President Xu, distinguished faculty, students, and friends. It is an honor to be here in magnificent Shanghai, at Fudan University, a pioneering higher education institution at the very center of conversations on our global 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 events on campus — involving scholars from China, Brown and elsewhere — that touched on important issues of global connection.
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 two performances of Confucius’ Disciples by the extraordinary Shanghai Theatre Academy explored the theme of crossing cultural, geographic, and ideological borders — and how encounters with other societies contribute to our growth, as individuals, and as nations.
In some ways, Brown’s Year of China confirmed what many in the U.S. already knew: that China’s intellectual, economic, and technological 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 Fudan and Brown, poised to make important contributions to the global future. This is what I would like to talk about this afternoon — how Fudan and Brown are, together, opening new pathways to knowledge. And how their liberal arts traditions, which cultivate intellectual openness and creativity, are essential in a global era.
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 — indeed, an early precursor to the cosmopolitanism of Shanghai in the 20th and 21st centuries.
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, Fudan 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 Fudan 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.
Fudan University — one of China’s most prestigious institutions of higher learning, and a pioneer in interdisciplinary, liberal arts-oriented education — enjoys a global reputation for academic excellence. With its extraordinary range of research institutes, affiliated hospitals, and national laboratories, Fudan continues to produce graduates who lead consequential lives.
As a result, Fudan 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 or 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.
We routinely bring together globally-minded scholars and practitioners, so that knowledge can be shared. Brown’s International Advanced Research Institutes initiative, for example — BIARI, we call it — is the perfect embodiment of this approach.
Once a year, BIARI organizes four two-week ‘institutes’ around selected global issues. BIARI sessions are true intellectual collaboration, across countries, cultures, and experience. They are among the most energetic, interesting academic offerings we convene at Brown, for two reasons:
First, they offer a forum for rising scholars and policy practitioners from every corner of the world to share their research and describe how their countries are addressing health care reform, for example, or humanitarian response. The result is that everybody learns something new and novel about how we might, collectively, forge common solutions.
And second, BIARI institutes are one way that we “broadcast” knowledge, globally — that is, move it across borders. The lectures, seminars, workshops and practical ‘simulations’ spur conversations and ‘seed’ new approaches that make their way back to the home countries of participating scholars. It is the definition of knowledge without borders.
One of the four BIARI institutes in 2016 will consider climate change — more specifically, how indigenous knowledge systems, historical legacies, and national mitigation strategies influence how its effects are experienced locally. It is my hope that when this session convenes this coming June, scores of fresh insights will emerge, that will, someday, launch innovative interventions.
Brown’s China Initiative also takes a multidisciplinary approach in the production, application, and teaching of China-focused research that is directed at the resolution of these challenges.
Under the China Initiative, for example, 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.
We see it in the Rhode Island Innovation Policy Lab, a collaboration with the Office of the Governor of Rhode Island that engages Brown University researchers in helping state agencies design evidence-based policies to better serve residents in the state, and improve quality of life.
In an age of “big data,” we are all on a learning curve, in terms of using data smartly, in ways that can profoundly inform policymaking. Research models that use state-of-the-art behavioral economics and data science techniques are becoming more sophisticated as the quality of the data we have access to improves. And so, policies informed by better research stand a better chance of succeeding — in everything from improving childhood health and education outcomes to providing effective social safety nets — challenges every large, industrial nation grapples with.
This is the very definition of advancing knowledge for the greater good. By shaping a virtuous circle of transforming data, evidence, and innovative design into policies that make a positive difference in peoples’ lives, engaged universities like Brown can open new pathways to knowledge.
And this reminds me of something. In my first year of teaching at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School, a student in a graduate economics class I taught was a man named Zhu Min. He went on to get a PhD in economics from Johns Hopkins, is currently deputy managing director of the IMF, is on boards of Fudan University and the Fudan Development Institute, and is one of Fudan’s most prominent alumni.
I remember that, as a student, not only was Zhu Min a very, very good economist, but he brought a global perspective into a course on "domestic policy analysis" that was extremely valuable. This was long before "internationalization" became a buzzword across universities and, for me, was an early introduction to the importance of bringing international perspectives together.
Indeed, I note with admiration the work of the Fudan Development Institute, here at Fudan University. Like the Watson Institute at Brown, the Institute is a hub of policy and strategy research that engages an international community of scholars. And like the Rhode Island Innovation Policy Lab, the Institute’s rigorous, data-driven research capability informs policymaking at every level of governance in China.
Fudan and Brown, it seems, share an understanding that integrative research infused by liberal arts, and a comparative global perspective on public policy can open the door to solutions and expand the boundaries of knowledge, to the frontlines of today’s complex global challenges.
