providing new options for residential liberal arts education in Singapore, Ghana, Abu Dhabi, Vietnam, and India, new experiential education for leadership and business in Africa, or revolutionary new kinds of engineering or liberal arts education within the US.  These new global universities provide much-needed differentiation in the crowded marketplace of higher education in the US, and liberal arts education in entirely new cultures and contexts.

Our universities all retain the essential elements of a top-quality education, which includes residential communities and small classes to explore the interconnections between branches of knowledge and between students.  Several institutions have reinvented liberal arts education in new cultural contexts that reflect the needs and values of their countries and replace earlier and more colonial forms of education. These new universities are also able to help their host countries attract and retain the best talent for helping build their future economy, and to prepare new generations of leaders.

What has been the impact of these new universities and what do you think their impact will be?

NP: In a market dominated by centuries old institutions, many of our new institutions have garnered significant attention by how quickly they’ve scaled various rankings. Olin College, for instance, has been rated a top undergraduate engineering school by MIT, and its approach to learning has shaped engineering schools world-wide. Minerva University has been ranked the world’s #1 most innovative university – ahead of MIT and ASU – and Fast Company named African Leadership University the #1 most innovative organization in Africa, a recognition that has fueled almost $1 billion dollars in fundraising.

Still other institutions, such as Ashoka University and Fulbright University Vietnam, have had a direct impact on higher education law and policy in their regions, gaining increased academic autonomy and validating a liberal arts approach in countries that previously offered little of both.  Some new universities, such as ALU and Minerva, are pioneering a network model in which students learn together in distributed sites rather than a single central campus, an approach that has driven down costs and led to a distinctive focus on teaching underlying habits and skills of learning, rather than the more traditional transmission of specific content.

Other new universities offer the highest quality undergraduate education at home that was formerly only available to students who could afford to study in the US and the UK. While Asheshi University in Ghana and Fulbright University Vietnam cost more than regional public institutions, they provide high impact student learning at a fraction of the cost of a US education. These new colleges and universities have also sought to recover and reimagine ancient traditions of learning in countries that previously offered only more colonial forms of education. They have adapted an American liberal arts style of education to foreground local knowledge. Ashoka University, for instance, has developed a particularly strong emphasis on Indian culture, history, and thought. And other schools, such as NYU-Abu Dhabi and Yale-NUS, have created incubators in which a truly global student body can seek to forge new forms of understanding in a way fundamentally different from American colleges with a smattering of international students.

What are some examples of the new things these new universities invented? 

BP: Our universities have been designed from the ground up to focus on a primary mission based in undergraduate education.  Among the many innovations are new types of curricula and teaching. Some provide opportunities for students to reflect on their countries past and future in entirely new ways. Examples include the Vietnam studies course at Fulbright University Vietnam which presents American and Vietnamese views of the “American War,” courses at Ashoka University that fully integrates Indian classical thought, and an intensive four-year leadership course at Ashesi University in Ghana designed for developing entrepreneurial and ethical leaders for Africa.

Other advances include entirely new types of teaching, which would be impossible in existing universities. For example, Yale-NUS College offers an ambitious interdisciplinary common curriculum that is taken by all the students and taught by teams of faculty, that brings Asian and Western philosophical and political ideas in dialog and merges disciplines to provide deeper insights into the natural and social sciences. Olin College provides design-based and project-based learning from the first class and integrates engineering with humanities and entrepreneurship in new ways. African Leadership University provides a mix of in-person, experiential and peer-based learning that greatly reduces the costs of the education to as low as $3000 per year. 

In other cases, the universities were able to experiment with new ways of appointing and organizing faculty. This usually eliminates or greatly reduces the role of competing departments, and in many cases also replaces life-time tenure with performance-based multi-year contracts.  In many cases the universities reinvented the business model to provide either a more extended network of support, such as the large “founders” network of Ashoka University, which has now become the largest philanthropic project within India, or the merging of venture capital and non-profit education as is the case for Minerva University.  In all cases, the freedom to innovate enabled creative solutions to flourish and these solutions are described in our book, as well as the exhilaration that the founding faculty and students felt as they developed these new types of education.

Are there any lessons for established universities?

