"The Future of the University"

On October 15, 2019, Columbia University President Lee C. Bollinger gave the keynote address "The Future of the University," at a conference hosted by the European Strategy and Policy Analysis System (ESPAS). The conference centered around the latest ESPAS report "Global Trends to 2030: Challenges and Choices for Europe." Bollinger also spoke with Klaus Welle, Secretary-General, European Parliament, and answered questions from the audience.
Below is the text of his speech.

It is a very great honor for me to be invited to speak with you today.  My subject is universities, American universities specifically, and I want in my remarks to comment on three things: First, I want to say something about the nature, or character, of these unusual and very special institutions and about the sources of their success. Second, I want to say something about the criticisms and critiques one hears today about universities. And, third, I will comment on how American universities are changing, in major ways, and will continue to change in the coming decade. At the end, I may add a few comments on how the Trump presidency is affecting our system of universities.

My purpose is to offer a small contribution to the discussion you are having now about the challenges that lie ahead for Europe, as reflected in your, “Global Trends to 2030” report. Specifically, I want to explain how changes that are taking root in American higher education mean that the world I come from should be an increasingly valuable partner and resource, as you pursue the difficult but essential work of thinking seriously and critically about the future.


First, then, let me turn to the nature and success of American universities. In the United States, there are some 60 major research universities.  Most of them are “state” or “public” institutions, rather than “private.” The principal distinction between the two is no longer in their basic character or values, as it once was, but rather primarily in their respective sources of funding. While both “public” and “private” universities have access to large revenue streams from the federal government—mostly having to do with biomedical and scientific research—only “public” universities receive annual financial support from their respective state legislatures. Over the last century, this blended system of major research institutions—both “public” and “private” in official form—along with a myriad of colleges and other non-research universities, has become widely recognized as the premier system of higher education in the world.

These institutions are, indisputably, the primary source of discoveries that have fueled virtually every meaningful advance in modern life and have brought us to where we are today. From groundbreaking medical breakthroughs, to agricultural innovations credited with saving billions of people worldwide from starvation, to the Internet, to artificial intelligence: this and so much more are the result of university-based research.

We need, therefore, to start by recognizing the astounding successes and achievements of the modern system of research universities. At the same time, these successes highlight a striking—and even strange—fact, namely that these institutions are organized in what can only be fairly described as the most bizarre ways. No expert in organizational structure would ever come up with the academic institutions we have developed, nor predict that they would be as successful as they have been and are. Essentially, the idea of a university is to hire quite young, and therefore naturally unproven, people who have succeeded brilliantly in their studies, give them a period of 5 to 7 years to see what they can do in the way of original work, and then, if approved, offer them a lifetime appointment as a professor, with more or less full control over the course of their research and thinking. To a professor the concept of a “boss” is utterly foreign. One might reasonably think that this would be a recipe for mediocrity and laziness, producing precious little advances in the search for truth. But, in fact, it seems to activate a sense of dedication and determination in virtually everyone. The atmosphere of a university is vibrant, purposeful, and constantly creative—generating invaluable results, all of which are easily witnessed in modern daily life and traceable to the labs and libraries that constitute the independent academy.

There are, to be sure, many strongly voiced criticisms of universities, which I raise in part because they have some truth, but mostly to say they are not fully true and they detract our attention from this remarkable story of success. We are said to be inefficient and too costly, leaving students who are not from affluent families with life-disabling debt, at a time of historic inequality.  We hear over and over again about the $1.5 trillion in outstanding liabilities resulting from student loans—coupled with dire predictions that this system will implode in just the way the subprime mortgage market did in 2007-2008. We are described as having our heads in the sand, not seeing the impact of digital technology on producing equally effective but far cheaper education, just as newspaper editors whose former business model is now crumbling beneath them, could not imagine a world in which people would not go to their front porch every morning to pick up their daily newspaper. This new reality, it is said, will inexorably lead to the certain upending of our business model as education—like “news—moves onto the Internet. We are criticized for being too left-leaning politically, too politically correct in our thinking, and too coddling of the new younger generation that seeks “safe spaces” where they will never have to confront an opinion they don’t like. 

