Davos 2015: Harvard's first female president on the three forces shaping the university of the future

Graduates at Syracuse University's commencement ceremony at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, New York, US. -- PHOTO: BLOOMBERG
Graduates at Syracuse University's commencement ceremony at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, New York, US. -- PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

Higher education is essential for a thriving society: it is the strongest, sturdiest ladder to increased socio-economic mobility and the locus, through research universities, of most of the major discoveries of the last two centuries.

At a time when access and affordability are more consequential than ever before, the world’s colleges and universities are facing a changed landscape. Three forces are creating possibilities and challenges that will define the future of one of humanity’s most enduring and most trusted institutions.

The influence of technology

Researchers and scholars are sharing their discoveries more quickly and more effectively thanks to the digital universe, and the possibility of reaching learners around the world through online education platforms will expand the reach of higher education as we move deeper into the 21st century.

Questions of assessment and scaling will be answered more easily thanks to unprecedented amounts of data related to how, when, and where people best learn, and those findings will shape how we think about teaching and learning - in the traditional classroom and elsewhere - for generations to come.

As these efforts demonstrate what can be accomplished remotely, they underscore the power of proximity. Residential education- working and living alongside one’s peers and mentors - cannot be replicated online. When I speak with alumni, they often reflect on serendipitous moments that changed the way they thought about themselves and their place in the world. More often than not, those moments happened in a common space or a classroom, a dining hall or a dorm, laboratory or lecture hall. Being together and sharing experiences no matter one’s surroundings.

The changing shape of knowledge

Many research universities are organized as they were in the late nineteenth century, with fields and disciplines providing the framework in which teaching and research occur. If we consider some of the most significant and consequential challenges humanity faces, however, the lines drawn between types of knowledge become flexible - or disappear entirely.

When the Ebola virus appeared in Sierra Leone, public health researchers at Harvard with collaborations in West Africa were quick to begin sequencing and analyzing genomes, working around the clock to shed light on the origin and transmission of the virus.

Now, some of those same individuals are working to produce a handheld device to detect the virus. Physicians and clinicians, chemists and engineers are coming together to address issues that are as concrete and technical as they are cultural, historical, and political.

What matter most in these moments, and in so many others, is recognizing the extraordinary scope of expertise that humanity has at its disposal - and bringing the best minds together to work through problems and develop solutions, amplifying the possibilities for discovery inherent in all of their dimensions.

The attempt to define the value of education

Knowledge can and will answer the most pressing questions of the moment, and higher education provides a path to employment opportunities and economic well-being. Students who graduate from college earn more in their lifetimes than peers who did not, and they tend to be more engaged citizens and lead longer and healthier lives. These are important outcomes, and it is tempting - and, unfortunately, increasingly common - to think of higher education as a means to this series of ends. But this impulse under accounts for the extraordinary promise of what colleges and universities can - and ought to - provide to individuals and to society.

Higher education lifts people up. It gives them a perspective on the meaning and purpose of their lives that they may not have developed otherwise. Is it possible to quantify this experience, to communicate its value through a set of data? No. But it is among the highest and best outcomes of higher education. We must continue to prepare the next generation of thinkers and doers to navigate the world using evidence and reason as their guide, understanding their work in the broadest context possible as they imagine and define their purposes. We must continue to help humanity transcend the immediate and the instrumental to explore where human civilization has been and where it hopes to go.

So much of what humanity has achieved has been sparked and sustained by the research and teaching that take place every day at colleges and universities, sites of curiosity and creativity that nurture some of the finest aspirations of individuals and, in turn, improve their lives - and their livelihoods. As the landscape continues to change, we must be careful to protect the ideals at the heart of higher education, ideals that serve us all well as we work together to improve the world.

The writer is the President of Harvard University and a participant at the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos. This piece first appeared in  the World Economic Forum blog, https://agenda.weforum.org/.