BP: Our book provides many lessons for anyone interested in education – as well as for educators at existing universities.  It provides concrete examples to what otherwise would be hypothetical “what if” conversations.  So many ideas at existing universities are unable to be tested, due to the pressures provided by existing curriculum, established practice and traditions that in some cases have long outlived their usefulness. Seeing what happens when a group of innovators can freely develop a university from scratch is exciting because it helps us understand what is possible when educators and students are able to unleash their creativity, free from the demands of competing disciplines, and focused on the mission of educating undergraduates. Many universities strain from the pressures of increasing costs, decreasing enrollments, and an overabundance of competing and often contradictory priorities from conflicting stakeholders.  Part of this pressure is also self-inflicted, as universities too often feel the need to imitate other institutions that may have more resources and more prestige than their own. The examples and success of these new global universities demonstrates the benefits that come from a more focused mission and may help encourage existing universities reinvent some of their own curriculum and organizing principles. We are hopeful that as more of our existing universities can reinvent processes that are not working, the examples of success and of leadership in our book will bring some helpful inspiration.

At the end of your journey through the landscape of start-up colleges and universities, what did you personally find most surprising and most inspiring?

NP: Even among eight start-up institutions designed specifically to offer something new, I’ve been surprised by how powerful the pressures are to look and act like the old institutions – and how the deepest constraints on innovation are internal rather than external. Even in institutions that consciously sought to attract and select faculty who wanted to build something new, faculty were often still enamored of the lecture, tied to their disciplinary silos, and regarded themselves as free agents rather than citizens of the institutional commonweal. It’s a testament to the universities we feature in this book that they were able to create new ways of educating students and stronger forms of community, as the modern organization of knowledge and rewards in higher education make this task enormously difficult.

I was most impressed by how all the founders we studied concentrated intensely on the deep needs of students while resisting simply catering to them as consumers. Our founders thought: “How do I build a university that will make students the most profoundly wise and the most capable of addressing major issues in the world?” even if doing so would be difficult and students would find that they were pressed to go well beyond their comfort zones. As the ALU injunction has it, many of the new universities both demanded and inspired students to “Do Hard Things.”

BP: One of the surprises for me was to realize how central the role of culture is for academics, and these cultural issues are even more vital for our global universities. In each of our universities, the interplay between regional cultures, academic cultures and personal histories plays vital roles in shaping the assumptions that each of the founders bring to the table. Reconciling these very diverse worldviews into a coherent and harmonious academic community is an amazing accomplishment, and the leaders in the book have demonstrated a mix of vision, tenacity, and patience in enabling their teams to surface some of these cultural assumptions and then mold them into an institutional culture that is true to the needs of the time and the country where the institutions are located.

I am also fascinated by the mirror image of the global higher education scene, which has completely different dynamics in terms of student demographics, and enthusiasm for liberal arts, than is found within the US. Our journey in our own professional lives have brought us into deep contact with the very different role that education plays in the societies of China and Singapore, and I have been inspired by how important higher education is for students, parents and all stakeholders within many of the countries we study.  For many countries outside of the US, building an excellent university is a matter of vital national interest, and often we take our excellent universities for granted in the US. I believe the energy and creativity shown by these new universities is inspiring and can also help regenerate some of the same kinds of energy and enthusiasm in our own country for reinventing higher education.

Bryan Penprase is vice president for sponsored research and external academic relations at Soka University of America. He was a founding faculty member of Yale-NUS College in Singapore and an American Council on Education (ACE) fellow at Yale University and taught physics and astronomy at Pomona College for over twenty years while conducting astrophysics research at Caltech. He is the author of STEM Education for the 21st CenturyThe Power of Stars, and Models of Time and Space: The Foundations of Astrophysical Reality throughout the Centuries.

Noah Pickus is associate provost at Duke University and dean for academic strategy at Duke Kunshan University. He was formerly chief academic officer at Minerva Project, director of Duke’s Kenan Institute for Ethics, founding director of the Institute for Emerging Issues at North Carolina State University, and cohort codirector of the Arizona State University-Georgetown University Academy for Innovative Higher Education LeadershipHe is the author of True Faith and Allegiance: Immigration and American Civic Nationalism and coauthor of Liberal Arts and Sciences Innovation in China.