These are, of course, serious and complex issues, but here are my very quick responses: Yes, it is true that, over the past decades, tuition has risen considerably more than the Consumer Price Index. Two points: First, before addressing whether the comparison is apt, I must point out that at a private university, such as Columbia, undergraduate financial aid is such that the admissions process is truly “need blind,” and, so, if your family has an income of $60,000 or less, you essentially come for free. Our public universities, however, face a different set of financial constraints, namely the precipitous and deeply regrettable decline that has occurred in the funding provided by state legislatures, something I witnessed firsthand as president of the University of Michigan. For these institutions, who generally do not have the endowments or streams of private donations, that lack of state legislative commitment and support has been the primary driver of the increased expenses they must shoulder, which has translated into higher tuition rates. There is a problem of inequality resulting in differential access to higher education. But we, like all institutions, go out of our way to find students of need. The real problem is the inequality of access to good education at the K-12 level, which bars talent from emerging.

Now, second, on the matter of the university costs and tuition outpacing the CPI, this is an issue that begs the following question: Should we understand rising costs for housing and food (which is basically what is measured by the CPI) in the same way that we evaluate increases in the cost of neuroscience research that may one day cure Alzheimer’s disease, to pick just one example? I believe that it is, indeed, wrong to equate the two. For in a world where the frontiers of knowledge and the number of subjects warranting sustained exploration are rapidly expanding, it would be self-defeating to impose an ordinary inflationary gauge on the resources society devotes to academic research.           

As far as charges of coddling students who are not prepared or willing to embrace the challenges that come with freedom of speech, I have written and spoken about these issues. In essence, I think these critiques are overdone, and out of proportion to and not reflective of reality. It is possible, as always, to cite notorious examples of controversial speakers being protested and disrupted, invitations and honors revoked under pressure, and other instances of closed-mindedness and intolerance. And critics of higher education, often with a larger political agenda of undermining the credibility of our institutions, will never hesitate to do so. But one has to keep everything in perspective and recognize that countless controversial speakers visit our campuses every day, all without incident. And, while it is only my experience, perhaps, I do not believe that classrooms across our universities are being used to advance political ideologies and viewpoints. The Scholarly Temperament, as I call it, just like the Judicial Temperament, in which partisan politics are kept at bay, is as strong today as I have ever seen it. 

Finally, as to the notion that universities will face the same fate at the hands of the Internet as printed newspapers, this is a hard, and dangerous call, but I do not believe there will be a parallel experience here. The personal relationship of teacher and student cannot be replicated on the Internet, nor most important of all, can the culture of open intellectual inquiry be reproduced elsewhere, and the value to students of attending our schools will, in my view, continue to be prized. We will, of course, see.

"The ultimate aim, however, is for the university, as an entity, to take on projects that position the university as an actor taking some responsibility for participating—through academic work and with outside partners—in solving human problems.'” 


Having now made reference to the modern research university’s contributions to society, and also acknowledged several critiques of the current system of higher education as it exists today in the U.S., I would like to turn to where we are headed.

The laudable—and ambitious—project described by your Global Trends report is to gain the foresight needed for successfully guiding the efforts of the European Parliament and the EU’s other governing bodies over the next decade. The report begins with a series of provocative questions: “What are the dynamics we are missing?  Are there ways to think differently about the forecasts we are [quote] ‘certain’ about? .... What different futures can we imagine within the framework of what we know—and do not know?” The report is replete with prompts for readers to “learn more” by examining information contained therein, while also acknowledging that there are many deficits in our knowledge. Throughout its pages, it identifies a series of foundational questions to be answered.

The nature of this project—examining and understanding the large forces defining the next decade—really requires sustained intellectual exploration and credible research. Accordingly, I would assert, the objective established by the report is unlikely to be achieved unless it is paired with a deliberate and intentional effort to enlist the intellectual resources available for, and devoted to, creating new knowledge. These intellectual resources, of course, reside primarily in the academic community’s research universities.

I would also suggest that we would be foolish to ignore ascendant forces in the political arena that actively and sometimes aggressively reject reasoned and evidence-based discourse because it leads to inconvenient truths. These actors resist the very approach to democratic governance you have described—and manifested—in your report. But this is yet another reason to engage the engine of productive knowledge (i.e., research universities) on which society’s foresight is based.

Now, against this backdrop, I want to discuss two related, yet distinct changes that are occurring in American universities. I believe each is relevant to your objectives.

The first concerns how universities are becoming more global in their intellectual orientation and in their physical presence around the world.

And the second has to do with the modern research university’s escalating engagement with practical affairs and public issues and the increasing concern for the impact of scholarly research beyond the academic gates.

These are matters of great significance to Columbia University, which is, I like to believe, assuming the lead on these transformations. But in this discussion I am emphasizing broader trends across American research universities. 

As I said, we are in the midst of a highly complex transformation that involves globalization and the modern research university. But the essential change is that universities are assigning much more significance to the accelerating inter-dependence of nations and peoples in framing the important questions and puzzles to be addressed through scholarly inquiry.

