Research universities are often viewed as engines for economic development, touting impacts related to start-ups, tech transfer and regional labor markets. This identity, when viewed within the knowledge economy paradigm, positions universities and colleges as critical assets and catalysts for regional growth and vibrancy.
But similar expectations could hold within the space of global development. Clearly, universities and colleges offer resources and expertise that map to virtually every area of community need and challenge. Our institutions and faculty boast relationships with organizations and regions literally all around the world. And perhaps most importantly, our students are increasingly demanding high-touch learning experiences that connect them with real-world challenges, helping them to develop skills and competencies that are prized and rewarded by employers and gate keepers.
And our global partners are equally poised to engage. Even in the most underdeveloped countries and regions, colleges and universities sit ready to actualize their latent potential, holding riches in the form of technology and expertise, and connecting with community partners and leaders who share similar goals and commitments. And almost universally, these institutions are viewed as capacity builders within their larger systems, and are held responsible for developing the infrastructure and expertise needed to address the pervasive economic and social challenges that undermine long-term success and prosperity.
So what stops us from tapping into the potential of global engagement with both sides so ready and willing? As someone who has studied and tinkered in this domain for almost 15 years, I can assure you that the challenges are more complex than we might think. In addition to a growing aversion to anything deemed outside one’s core mission or strategic priorities, the very engagement models that we continue to pursue are structurally limited in their ability to catalyze impacts of the magnitude or nature that we so desperately need.
You see, higher education approaches partnerships in a way that is highly localized and self-directed. As we pursue specific grants or cultivate courses or target initiatives, we have well-defined goals and objectives that serve as the drivers of our engagement. Because our aims are inherently localized and specific, their reach, by design, is inherently limited. That is, even if our efforts are wildly successful, because of their localized focus and points of connection to the surrounding communities, they are restricted in their ability to catalyze broad and lasting impacts. And this localization in turn makes them inherently fragile and vulnerable, and highly dependent on the specific players and context that supports and nourishes them.
With that said, this doesn’t have to be the case. In fact, global partnerships (or really any partnerships) can be designed to be highly sustainable and expansive in their impacts. In fact, we can transform partnerships- perhaps not all, but surely the particularly strong and robust ones- to serve as catalysts for community development and impacts. We simply need to create models that have these features structurally integrated- think of them as parameters and inputs that are designed into their very architecture. And of course we need to nurture and support them, building out networks and related expertise- just as we do for any area of focus that is deemed both important and complex.
This notion of catalytic global engagement is what drives my own work and lays the foundation of our new Global Partner Studio initiative that I look forward to introducing in the months ahead. I can’t tell you how excited I am to share this work and invite your collective participation in its continued build-out. I believe that it is truly a focus worthy of our best investment and innovation. And I can’t wait to see what we accomplish as we create engagement systems that are inherently generative and catalytic, by design.