Can a University Save the World?

 A new movement is underway to find out.

Nicholas Lemann
December 03, 2019

Nicholas Lemann is the director of Columbia World Projects. This article first appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Max Weber’s celebrated century-old essay “Science as a Vocation,” delivered at a relatively early stage in the history of the modern research university, has the feeling of a manifesto for a priestly class. It proposes a scientist’s (read: academic’s) professional life that is firmly removed from the affairs of the world. Weber wrote of his ideal scientist that “if he feels called upon to intervene in the struggles of world views and party opinions, he may do so outside, in the market place, in the press, in meetings, in associations, wherever he wishes” — not in professorial life. 

And he insisted not only on the separation of academics from nonacademics, but also on the separation of each academic discipline from the others. “Only by strict specialization can the scientific worker become fully conscious,” he wrote, “for once and perhaps never again in his lifetime, that he has achieved something that will endure. A really definitive and good accomplishment is today always a specialized accomplishment.”

One can imagine how exciting it must have been, especially in the United States, where research universities were newer than in Germany, to see these stern but inspiring sentiments given institutional form through the creation of the formal academic disciplines. The lives of scholars were becoming nationalized, even internationalized; tenure, journals, conferences, and academic presses all transcended the bounds of the university where one worked and provided the freedom to engage in a community of widely dispersed colleagues. The growth of peer-reviewed government and foundation funding for research, especially in the sciences, after the Second World War solidified the power of the academic disciplines. Most work is organized vertically, around employers; scholarly research is organized horizontally, around topics.

But now, for many American universities, the role that Weber proposed feels constraining. A new movement is underway: a large number of research universities, 40 or more, have recently launched initiatives that aim to violate Weber’s injunctions against engagement with the nonacademic world and working across specialties. Their purpose is to direct scholarly knowledge outside the university in the hope of making a difference in the here and now. The rubric most often used by these new initiatives is “Grand Challenges.” For the past two years I have been directing one of them, at Columbia, called Columbia World Projects.

There is a sense that these are urgent times — that the mismatch between politics and disciplined truth-seeking has become severe.

The impulse to try to address problems in the real world has swept through American higher education in periodic waves. Our leading public universities now follow the research-university model, but they weren’t founded that way, and they have a long history of doing practical-minded scholarly work meant to be used by state government agencies and local businesses. Crisis reawakens the impulse, so there was another wave after the Second World War, aimed at causes like peacemaking in the nuclear age and Depression-proofing the economy by applying Keynesian precepts. Technical universities have always worked closely with engineering-oriented businesses. Individual faculty members often pursue second careers as policy entrepreneurs, inventors, consultants, and business founders.

The current wave is different. Most of these new initiatives were set up by their university’s central administration and have a presidential stamp of approval. Most of them involve not just interdisciplinary work by academics, but also intensive direct participation by practitioners from outside the university. Most aim to solve problems, sometimes by proposing policy changes, sometimes by actively bringing research out into the field. Many are interested in the relationship between knowledge and action as a field of study. Together they add up to a loosely organized but concerted attempt to add a new capability to research universities — what Columbia’s president, Lee Bollinger, calls a “fourth purpose,” after teaching, research, and service.

Why is this happening now? One reason is a collective awareness that the match between our institutions and our problems isn’t very good. Geographically bounded governments are not well set up to handle transnational challenges like terrorism or pandemics. Another reason is that major research universities represent extraordinary collections of usable expertise, across every conceivable field, assembled under one roof. Even the largest foundations, NGOs, and think tanks would have to reach outside their own organizations to enlist biochemists, or anthropologists, or mechanical engineers in their work. Universities do not. 

There is also a sense that these are urgent times — that the mismatch between politics and disciplined truth-seeking has become severe. Max Weber himself became intensely involved in German politics during and after the First World War, while continuing to insist that science place itself on the other side of a strict boundary. Today that separation seems exaggerated and disadvantageous, certainly for politics and possibly for academics too.

There isn’t space here to go into the particulars of these new entities — which include, just to name a few, MIT Solve, Carnegie Mellon Moonshots, Social X-Change at Stanford, Perry World House at Penn, the Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins, and Grand Challenges initiatives at, among other universities, Georgia Tech, Minnesota, Texas A&M, Indiana, and UCLA. But it is possible to offer a rough typology among them, and to enumerate some of the questions they will have to answer if they’re to grow and prosper. 

