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DAU9 Review: Higher Education and the Changing Global Order


In an era where rapid technological advancements and shifting geopolitical landscapes are redefining the very fabric of society, the role of higher education has never been more critical. Against this backdrop, the ninth Dialogue on Asian University (DAU) titled "Higher Education and the Changing Global Order" convened on January 5, 2024. The dialogue brought together two distinguished figures in academia: Prof. Yigong SHI, President of Westlake University, Prof. Rafael L. REIF, Immediate Past President of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and was moderated by Prof. Tony F. CHAN, Co-founder of DAU and President of King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST).

The three leaders, hailing from China, the United States, and Saudi Arabia, brought to the table not just their esteemed academic backgrounds but also their unparalleled leadership insights. The dialogue couldn't have been more timely as the world grapples with unprecedented challenges and untapped opportunities. 

The Opening Remarks

Prof. Rafael L. REIF - A Call for Sustained International Collaboration: Prof. Reif, with his rich experience steering one of the world's most prestigious technology institutes, opened the dialogue with an emphatic endorsement of international academic collaboration. He underscored the importance of maintaining and deepening academic ties, particularly between the United States and China. His perspective, shaped by years at the forefront of technological education and research at MIT, highlighted the critical need for an open exchange of ideas and knowledge across borders. He called on the United States to take proactive steps in fostering these international partnerships, emphasizing the need for understanding and working alongside China, a key player in the global academic landscape.

Prof. Yigong SHI - Westlake University’s Unique Approach to Global Academic Excellence: Turning the spotlight to China, Prof. Shi introduced the audience to the innovative ethos of Westlake University. As the founding president of China's first private research university, he highlighted Westlake's commitment to cutting-edge research and its openness to international collaboration. Prof. Shi highlighted how Westlake University, though young, is swiftly adapting to global changes and positioning itself as a hub for intellectual exchange and scientific advancement. 

Moderated Discussion

The discussion, facilitated by Prof. Chan, covered a wide range of critical and challenging topics, from geopolitics to the changing global order. Some highlights of the discussion include:

Prof. Rafael L. REIF on Academic Collaborations Amidst Geopolitical Tensions: Reflecting on his influential article in Foreign Affairs calling for the U.S. to maintain academic ties with China, Prof. Reif discussed the delicate balance between maintaining academic collaborations and addressing national security concerns. He expressed concern about the declining academic exchanges between the US and China, emphasizing the importance of these interactions for global progress. Prof. Reif made a compelling case for a nuanced approach, advocating for collaboration in civilian research while acknowledging the need for careful consideration in areas of national security. 

Prof. Yigong SHI on Adapting to Global Changes and Optimism for the Future: Prof. Shi shared his perspective on the role of universities in adapting to global changes. He emphasized Westlake University's approach to embracing international collaborations, seeing them as vital for progress and innovation. Despite the current challenges, Prof. Shi expressed optimism about the future of US-China academic collaborations.

Contrasting Views on "Invisible Forces": Prof. Shi pointed to the “invisible forces” that discourage American universities from partnering with Chinese universities when discussing Westlake's challenges in forging academic partnerships with U.S. institutions. However, Prof. Reif clarified that he never felt MIT was constrained from developing exchange programs with other universities. He recognized that many international students face visa situations, which could be a challenge to exchange students and partnering universities

Audience Q&A: Navigating Complex Questions in Higher Education

The live Q&A session gave attendees an opportunity to seek insights from our panelists directly on a range of critical issues. Some topics asked during the session include:

Science and Technology Cooperation Agreement (STA): As one of the long-standing collaboration agreements between the U.S. and China, the STA is set to expire in early 2024 after a six-month extension last year. Both panelists recognized the importance of keeping it in place, stressing its fundamental role in academic collaborations and the larger bilateral relationship. Prof. Reif further stated that this is something that U.S. universities would welcome.

Dual-Use (Military and Civilian) Technology: On the dual-use of technology, Prof. Reif recited the “small yard, big fence” analogy, advocating for focused security measures in sensitive areas while maintaining openness in broader academic research. He also stressed the need for more clarity on what is considered national security. Prof. Shi provided his perspective on the challenges in defining dual-use technologies, emphasizing the need for ethical considerations and global cooperation.

Global South and the Middle East: When talking about the Global South, Prof. Reif noted the risks of certain regions falling behind in educational and technological advancements. Prof. Chan's perspective on KAUST's role in the Middle East added depth to this dialogue, highlighting initiatives to foster regional academic collaboration and development.

Freedom of Speech on Campus and The Israel-Palestine Conflict: The last question addressed the recent controversy surrounding the resignations of the presidents of Harvard and UPenn, which involved issues related to Israel and Palestine. In response to opinions suggesting that universities should remain apolitical, Prof. Reif challenged this notion, arguing against an overly broad interpretation of political involvement. He emphasized that universities have the right to respond to unjust treatment from governments. On the topic of Israel and Palestine, he defended MIT’s stance. Prof. Reif highlighted the university's diverse internal opinions, explaining that this diversity makes it challenging for MIT to present a unified statement.

Conclusion: The Need for Collaboration in a Volatile Time

As the dialogue drew to a close, the final remarks from the panelists resonated with a sense of urgency and hope for the future of global academic collaboration. In Prof. Shi’s concluding remarks, he stressed the need to look beyond the current geopolitical challenges facing universities. He warned about the existential threat brought by new technologies such as AI and the need for global collaborations on the solution. Prof. Reif also shared his concern regarding AI’s potential to be used by a small group of bad actors to create widespread damage. He agreed that the U.S. and China have to work together to find solutions to these challenges.


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