Chairperson Chen, distinguished faculty, students, and friends. It is an honor to be here at Tsinghua University, a truly pioneering higher education institution with its gaze fixed squarely on the future.
When I arrived at Brown in 2012, the University had just concluded a “Year of China” — a yearlong exploration and celebration of China. When asked about the inspiration for the Year of China, Professor of Physics Chung-I-Tan, who coordinated the event, observed that “Brown’s future depends on making the campus more a part of the world, a world in which the Chinese presence is immense.”
Presciently, Professor Tan said the Year would “bring China to Brown while bringing Brown to China.”
Among the ways China was brought to Brown that year was in the many forums on campus — involving scholars from China, Brown and elsewhere — that touched on the global challenges of our time.
One discussion explored the pathway from Chinese traditional medicine to the evolution of modern health care in China, hinting at how nations are searching for solutions to complex public health issues.
Another examined how China is balancing rapid economic growth with global climate change concerns. Recent developments — here, and in Paris last fall — suggest that China is charting a promising course forward.
And still another, hosted by Brown’s Institute for Molecular and Nanoscale Innovation and led by Professor Bao Xinhe of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, highlighted research advances in efficient energy conversion, a key principle in global progress on alternative energy.
In some ways, Brown’s Year of China confirmed what many in the U.S. already knew: that China’s intellectual, technological, and economic influence in the world is, and will continue to be, vast. Yet, in other ways, the Year of China opened up altogether new frontiers of knowledge exchange and collaboration that could, someday, be transformational.
This is good for China, for the world, and for universities like Tsinghua and Brown, poised to make important contributions to the global future. This is what I would like to talk about this afternoon — how Tsinghua and Brown are, together, opening new pathways to knowledge.
Intellectual Traditions and Journeys of Knowledge
Centuries ago, the Silk Road opened a multidirectional journey of knowledge in and out of China. Intellectual traffic of historical, literary, geographical, cultural, and economic import fanned out along this extraordinary route, remaking lives and linking innovators. The Silk Road was emblematic of China’s cosmopolitan radiance in the world.
When Marco Polo, describing his travels along the Silk Road, noted the use of paper currency in the Chinese Empire, Europeans found the idea so absurd and unbelievable, they questioned whether he had even lived in China. Yet, there it was — an historic innovation, practical, unconventional, imaginative.
From the fourth century through the Tang and Song Dynasties, consider the kinds of knowledge-driven innovations needed to physically produce paper currency and orchestrate its introduction as a means of exchange: the processing of soaked bast fiber from the mulberry tree into paper, the application of woodblock printing, and the adoption of credit. How do we explain this advancement of knowledge?
During Brown’s Year of China, several scholars came together to discuss the works of Joseph Needham, a British scientist and historian best remembered for his scientific research and writing on the history of Chinese science. Needham’s research detailed 300 discoveries in science and technology — paper, the magnetic compass, printing, gunpowder, the ploughshare, and others — now known to be pre-Western.
A lasting strand of Needham’s work is the humanistic notion that “science and technology is rooted in a multicultural tradition,” — and, in the case of China, that culturally-based constructions of meaning, centering on Taoism and Confucianism, core intellectual traditions in China, gave rise to early scientific invention and exposition.
Intellectual traditions are, I think, a good starting point for knowledge advancement in the world. Eastern and Western intellectual traditions are wonderfully unique, but they ask similar, universal questions about human agency and connection to the world.
As classical Taoist and Confucian thought offered guidance and wisdom in the East, Greek and Roman philosophy framed the quest for meaning in the West. Yet both traditions had the goal of shaping citizens with knowledge, virtue, and character to serve society. And for millennia, they have shaped ‘ways’ of knowing that have pointed societies forward.
Over generations, journeys of knowledge have brought intellectual traditions closer, often leading to threshold discoveries, powerful innovation, and more integrative ways of knowing. Progress, we call it.
Today, progress has less to do with physical journeys and more to do with how we collaborate, globally. As Western and Eastern perspectives on the world have come into collective focus, we see the power of bringing people, ideas, experience, research, and institutions together. And in a digital era, knowledge is arrayed more powerfully than ever.
Liberal Arts and Engaged Universities
The emergence of liberal arts is notable in this regard, as an important foundation for higher education, particularly in its capacity to accommodate all intellectual traditions, and its relevance in a global era.