Everybody in the field is interdisciplinary to some extent, and everybody creates connections outside universities. Some stay within a particular topic area (energy, the environment, inequality), while others operate across the full range of university expertise, focusing on making connections rather than on one domain. Some hold internal competitions for funds they disperse to faculty, and others are more directive, creating new teams and managing their activities.

At Columbia World Projects, for instance, we are launching projects that aim to persuade Ghanaian villagers to switch from high-polluting home cookstoves to clean ones; to use satellite data to predict electric usage in an off-the-grid rural area in Uganda well enough to persuade somebody to invest in creating reliable service there; and to use highly accurate, geographically specific weather predictions to generate steadier crop production in six sites around the world. These are in the developing world, but we are also preparing projects that will operate only domestically, and in areas ranging from election security to decarbonization to water treatment. What the projects have in common is that they address areas where there is a major social need that isn’t being met by the conventional economic or political systems. We design all of them with Columbia colleagues in several disciplines, and with partners outside the university.

We design these projects to ensure that they do something new and useful, and that they can make a difference broadly if others take up our work. We also conduct intellectual inquiries in three areas: democratic institutions, rapidly growing cities, and the implementation of scholarly knowledge, in all cases engaging faculty members across disciplines with practitioners from outside the academy. 

Although we have had a great deal of enthusiastic participation from our colleagues, there is a distinct sense of structural tension between the established pathways of university research and what we are trying to do. 

Some solutions sound great in a seminar room but not so great to the people they’re meant to help.

I’ll enumerate a few of the challenges. For faculty members, work on these new initiatives usually doesn’t count as a credential that would lead to advancement in their field. This is especially acute for junior faculty nearing a tenure decision. And most Grand Challenge-style efforts, in order to function as intended, require the participation of people who don’t have traditional academic backgrounds — whose expertise is action, not research. If success requires that these people be employed, at least for a time, at universities, it’s difficult to find berths for them because by the traditional criteria they are usually not eligible for faculty jobs.

Then there’s money. Although most of these new initiatives aim to involve students at all levels, none of them so far grants degrees or has tuition as a source of income. Most appear to have initial financial support from the central administration of the university, but that isn’t an infinite resource. The government grants that are the primary form of support for university research usually go to a principal investigator, selected mainly on the basis of reputation among peers within a discipline — not to cross-disciplinary efforts whose primary product isn’t pure research. Individual, foundation, and corporate funders often want to see evidence that their funds are making a significant measurable difference out in the world, which isn’t the metric most faculty are trained to aim for.

In the work itself, the main question is how to bridge the daunting gap between solving a significant problem in a notional way and actually implementing at least a part of the solution. To do that requires humility, flexibility, discipline, and a keen sense of timing. Some solutions sound great in a seminar room but not so great to the people they’re meant to help. Partner organizations — NGOs, government agencies, businesses, community groups — will have their own experiences and constraints, which can’t be ignored. Universities don’t have the political power, resources, or staying power to heal the world by themselves. They have to figure out exactly what their most useful contribution is and how to get other elements of society to work with them to do the rest. And the temptation to declare every effort a success based on insufficient anecdotal evidence has to be resisted.

One reason universities have proved to be so durable is that they’ve been adventurous about experimenting with new capabilities. The establishment of the disciplines, and later of the research-funding apparatus that helps support them, doesn’t represent the final stage in universities’ development. Professional schools, for example, predate the modern research university, but they changed and grew substantially in the research-university era, even though they are by definition more connected to the external society than the traditional definition of academic research would permit. 

It’s perilous to assume that if something has value, it should become part of the university landscape; nothing can thrive without a deep understanding of and connection to its host environment. But if a new part of academic life builds on universities’ strengths, and if universities are willing to adapt in order to add a significant new capability, the results can be miraculous. As a category, the new initiatives devoted to turning university-based knowledge into action are somewhere between infancy and toddlerhood, but their potential to add to what research universities do is large. They need, and deserve, to be nurtured.