The second way an engaged university 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. One such breakthrough is A Better World by Design, founded by a group of engineers from Brown, and designers from our neighbor institution, the Rhode Island School of Design, RISD, with whom Brown collaborates on several initiatives.
A Better World by Design is, in the simplest of terms, an idea incubator, a collective of people bound by the notion that innovative solutions to social problems can arise from merging fields like technology, the arts, and design. Every year, Brown and RISD host a three-day conference during which innovators from the Better World by Design network share their work and strengthen the entrepreneurial culture.
One of them is Annie Wu, a RISD graduate and Brown Global Entrepreneurship Fellow who designed and implemented a tutoring program for Liberian refugee children, and who has gone on to form a multi-disciplinary virtual design studio, working with social entrepreneurs on social impact projects.
Or, several Brown students who formed Brown STEAM — the acronym for science, technology, engineering, art, and math — a group exploring ways to collaborate by integrating the aesthetics of the arts, the rigor of the STEM fields, and the critical thinking and ethical considerations of the humanities.
A Better World by Design is part of a larger network of interconnected academic programs at Brown and RISD, for students seeking to build entrepreneurial career paths. Each provides budding innovators with immersion in entrepreneurship skill training, mentoring by established entrepreneurs, and access to a vibrant community of thinkers, makers, and doers who are strengthening the entrepreneurial ecosystem for prototyping of new ideas.
Now, think about robotics. 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 network of people, ideas, and technology directed at the greater good. And for this, we need the imagination of the liberal arts.
Indeed, many graduates of Brown University have said to me that their success as entrepreneurs and innovators can be attributed to the grounding they had in the liberal arts and humanities — areas that opened up a universe of ideas and new ways of thinking.
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. Today, the notion of global service is flourishing in universities, partly because ways of knowing have expanded, and students 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 field research or service, placing students in communities, nonprofit organizations, government, and the private sector. The idea is simple: advance scholarship and benefit the world. For example:
- An independent study concentrator studying art and activism works with NGOs in Peru, India, and Italy, producing documentaries that spotlight the many ways people go about prompting social change — specifically, improving rural schools, assisting refugees, or supporting marginalized communities; and learns that art is important to people as a way to communicate their advocacy.
- Two students, an astrophysics concentrator, and a political science/geology concentrator, co-found a think tank that explores a multidisciplinary approach to space development; and promote the notion that if young people without science or math backgrounds are passionate about space exploration, they, too, should have every opportunity to be involved.
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.
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, as we know, it is in the DNA of Fudan University, which has long promoted opportunities for students to learn outside the classroom. Indeed, it is no coincidence that Fudan translates as “restoration of the dawn,” — encouragement to see each new day as an opportunity to educate and prepare students to serve modern China.
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 Fudan/Brown faculty research proposals, exploring the potential for work in innovative areas of scholarship. We have to induce collaboration in order to engage the attention of scholars in Providence and in Shanghai.
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 Fudan 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 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 campus interview during Brown’s Year of China with writer Wing Tek Lum ’68 — whose poems about an epochal moment in Chinese history, the Nanjing Massacre, unearth the many emotional, humanistic dimensions of that event — the subject of poetry’s relevance in a globalized world came up.
Like many Chinese students, Lum came to Brown with an engineering background, and proceeded to study engineering and sciences during his first year. But then, things changed. “I decided I wanted to broaden myself while I was at Brown,” he said. And so he was accepted into the BA/ScB five-year program, enabling him to minor in something else.
Lum recalled, “I chose art, and thought I was going to be an architect, but that didn’t work out. But I did get to enjoy studio drawing and studio painting.” Eventually, after taking one poetry class and auditing another during that fifth year, Lum found a voice, even becoming editor of Brown’s literary journal.
Over the years, while working in the family real estate business in Hawaii, and with the Bamboo Ridge Press, a literary magazine in Honolulu, Lum continued to write poetry, publishing Expounding the Doubtful Points in 1987, and The Nanjing Massacre: Poems in 2013.
He said that poetry, and other disciplines in the humanities, is an important way of “bridging cultures, of bridging the different peoples.” Poetry, in his view, can capture “slices of time” or hidden details that may be missing in historical narratives, and that may connect how people from different societies understand events, and, perhaps more importantly, each other.
In Lum’s view, poetry — like anthropology, art or philosophy — offers a contemplative window through which we might find a new ‘way of knowing’ about the world, or an inventive way of framing a problem.
Today, we find ourselves at another epochal moment in historical time — epochal, 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 complex global challenges.
It is my sincere hope, as president of Brown University, that collaboration with Fudan University — inspired by our shared humanistic tradition and our shared engagement in the world — will be part of our global future.