Customarily associated with the study of social sciences and the humanities, a liberal arts education is aimed squarely at imparting a set of skills and values that would — in the words of DeWitt Clinton Poole, the founding director of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School, which I directed before coming to Brown — “…enlarge the individual’s mental scope to world dimensions.”
For example, critical thinking skills, from the study of philosophy; the ability to place knowledge in context, from the study of history; the ability to communicate complex ideas in varied settings, from the study of languages and the arts; intercultural competence, gained from area studies; and analytical, problem-solving skills, from the social sciences.
Far more than a Western “discourse,” liberal arts is usefully seen as an orientation — an integrative approach to the infinite possibilities of knowledge, a cornerstone of how humankind broadens the ‘ways we know.’ Liberal arts study is, in my view, quite consistent with being a leading research university.
As a university president, I am interested in how universities can best structure their academic programs to array knowledge for the benefit of human welfare: how they invest in scholarship that enlightens us; in discovery that helps us become healthier and more productive; and most important, in the cultivation of creative, talented young people who will lead us.
We have been, for some time now, shaping the architecture of a knowledge economy. By integrating research, teaching, and service, Tsinghua and Brown are evolving into what some call “engaged universities” that broaden notions of knowledge production and impact, forge partnerships with the wider society, and target societal problems that require rigorous, imaginative solutions.
Engaged universities like Tsinghua and Brown are foundations of this architecture.
Brown has, since its founding in 1764, during the reign of the Qianlong Emperor, distinguished itself from its peers in the belief that collaboration across the arts, sciences, humanities, and social sciences is central to the advancement of knowledge and understanding. This is put into practice at Brown in our Open Curriculum, distinctive in the Ivy League, a process by which students design their own highly interdisciplinary and rigorous course of study.
Tsinghua University is a place where open inquiry and academic excellence thrive in 19 schools and 55 research institutes, and a place long regarded as a bridge between East and West.
As a result, Tsinghua and Brown both attract a global community of students and faculty who are purposeful, collaborative, and entrepreneurial in putting ideas together in interesting ways — qualities needed to serve our societies and change our world.
In three ways, engaged universities like ours can open new pathways for advancing knowledge. The first is by arraying knowledge around the complex global challenges of our time. The second is by creating educational environments that spur innovation. The third is by instilling a deep sense of ethical leadership in our students. I will discuss each in turn.
Academic preparation centered on global challenges — such as sustaining life on Earth and improving human health — is integrative by design. The challenges we face today require a multifaceted approach that cuts across disciplines. Consider the grave problem of global climate change. Solutions will require not only advances in technology produced by our engineers, chemists and physicists, but also effective international and local public policies devised by our economists and political scientists, and a deep understanding of human behavior and adaptation informed by the work of sociologists and humanists.
The same need for integration and collaboration is true for problems such as global security, population aging, cybersecurity, and others. If universities are to play a leading role in addressing global challenges, they need to make fundamental changes in how they structure research and education, and how they engage with the world.
Universities must appreciate that their faculties can no longer work in traditional departmental silos, and must recognize the power of collaboration and exchange with each other. Universities cannot be “ivory towers,” disengaged from the world around them. If the knowledge they create is to have impact on the world, universities must be deeply connected to industry, the public sector, and civil society.
This means breaking the mold and approaching research and education in new and exciting ways. At Brown, we have chosen to invest in interdisciplinary centers of collaboration. These centers, such as the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society, and our School of Public Health, are tackling problems like human migration in the Middle East and Europe, infectious disease in Africa, and the effects of climate change on fragile ecosystems. And they are doing it with teams of researchers that span the humanities, social sciences and sciences.
Brown’s China Initiative is the perfect embodiment of this approach, drawing on contributions from many disciplines in the production, application, and teaching of China-focused research that is directed at the resolution of these challenges.
One of them is the economic feasibility of high-tech renewable energy technology. Jonas Nahm, a political scientist and postdoctoral fellow at Brown’s Watson Institute for International & Public Affairs, and Edward Steinfeld, the director of the Institute, have together been examining the role Chinese technology firms play in fostering global innovation in renewable energy systems.
This work has been motivated by what Professor Steinfeld learned when he was a visiting scholar at Tsinghua University’s School of Public Policy and Management in 2012-2013.
The beauty of the work that Steinfeld and Nahm are doing is that it shows how connection, collaboration, and mutual learning — in this case, between Chinese, German, Danish, British and American engineers, scientists, and business executives — has forged a truly global knowledge network around renewable energy technology development, one that is helping to solve the sustainability challenges we all face.
