Columbia University Global Centers aim to prove university’s ‘Relevance’

Columbia’s Safwan Masri says that to understand a region today, you must consider the entire world. "There’s a very different feel and a very different impact that’s realised by being on the ground and having real conversations and dialogue that I think advances the notion that universities are relevant and neutral places of inquiry,"

Universities must adopt global, rather than international, outlooks, says scholar.

Editor's note:

This article appeared in the Times Higher Education, The World University Rankings.

Ellie Bothwell
November 03, 2016

How can universities ensure that they stay relevant in an increasingly globalised world? It is a question that higher education leaders across the globe are looking to address. King’s College LondonArizona State University and the University of New South Wales launched an alliance earlier this year, for example, with the goal to collaborate on research to help solve “global grand challenges”.

Columbia University’s solution has been the establishment of eight global centres that aim to bring together the institution’s academics and students with local scholars, policymakers and experts to explore ways to address societal challenges at both the local and global levels.

The initiative began in 2009 with the launch of centres in Amman and Beijing and there are now sites in Paris, Mumbai, Istanbul, Nairobi, Santiago and, most recently in 2013, Rio de Janeiro.

The centres allow Columbia academics to conduct research projects in collaboration with universities and organisations in each of the cities and students may participate in study programmes. They also run events, such as a round-table discussion in Rio de Janeiro to address the public health challenges faced by the world’s biggest cities, and a seminar on the social, health, safety and economic issues that migrants face as they seek to settle in new homes in Paris, both held earlier this year.

Safwan Masri, executive vice-president for global centres and global development at Columbia University, said that after the Second World War there was a “rush by American universities”, often supported by the state, to “understand various regions of the world”, which led to the establishment of regional research institutes and study programmes at partner universities in specific areas, such as the Middle East and Latin America.

However, Professor Masri said that given the “unprecedented flow of information, technology and financial transactions around the world”, universities must now adopt a “perspective that is far more global” rather than an international outlook between, say, the US and another country or region.

“As the world has become flatter, as the flows between different parts of the world has increased and as it has become apparent that what happens in one part of the world has a direct impact on the rest of the world, it is no longer sufficient to understand a specific region of the world without taking into consideration the entire world,” he said.

“We cannot, for example, study public health issues in China without really understanding them in an African context and a more comprehensive Asian context.”

Columbia University has a “distinct presence” in each of the cities, which ranges from shared office space to an entire building, and each site is led by a director, who is “typically an academic with a connection to Columbia, with big knowledge of the region and with networking capacity”, Professor Masri said.

He added that the centres “serve the entire university”, meaning that scholars in any department, from architecture to public health, can use the sites and work with the partner institutions.

“Because we are there on the ground, we have a terrific opportunity to connect with academics and practitioners and bring a lot of that learning back to campus,” he said.

Study programmes run by the centres “provide a more holistic experience” than other study-abroad opportunities, Professor Masri continued, as students tend to travel with the faculty and courses often have relevance to the location.

“We’ve had courses in Istanbul focused on Ottoman history and courses in Amman focused on Arabic language,” he said.

Professor Masri added that the locations of the centres have been “led by the interests of our faculty and students” and that he expects two or three more sites to launch “over the next few years”.

At a time of rising anti-expert rhetoric amid the European Union referendum in the UK and Donald Trump’s US presidential campaign, do the centres help Columbia prove that it is not divorced from society but engaged with local communities across the world?

“Absolutely,” said Professor Masri, adding that the initiative allows the university to engage in “real dialogue” with different types of people and gain knowledge that is “far more nuanced” than any research conducted about these regions from the New York campus.

“There’s a very different feel and a very different impact that’s realised by being on the ground and having real conversations and dialogue that I think advances the notion that universities are relevant and neutral places of inquiry,” he said.