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President's Remarks 2005

President David W. Leebron
Rice University
China-U.S. University President Forum

June 1, 2005
Seattle, Washington

Ambassador Zhou, Director General Cao, and leaders of higher education from China and the United States. It is a great privilege to be here. Thank you to the China Education Association for International Exchange and the Chinese Embassy in Washington for the kind invitation to address this important conference. It is an extraordinary and far-sighted gesture you make to hold in the United States the first China-US University Presidents forum. That you have chosen to do so in conjunction with the annual meeting of NAFSA lays the groundwork for increased future cooperation among our universities, and we all owe you a debt of gratitude for making possible this important milestone in the relations between the institutions of higher education in our two countries.

Although I am honored to speak at this forum and to be included with the distinguished group of university leaders here, I certainly cannot claim to speak on behalf of the institutions of advanced learning and research in the United States. The organization of higher education in the United States is extraordinarily complex. We have literally thousands of such institutions. They range from two-year community colleges to large research universities with huge graduate, professional, and doctoral programs. They are public and private. Among the private colleges and universities, a large number are religiously affiliated, but many are not. In size, they range from small colleges of a few hundred students to mega-universities which in a few years may approach 100,000. In recent years, we have seen the small but steady rise of for-profit institutions of higher education.

As a private nonprofit secular research university committed to teaching both undergraduate and graduate students, we at Rice have three principal missions: to create knowledge, to educate a new generation of researchers and leaders, and to help apply knowledge for the benefit of humanity. Each of those missions creates both rights and responsibilities. Although, like most universities, we carry out our missions primarily within in our own country, there is no reason for us to so limit our endeavors, and many reasons not to. In our increasingly globalized world, therefore, our rights and responsibilities take on new meanings.

From their origins, universities have played an important role in bringing peoples together across national borders, and in fostering understanding cooperation among those peoples. We ask our government and others, and we hope you will too, to respect the special role that universities play in carrying on research, creating dialogue, and educating an increasingly internationalized population. It is no accident that the word "university" has the same origin as the words universe and universal. The very term indicates that its endeavors ought not be limited. Universities across the globe share a sense of common mission, a mission not confined to the national borders of their locations. In a world in which multinational corporations play an increasingly important and sometimes even dominant role, it is essential that universities, whose mission is to serve the public interest, also demand a strong presence on the international plane. The community of universities plays an essential role in the development a better world and especially in fostering peace and understanding among the world's peoples and nations.

The history of the relationship between China and the United States well illustrates the importance of this role. During the quarter of a century that no diplomatic relationship existed between China and the United States, universities in the United States continued to foster the study and understanding of China. Universities provided one means, but perhaps the most important, to continue dialogue with China and to educate our citizens for the future. Where would we have been when diplomatic relations were finally reestablished without the work that took place all along in universities in America to build knowledge and understanding of China? Where would we be today without that work and three decades of student and faculty exchanges, as it becomes apparent that the bilateral relationship between the two countries is arguably the most important bilateral relationship in the world?

This unique role of universities requires that even where we are creatures of the state, as many of the universities represented by my fellow speakers are, that the state respect this special role. This was most recently recognized by the American Supreme Court in the case challenging the use of affirmative action by the University of Michigan. The court, respecting the special nature of universities, said that the freedom to choose a diverse class in order to pursue the broad university objectives of educating citizens and serving our society fell within the protection of academic freedom.

Even in the midst of political and even military hostilities, we ask that the special place of universities be respected, by ourselves and by our governments. I and many others were outraged at the recent decision of the Association of University Teachers in England to adopt a boycott (since revoked) against two Israeli universities and their professors because of its disagreement with Israeli policies. But I was heartened to read that the Presidents of Hebrew University in Israel and Al-Quds University in Palestine had joined together to issue a statement rejecting all such boycotts. These leaders of higher education understand that the obligations and missions of a university transcend national borders and transcend the politics of the moment.

I am deeply concerned about the barriers our country is increasingly placing in front of students from abroad who desire to study here. Of equal concern are more recent proposals to create obstacles to the use here in America of research equipment by foreign students. We must of course protect the security of our respective countries, but limitations on researching and teaching, on traveling and communicating, in today's global educational environment must be limited on all sides to those that are necessary to assure reasonable security. The events of 9/11 and other acts of terror do not derive from an excess of global understanding among peoples. The flow of students and scholars across borders is not part of the problem, it is part of the solution.