It is notable as well in how it documents the unparalleled knowledge that exists in Chinese industry around design for manufacturability and cost reduction. For renewable energy to be made available globally at a scale that could alleviate climate change, the technologies will have to cost less. It is in China, more than anywhere in the world, where unique knowledge for achieving that resides. We all need to learn from this. And, if we do, the future of the world looks brighter.
Similarly, also under Brown’s China Initiative, we’re looking at environmental health. Professor Tongzhang Zheng and several colleagues from Brown’s School of Public Health and the Watson Institute are involved in four research collaborations with Chinese government public health agencies, aimed at addressing the public health consequences of environmental pollutants across multiple cities in China.
Guided by a focus on data-driven policy analysis and embedded in the China context, these studies seek to quantify the effects of air pollution on morbidity and mortality. And so they draw on the social sciences, natural sciences and humanities to give findings relevance and meaning to people.
Child health is another area. Though I serve as president of Brown, I am also a professor of economics. One year, I taught a course in health disparities. There was a student from China in the class and I was profoundly struck by her different way of thinking about health care and socioeconomic inequality.
She wrote a very interesting final paper that compared child obesity in the U.S. and China, noting that it is largely a problem of lower-income families in America, but the opposite in China, where it is primarily an upper-income, urban phenomenon. By comparing the two country's experiences, she drew compelling conclusions about the relative roles of food prices, "screen time" and other factors, and about the "portability" of public policies designed to prevent child obesity, from the U.S. to China.
All of this is to say that we can’t address complex issues in isolation. Energy, economic growth, and health are interrelated, so we can’t arrive at a deeper understanding by posing only engineering questions or economic questions or biomedical questions. In true liberal arts spirit, questions from many disciplines are necessary to build the knowledge base.
It’s understanding that context and an interdisciplinary approach can open the door to solutions.
During my visit to your country, I will be paying a visit to former Tsinghua professor and current director of China’s National Science Foundation, Dr. Yang Wei, a Brown Ph.D. graduate in engineering. Beyond thanking him for choosing Brown and learning about the Foundation’s science and technology research priorities, I hope to share with him an update from Brown Engineering.
He may be pleased to learn that the campus building in which he toiled while at Brown — affectionately known as ‘Barus and Holley’ — is to be replaced in 2017 by a new state-of-the-art engineering building, funded principally through the philanthropic generosity of alumni donors.
And he may also be pleased to hear how Brown continues to grow its research portfolio in bioengineering, nanoscience, and environmental engineering, areas that expand the boundaries of knowledge, to the frontlines of today’s complex global challenges.
The second way engaged universities can open new pathways for advancing knowledge is through innovation. Again, I believe that universities must make fundamental changes if they are to encourage an innovative spirit that results in breakthroughs in knowledge.
Creativity is a prerequisite for innovation, and encouraging creativity means moving away from traditional rigid educational systems, in which students are not encouraged to combine ideas across disciplines or to challenge the status quo.
Innovation flourishes as interdisciplinary research — conducted by global teams, enhanced by diverse research cultures and intellectual traditions, and bolstered by community partnerships — coalesces around problems of shared concern.
This kind of open, integrative thinking often spins breakthroughs in creativity and innovation — new ways of arraying knowledge.
Professor of Materials Engineering Nitin Padture, for example, secured a $4 million grant in 2015 to manufacture the next generation of solar cells. His work on this piece of the renewable energy puzzle builds on the research of Brown Ph.D. student Zhou Yuanyuan, a graduate of Xi’an Jiaotong University. Zhou discovered that perovskite crystals — unlike the silicon used in today’s solar panels — can be produced at room temperature, simplifying the manufacturing process and reducing costs.
This work is aimed directly at the emerging global energy revolution that China is leading, through its advances in solar and wind energy technology.
This is the case in robotics as well. Around the world, research and experimentation has helped us identify ways robots can be beneficial in our lives. Not surprisingly, it is universities — in China, the United States and elsewhere — that are leading innovation in this field. Indeed, a recent World Intellectual Property Organization report noted that Chinese universities dominate the list of top ten robotics patent holders.
But if robots were meant to have a humanistic side — that is, if they are to benefit, learn from, teach, support, and collaborate with people — then their design will need to be informed by liberal arts. And at Brown’s Humanity Centered Robotics Initiative, this is very much the case.
