To University President Richard Levin, the American research university is not just an educational institution.
No, it is a “highly effective instrument of U.S. foreign policy,” as he explained Wednesday in a speech to the Foreign Policy Association in New York City.
That “provocative hypothesis” was the basis of Levin’s remarks, which centered on the role of the modern university in an increasingly interconnected world. But Levin said there was room for improvement in the role the American university plays in today’s globalized world.
“It would be an even more effective instrument,” Levin said, “if our political leaders understood fully what a unique and powerful asset our country has in its great universities.”
In his speech, titled “The American University and the Global Agenda,” Levin laid out his argument in six points.
¶ Taking a leadership role in science. America’s competitive advantage stems from its knack for innovation, something born at its universities, he said.
Levin pointed out that the budget of the National Institutes of Health has increased annually by less than 2 percent over the last five years, failing to keep pace with the rate of inflation. The president called on the federal government to boost research spending.
“If we don’t do this, we are likely to lose our wide lead in biomedical technology, and we will fail to establish ourselves as the world leader in the other major area of emerging importance — alternative energy technologies,” he said.
¶ Reforming the modern university — especially its curriculum and pedagogy. Levin stressed the need for small classes and assessments that ask students to solve problems rather than reciting memorized facts.
¶ Welcoming international students. Levin noted that the annual quota for H-1B visas, which allow foreign students to stay and work in the United States after graduation, has not increased in recent years, a point he said has been lost in the recent debate over immigration reform.
“There is no doubt that our nation would benefit from retaining more graduate engineers and scientists,” Levin said, “and for them there’s a simple solution: scrap the H-1B visa and staple a green card to the diploma.”
¶ Urging students to study abroad. In a globalized world, Levin said exposure to a foreign culture is nothing short of an essential component of a 21st century liberal arts education.
Providing students with a meaningful study-abroad experience, he said, “is the best way to escape the insularity and parochialism that has too often influenced American foreign policy.”
“With international exposure, our students will not only become better professionals, but better citizens,” Levin said. “By getting more U.S. students abroad, our colleges and universities will create a more informed citizenry and one capable of thinking about foreign policy issues with greater sensitivity and intelligence.”
¶ Educating today’s leaders, not just those of the next generation. Levin stressed the value of short-term executive education.
“Even if the views of our academic experts do not always align with the position of our government, the foreign ministers and parliamentarians who attend these programs leave with a deeper understanding of American perspectives,” Levin said.
¶ Setting an example as a problem-solver when it comes to what Levin called “global problems,” like climate change. Levin noted Yale’s 2005 pledge to reduce its carbon emissions to 10 percent below its 1990 level by 2020.
“It is an ambitious goal,” Levin said. “If the nations of the world were to negotiate a reduction of this magnitude … we would be taking a giant step toward saving the planet.”
Better yet, Levin said, such a reduction will only cost an estimated 0.5 to 1 percent of Yale’s annual operating budget — proof that large organizations can make sustainability a priority without imperiling its financial position, he said.
“We have no illusion that the collective action of universities will have a measurable impact on global carbon emissions,” Levin said. “But we do hope that our action will inspire others to believe that significant carbon reduction is feasible and not exceedingly costly. In leading by example, we hope to make a global carbon compact more likely.”
Wednesday’s speech was the third major public address by Yale’s president this semester. In January, in much-anticipated remarks at the University of Copenhagen, Levin called for the world’s economic powers to take on the issue of climate change. And earlier this month, in testimony before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, Levin pressed Congress to pass legislation capping greenhouse gas emissions.
Staring down what Director of Public Affairs Helaine Klasky called a receptive audience at the Scholastic Auditorium on Broadway. Levin concluded his speech with a summation of all six points. “I hope that I have convinced you,” he said.