We are living in a globalized world, and universities are simultaneously both among the most internationally oriented and the least concentrated of enterprises. Although we are seeing an increasing number of overseas ventures and joint ventures of American and other universities, these have been largely confined to certain fields (especially business education) and still remain very much the exception. Thus it remains an important challenge how to build a network of relationships among such a large number of diverse institutions across the globe. To do so successfully requires substantial investment of both financial resources and human resources.

Why should we make such investments? Because they are essential, in today's world, to fulfilling our three missions. We cannot educate effectively, we cannot research effectively, we cannot bring the greatest benefit of knowledge and understanding to humanity without placing each of these endeavors in an international context and benefiting from the work of our own global community.

I learned from my own senior thesis in college that one of the most important advances of 19th century chemistry emerged from a joining of the French and German schools of thought regarding chemical structure. Human knowledge advances most effectively when we come at common problems from different perspectives, when we learn from each others' successes and mistakes, and when we gain the benefit of a different way of approaching a problem. Much of the talk in universities today is of interdisciplinarity; but we benefit as well from intercultural and international perspectives as well. Our problems cannot be confined to our borders and neither will the path to our solutions.

How can we best foster international relationships? Each university must choose the means consistent with its mission and profile, so please forgive me if I draw here on our experience at Rice.

First, in educating our students, we must expose them to the global environment in which they will ultimately find themselves as mature citizens. This means both people and places. At Rice, for example, over 40 percent of our students spend some portion of their educational program in a foreign country. We also bring that experience to Rice by seeking an international student body on our campus. While this is most evident in our graduate programs, we have a significant number of foreign students in our undergraduate student body as well and have set a goal of doubling that number over the next several years. Many of those students will without doubt come from China.

Second, we build relationships across the world with our scholars and researchers, from the humanities to engineering and the sciences. Enabling and fostering such relationships must be at the core of our commitments. Our nanoscientists, for example, have built research relationships with others engaged in nanoscience and biotechnology research across the globe. It is these relationships among our professors that must form the building blocks of deeper institutional relationships which I will mention in a moment. These include important relationships with several leading universities in China, and we hope this summer to visit some of these universities and their leaders to continue the process of broadening and deepening such relationships.

Third, we should identify specific projects that foster common understanding of our respective cultures and draw upon expertise regardless of national boundaries. In the humanities and social sciences, we have launched at Rice the Transnational China Project, or TCP. This project focuses on understanding the changes in Chinese culture and the influence of such culture on the rest of the world as a result of the technologically changing and globalizing environment. TCP scholars participated in conferences and workshops in Shanghai and Hong Kong designed to solidify a cooperative research network with the Center for Contemporary Chinese Cultural Studies at Shanghai University, the Department of Cultural Studies at Lingnan University, the Center for Transcultural Studies in Chicago, and the Department of Comparative Literature at the University of Hong Kong. This network, one of several cooperative ventures directly linked to the TCP, brings together the expertise and resources of scholars at these four universities and research centers with those at Rice University in order to explore the many ways that cultural values, commodities, and cultural forms (including books, films, television programs, advertisements, etc.) circulate not only within Chinese cities but also within Asian cities more broadly.

Fourth, we must establish deeper institutional relationships where there are opportunities for ongoing joint projects. In 1999, for example, we signed a cooperative agreement between the Baker Institute of Rice University and the Chinese Institute for International Studies, establishing the foundation for collaborative research programs on energy and U.S.-Chinese relations which have already yielded substantial results.

Fifth, the building of international collaboration requires more than creating connections across boundaries for students and professors. Those of us engaged in the leadership of such institutions, and those who participate daily in their administration, must also have opportunities for international collaboration and learning. That is why this conference of Chinese leaders of higher education, taking place for the first time on American soil, is so important.

Let me conclude by again thanking the organizers of this conference for giving me the great honor of participating in this event. Rice University was established just a century ago to pursue research and educational missions "with no upper limit". Today, such a mission must mean that we pursue such opportunities across national borders, in cooperation with others who are like minded in their desire to bring understanding and progress to all peoples. As we peer through the haze to discern how our world might unfold in the decades ahead, the relationship between our two great countries will define in very important ways the state of that world. We in the endeavor of higher education have an important role to play, and this conference is a significant and positive step along that path.