Archaeological knowledge equips robots with undersea scanning capabilities for historical discovery and excavation. Philosophy and sociology infuse the research on robot prospects in the area of Ethics, Policy and Security. And robots deployed in the design space are “inspired” by music and the visual arts.
If what we want is enlightened robots, then we need a global ecosystem of people, ideas, and technology directed at the greater good. And for this, we need the imagination of liberal arts.
Engaged universities are, in fact, becoming centers of innovation by promoting entrepreneurship. In the Jewelry District of Providence, Rhode Island — a historic area of the city that is home to Brown, once the center of Rhode Island’s entrepreneurial jewelry trade, and now the center of a new entrepreneurial wave — Brown’s multi-sector partnerships around translational science and health care illustrate how engaged universities can promote and accelerate technological innovation.
Our investments in translational sciences — a new frontier of discovery drawing on medicine, brain science, bioengineering, compute science and other areas — have not only spurred start-ups and other entrepreneurial ventures in the district. They have engaged the wider community, and, in many ways, enhanced the quality of life for inhabitants.
In fact, the story of Providence — at times, a place of urban decay, capital flight, and declining civic pride that regained its stature as a “creative capital” for its innovative work in architecture and design — casts light on the global issue of urban transformation.
As China, the U.S., and other countries experiment with policy strategies to reinvigorate cities and prepare for a post-industrial, digital era, it is the knowledge economy that they turn to for inspiration. And it is universities, like Tsinghua and Brown, that can catalyze resources, talent, and community partners in collaborative efforts to remake urban centers.
Lastly, the full impact of a liberal arts education also comes from experiential learning and innovations in teaching.
Ties between Brown and Tsinghua around experiential learning were set in motion several years ago. In 2011, during Brown’s Year of China, a senior seminar on Science and technology Policy in the Global South arranged a live web conference with a counterpart class at Tsinghua University’s School of Public Policy and Management. The theme of that session was, of course, ‘National Systems of Innovation.’
Ethical Connection to the World & Leadership
The third way engaged universities can open new pathways for advancing knowledge is by enlisting their students into an ethical connection with the world. The notion of bringing one’s talents to bear on the grand challenges is flourishing in universities partly because ways of knowing have expanded, and people are seeing their societies in a global context, and themselves as agents of change.
The ethical connections gained through the study of liberal arts prepare people to be thoughtful leaders and global stewards of knowledge.
This is the idea behind the Engaged Scholars program at Brown, which creates opportunities to bridge classroom learning with community service, placing students in nonprofit organizations, government, and the private sector. The idea is simple: advance scholarship and benefit the world. For example:
- An engineering student co-leads MED International, an interdisciplinary team developing IT and engineering solutions for resource-limited hospitals in Ghana; and learns that it isn’t just product success that matters — it’s also local fieldwork, customer research, observation, and cross-cultural understanding.
- An environmental toxicology concentrator volunteers playing folk music for sick children at a local hospital, and collaborates with the Healthy Housing Hub at Brown, which fights housing inequities in the community, and ensures that children live in mold-free homes.
This connection to the world has made an impression on Feng Yuanyuan, a Ph.D. student in American Studies from Beijing. In her time at Brown, she has seen much that counters the “ivory tower” narrative of university life — indeed, a narrative of disengagement.
Students, she says, expect to shoulder responsibility for society. They don’t simply talk about changing the world; they’re motivated to do so. To explain this, Feng draws a direct line to the liberal arts — which offer insight on how to think, how to cope with complexity, and how to be relevant in a rapidly changing, globalized world.
As well, students are challenged to consider the big questions in life — the kind we might come across in literature, like the search for identity, the quest for meaning, and the fraught nature of generational change. The best part is that, unlike reading literature, it isn’t abstract. It’s real life.
I suspect Feng’s research on trans-Pacific communities will yield strands of such conversations. As she combs through the stories of 19th and 20th century immigrants from China, she will likely discover a rich exchange of ideas and knowledge that journeyed to and from Asia and America. And she will hear a distinct voice that illuminates untold parts of the trans-Pacific experience.
More and more, engaged universities are offering opportunities for students to serve communities, in their countries or internationally, underscoring a trend to be more responsive to societal needs, and connect academic knowledge in applied ways for the greater good.
By directing educational resources this way, universities are enlarging the range of post-graduation options, beyond scientific and technical careerism to public service.
