January 17, 2019; Brookings Institution
In an op-ed on the Brookings website last week, Maysa Jalbout, CEO of the Abdulla Al Ghurair Foundation for Education and a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution, argues that universities are uniquely well positioned to address urgent global challenges, including growing refugee flows, income inequality, and threats to the land.
Emphasizing a theme that will be familiar to many in the nonprofit sector, Jalbout notes that “funding models have pushed universities into adopting a mentality of scarcity,” in place of which she suggests “favoring a mentality of abundance that would incentivize stretching for new goals and creating new opportunities.” Jalbout’s argument is idealistic, but her “three critical shifts” for the higher education field provide some alternatives for universities and funders to consider.
Jalbout’s first shift, “from universities investing in their financial security to investing in solving some of the most critical challenges of our time” is her most idealistic, but also thought-provoking. She highlights some mind-boggling statistics about elite universities. For instance, Stanford University claims that “companies formed by Stanford graduates generate world revenues of $2.7 trillion annually and have created 5.4 million jobs since the 1930s.” For its part, Harvard University claims that its living alumni have created, excluding financial firms, companies that combine generate “annual revenue of $3.9 trillion—greater than the gross domestic product of Germany.” Harvard also claims that Harvard alumni “have created” 20.4 million jobs globally in an absurdly specific—we’re pretty sure that such an accurate count is impossible—146,429 firms, a number which includes both for-profit and nonprofit entities.
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Impact “is not limited to jobs and revenue,” Jalbout contends. While this is true, Jalbout has a difficult case to make right now. As many state universities in the US have seen budget decreases in the last few years, student costs have risen. People, in short, care about revenue. Still, Jalbout offers the valuable example of the forthcoming Times Higher Education University Ranking designed to measure institutions’ success in achieving the UN Sustainable Goals, which will be worth following.
Jalbout supports her second shift, “from universities making modest efforts to increase inclusion in student bodies to making education open for all regardless of status and financial ability,” with some interesting global models. As an example, she cites the University Innovation Alliance, a national coalition of public research universities established in 2014 and committed to increasing the number and diversity of college graduates in the United States. The Alliance’s 11 partner institutions boast some promising success stories in enrolling low-income students, which is a hopeful sign for the field. Also, Jalbout’s own organization, the Abdulla Al Ghurair Foundation for Education, focuses on higher education and aims to “create opportunities to activate the untapped potential of Arab youth, providing underserved, high-achieving students with the scholarships, support and skills training that they need to thrive.”
Jalbout describes her third shift, “from offering new skills and tools for the rapid changes in today’s workforces to preserving and reinforcing our ethics and values amid radical technological change” as “without a doubt the most challenging and uncertain.” She cites a recent study showing promising recent results from massive open online courses—MOOCs—in increasing the accessibility of education. She also points to Boston’s Northeastern University, which has begun to consider higher education as a membership-based “lifetime experience,” and Ontario’s Waterloo University’s expanding co-op program as models.
She concludes with the ambitious goal that it is more necessary now than ever for universities to respond to increasing global changes by leading thinking about “what makes us human” and “how we want to evolve as a society.” These are ambitious ideas worth exploring as we start a new year.—Anne Eigeman