Joining Forces to Attack Big Problems
The initiative in international affairs capitalizes on our strengths.
By John Hennessy
In Decemberof last year, I visited India to meet with Stanford alumni, Indian business leaders and colleagues in higher education. This was my first time in India, and there is only one way to put it: the experience was life-changing.
In the face of momentous odds, the people of India maintain hope for a better life and work enormously hard to improve their lot and the futures of their children. Moreover, few other countries have placed so much faith in the role of education in solving their problems. But India shares the challenges of many developing nations and underscores the magnitude of the problems the world will face in the next generation—poverty, public health issues, regional conflicts, and religious and ethnic disputes.
Nonetheless, I returned from India heartened by the realization that, even in the most difficult conditions, people are driven by a desire to improve the world for themselves and future generations. This understanding was a positive antidote to the cynicism we often confront in public political discourse and much of the news and entertainment media in our own country. Like many of the individuals I met in India, I believe that universities are one of the most powerful forces for overcoming obstacles and advancing the human race.
This trip to India was related to a bold project Stanford is about to undertake. At the Faculty Senate last month, I announced a new multidisciplinary initiative in international affairs. Under the leadership of Coit Blacker, director of the Stanford Institute for International Studies, and engineering professor Elisabeth Paté-Cornell, MS ’72, PhD ’78, chair of the faculty advisory committee for the international initiative, Stanford will identify issues of global concern and, more important, provide resources and expertise to explore solutions to some of the most daunting questions in our world.
As with our initiatives in the envi- ronment and the biosciences, this effort will require true collaboration among all seven of Stanford’s schools and scores of departments and research centers. The world’s problems do not come at us in the form of academic disciplines—they come at us as challenges that defy traditional rubrics. Of course, a number of departments in the School of Humanities and Sciences will be critical partners in this endeavor, through the new division of international, comparative and area studies, led by its faculty director, Professor Judy Goldstein.
Stanford’s international initiative will focus on three broad areas:
- Pursuing security in an insecure world—including such issues as catastrophic terrorism, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, ethnic conflicts and civil wars, and interstate rivalries.
- Reforming and improving governance at all levels—including existing international and regional institutions no longer equipped to cope with contemporary demands, the problem of failing and failed states, the challenges of democracy and effective governance.
- Advancing human well-being—including economic development, global health, education, and educational reform and equity.
Stanford is currently strong in many of these areas. As Provost John Etchemendy, PhD ’82, said last year, “Stanford has already become one of the great international universities, whether you measure by its faculty, its students, its reputation, or its impact.” By unifying and strengthening our efforts in this area, we acknowledge that Stanford has a special role to play in addressing these issues and to do so in a collaborative and multidisciplinary fashion. As educators, it is our responsibility to guide our undergraduate and graduate students in a way that prepares them to bring the full range of their intellect and talents to tackling these vexing issues. As researchers, we need to marshal the intellectual resources to make solving these problems possible. We must provide not just new knowledge, but also the tools to translate the knowledge into viable solutions. This, in turn, will help prepare our students to be leaders in a world transformed by technology, globalization and shifting geopolitical dynamics.
From its earliest days, our University has been steeped in the belief that knowledge can—and should—make a positive and lasting difference. I believe Stanford is uniquely situated to advance the frontiers of knowledge and to see that knowledge helps create a better world.
Renowned scientist and futurist Arthur C. Clarke once said “the only way to discover the limits of the possible is to go beyond them into the impossible.” Stanford must—and I believe will—play a central role in restoring a sense of optimism about finding solutions to some of the world’s intractable problems in the next century. The stakes are monumental. Our passion for learning and understanding must match the magnitude of the problems we seek to solve. And, given the scope and complexity of this mission, we will need the support and assistance of our alumni throughout the world.
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