To understand this shift in orientation I need to provide a brief recap of how we arrived here. After the Second World War, and for the next two decades, the broad intellectual framework for universities included developing expertise about the world. But it was done in a very particular way. Regional institutes were established, and we saw a proliferation of courses and scholarly research devoted to international human rights, war and peace studies, and international institutions. Students from across the world were invited to our campuses, and our students studied abroad. This was a very successful transition to a new world order. There were domestic concerns and international concerns.

But, during the 1980s and 90s, the coherence between academic pursuits and world affairs began to break down. Many disciplines and fields—among them political science, economics, literature, law, and so on—became focused upon abstract and theoretical issues detached from practical consequence in the outside world. At the same time, the world itself was undergoing a dramatic transformation, spurred by three historic forces: the opening of markets and trade; a global communications revolution delivered by the Internet; and a profound increase in the movements of people around the globe. This re-ordering of world affairs raised questions and presented new challenges that were captured neither by the prevailing post-World War II academic framework, nor the intellectual fashions of the time. The result was the creation of a university culture out-of-alignment with the world beyond its borders. The expertise on regions and nations of the world was affected by this, sometimes withering and often isolated.

American universities began to wake up to this new reality and the need for more direct engagement about a decade ago, and thus far, three strategies have been deployed in response.

The first has been significantly to increase institutional practices already in place: more international students, more faculty exchanges, and expanded study abroad opportunities for students. The second response has been to establish branch campuses (with separate faculties and student bodies) around the world. Perhaps the most notable example of this has been the Dubai International Academic City—more commonly known as “Education City” in Dubai—which was launched in May 2006 and is home now to more than 12,000 students who study in 13 international institutes of higher education sponsored by many American universities. Other examples are NYU’s branch campuses in Abu Dhabi and Shanghai, and Yale’s in Singapore.

Neither of these approaches—exchange programs and branch campuses—seem to me in the end, however, to come to terms with the underlying issue of the need for bringing our scholarship and education in better alignment with the world as it is. Their purpose is to facilitate being abroad; being abroad and studying the new inter-dependent world are not the same thing, and these strategies end up having too little effect on transforming the intellectual orientation of the home institution, which, as I’ve said, I believe is the heart of the problem of modern intellectual life. 

For this and other reasons, I have favored establishing so-called “global centers” around the world.  Columbia now has nine, with another on the way. These small, flexible, presences allow faculty and students be out in the world, teaching and conducting research while being physically stationed abroad, with the expectation that they will soon return home to inform the thinking on our New York campuses. Other universities are moving in this direction. 

The upshot of all of these efforts, however, and what I can predict for the future, is a greatly increased presence of American research universities across the world. This will be a major transformation. 

That leads to the second change underway, which is a growing willingness on the part of universities more consciously and more explicitly to bring academic research and scholarly capacities to bear on practical problems facing humanity.

At Columbia, two years ago, we established an entity called Columbia World Projects with this specific goal in mind. To understand the significance of this development from the vantage point of a university president, you must consider this tension intrinsic to all major research universities: On the one hand, to do what we are expected to do, universities must remain somewhat removed from the world of everyday affairs. On the other, there must be some degree of alignment between what the world takes as important, and what we, as scholars, take as important. The two ways of being must be simultaneously present for our institutions to succeed.

There are parts of a research university that easily navigate this tension and do so in straightforward fashion because of their particular mission. For example, like most universities, Columbia has an academic medical center that is both a leader in medical and bio-medical research and also a major health center providing the highest level of clinical care to patients.

Yet, no university has assembled and expanded the discrete efforts populating our institutions so that they can be understood as constituting a distinct and central purpose of the university. We must encourage these efforts, give them proper academic recognition, provide them with support and assistance, and, perhaps most importantly, describe them as essential to the university’s larger mission. The ultimate aim, however, is for the university, as an entity, to take on projects that position the university as an actor taking some responsibility for participating—through academic work and with outside partners—in solving human problems.  I call this the Fourth Purpose of the university—in addition to scholarship, teaching, and public service (which is a form of citizen volunteer work).

In our modern world, where nations are frequently overmatched by societal problems extending beyond their borders, and international institutions often struggle to cope with the issues they must confront, it is critically important that other parts of civil society step forward to help by working in partnership to achieve solutions. If this assessment is correct, then what is unfolding at Columbia will continue to expand and will become a trend across major research universities. In my view, this is both a responsibility of our institutions and a much-needed corrective. 