Brown, of course, is not the only university doing this. I note with great admiration Tsinghua’s Siyuan Program that places the university’s most promising students in positions of community service throughout China and abroad. We have much to learn from this program, and can imagine possibilities for collaboration around our shared sense of connection to the world, and our shared commitment to making it better.
It is in Brown’s DNA to educate leaders for service to the community, the nation, and the world. This is not the cloistered, “ivory tower” higher education of long ago. It is higher education that builds the skills of problem-solving and civic engagement.
And it is in the DNA of Tsinghua University. It was the former president of Tsinghua, Mei Yiqi, who once said about the early days of the university, that contemporary society at that time didn’t just need engineers with engineering expertise; society also needed engineers with comprehensive training in humanitarian issues and social responsibility.
Progress and the Communication, Preservation and Discovery of Knowledge
Looking ahead, progress will ask of us to communicate our mutual interests in a spirit of open intellectual exchange.
Academics are curious — they want to know how the world works. But they are also people who care a great deal about the future. So our universities have to “seed” ways of sharing expertise — for example, pilot funds to support joint Tsinghua/Brown faculty research proposals, exploring the potential for work in priority areas of innovation. We have to induce collaboration in order to engage the attention of scholars in Providence and in Beijing.
There are technologies coming along that will make collaboration easier, such as machine translation premised on the capacity of digital systems to absorb research, summarize it, and convey it in another language. This will spur creative thinking about possibilities.
As will simpler innovations, like connecting classrooms in real time, like we did during the Year of China, and could do again between Tsinghua and Brown. That time, Brown Professor Evelyn Hu-Dehart, born in China and a scholar of the Chinese Diaspora in Cuba, Mexico, and other parts of Latin America, worked with Professor of American Studies Robert George Lee to set up “trans-Pacific” classrooms linking students at Brown with students in Hong Kong and Singapore.
What has opened up in these trans-Pacific interactions among Chinese students from everywhere is a fresh dialogue on “what it means to be Chinese” today, a contemporary question prompted by the global journey of knowledge, ideas, and human experience. And it is a question that people may answer for themselves, through collaboration.
This is among the reasons I am here. We are two engaged universities. We have much to learn from each other. For us to continue to be a leading global university, we need your know-how, your unique perspectives, and your innovative capacity. We envision a “partnership of scholars” dedicated to the discovery, preservation and communication of knowledge — the very core of the Brown mission.
In a thoughtful editorial to our campus newspaper, the Brown Daily Herald, back in 2010, Wang Yue, Class of 2012, told the story of her father — born in a small Chinese village 2000 miles away from Beijing, and visiting the capital for the first time ever in 1978. As he was touring the city, he came upon the campus of Tsinghua University.
Wang wrote that her father “…was enraptured by what he witnessed: people conversing with each other in foreign tongues and students quietly enjoying their readings on the lawn. At each corner of the campus, he was able to find an authentic ambience of learning.”
As the story goes, he snuck into a lecture hall and, despite understanding little of what the professor was saying, was deeply impressed by the professor’s calm, confident dedication to the pursuit of knowledge. And after returning home, Wang’s father swiftly abandoned his plan to apprentice for a local watchmaker and spent the next two years studying for the college entrance exam.
Wang, who said this story inspired her to volunteer for a Brown program that brings students from a troubled high school to Brown for one day, added that “To this day, my father credits the day he visited Tsinghua as the turning point of his life.”
Imagine that. A journey of inspiration to Tsinghua evolves into an opportunity at Brown, both in pursuit of knowledge and perspective on the world.
Her father’s visit to Tsinghua University, of course, came at the very dawn of Deng Xiaoping’s “Reform and Opening,” a moment in time when China’s most extraordinary period of transformation was just beginning. He was, quite literally, a witness to a rebirth of intellectual exchange that would eventually transform China, and pave the way for its rise to global prominence and influence.
Today, we find ourselves at another pivotal moment in historical time — pivotal, of course, in the sense that the welfare of all nations and peoples truly hangs in the balance. It is a moment that calls for collaboration around knowledge, keyed to the global good, and directed at solutions to climate change, population health, alternative energy, and so many other complex challenges.
It is my hope, as president of Brown University, that such collaboration is part of the ‘Chinese Dream.’ I can promise you that it is part of Brown’s dream. And without question, it is part of a global dream.