Climate change is, of course, the quintessential global problem, one that is solvable only by collective, global action, and one that accordingly calls on all of us to participate in developing a response. While coming to terms with this reality places an immense strain on our academic institutions, it is also galvanizing, for there is an enormous demand for basic intellectual thinking and research, which we need to supply more of.  So, too, is the need for action, which we should be ready and willing to assist in. Thus, right now, Columbia is taking upon itself this very challenge and considering seriously the creation of the first School of Climate Change in America, which would be closely linked to the spirit of Columbia World Projects.

When you take all of these observations together, the upshot is that we can expect the extraordinarily successful system of the American research university to continue thriving, to become more and more academically focused on very real and practical problems of the modern, global world, and to become more engaged with outside partners in helping to solve those problems. These are trends I believe we should all welcome and applaud.

"These two great achievements in advancing the search for truth were born in dark and troublesome days.  We can do the same."


I feel I cannot end without adding a comment about the phenomenon of the rise of so-called “populist” and “nationalist” politics across the world and in the United States—and the lamentable rise of authoritarian-style leaders—and the consequences thus far for our universities.

The tactics of these movements are familiar to every person here. They typically begin with a call for a particular religious, ethnic, racial or national identity; followed by claims that this identity is under threat; then comes the proposal of dubious public policy solutions and hyperbolic claims of accomplishment; all of this built on the foundation of a relentless disregard for the truth and assertions that the media are deliberately spreading falsehoods, so that followers may believe what they choose. Along the way, opponents are demonized, particularly “foreigners” and immigrants, and the evil and potent political empowerment of private intolerance is effectively deployed.

The manifestations of this dispiriting historical moment are discussed endlessly—even obsessively—around the globe, and certainly here in Brussels. We cannot look the other way or ignore this political and social phenomenon. Clearly, you have confronted this frightening politics in your 2030 report.

What, though, has been the impact on major research universities and higher education in the United States? So far, at least, I think the actual impact, broadly viewed, on the pursuit of knowledge, and on our daily research, scholarship, and teaching, has been minor—at least compared to other “dark moments” in American history—such as the McCarthy period of the 1950s. Federal funding of research has continued to grow; there have been relatively few attempts at overt censorship; and campuses remain vital and vibrant.

Still, there are two areas of concern.

First, there have been significant disruptions in the flow of international students, beginning with the travel ban targeting Muslim-majority countries just weeks after Donald Trump took office and expanding to other countries since, with fewer student visas being offered by the State Department. The impact on many of our students, and their feeling of vulnerability, has been acute. This anxiety was recently exacerbated when the FBI—under the auspices of helping the government thwart the illegal transfer of intellectual property to foreign rivals—asked college and university administrators to develop new protocols for monitoring foreign-born students and visiting scholars, particularly if they are ethnically Chinese. In an op-ed in the Washington Post I publicly challenged these efforts by the federal government as ill-advised and contrary to the spirit of open inquiry that has been the keystone to the great success of discovery of new knowledge.

The second, and more insidious assault on the university is the persistent undermining of respect for truth and facts, and the creation of a culture of hatred and prejudice that now infects the private sphere in America. This systematic, coordinated campaign to erode public trust in our institutions comes at immeasurable cost, especially for journalism and the press, which are always, from my perspective, the first layer of society that feels the brunt of intolerance just before universities do. As journalism goes, so in the end goes the scholar, in my experience.

I would like to close, however, on a note of optimism, which I am able to offer because of the history of my field (i.e., freedom of speech and press and the U.S. Constitution) and my home of Columbia University. I do not believe this is a time for despair. Precisely one hundred years ago, in the United States (and here in Europe) our societies were subject to extraordinary stresses that also put at risk truth and reason, civility and decency, human rights and compassion. And those who believed in Enlightenment values stepped in to repair the breaches. That’s when the U.S. Supreme Court first began its now century-long journey to establish protections for freedom of thought and expression never before seen in the history of the world. And that’s when Columbia University joined many other institutions and individuals in celebrating the best of human nature by doubling down on academic virtues and creating a new, year-long required course called Contemporary Civilization, part of what’s now known as our Core Curriculum—with the objective of applying the learning derived from classic texts to the problems facing society in the aftermath of a cataclysmic war. These two great achievements in advancing the search for truth were born in dark and troublesome days.  We can do the same.

The work you are doing here to think deeply and seriously about overcoming the formidable problems we face, and to build a stronger future, is part of that continuum. Thank you for inviting me to join you in this endeavor.