Envisioning America's Global University

What are American universities doing right?

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Renu Khator is the chancellor of the University of Houston System and president of the University of Houston. She serves on the board of directors for the American Council on Education. 

Several times a year, I have the privilege of receiving an international higher education delegation in my office in Houston. I am also invited to travel abroad to international conferences in such far-flung places as Inner Mongolia or to serve as an adviser to a new foreign university. 

More often than not, they want advice about how to make their higher-education institutions more like those in America. That's understandable. Simply put, our system of higher education is the envy of the world. In this knowledge-based, "flat world" economy, there are few products as highly prized as an education from an American university. 

But what do our international colleagues find so desirable in an American university? 

First, it is the flexibility of student access. 

I am constantly reminded that the American system is open to anyone at any time in one's life, at any pace one likes, and in any field one chooses (provided one has the means and qualifications). Only in America, I am told, is it possible to start your degree in one field at one university and complete it in another field at another university. Only in America is it possible to start as a full-time student, take a break, resume on a part- time basis, then go back full-time again.

At UH last semester, for example, our youngest graduate was 16, with dual undergraduate degrees in math and mechanical engineering. Our oldest was 86, with a master's degree in industrial engineering. 

Second is the understanding that a robust group of talented faculty, when assembled, can do more than teach. It can also engage in research and innovation, not just out of curiosity, but as an expected academic obligation. Consequently, American universities dominate the world in publications, discoveries, and technology transfer—that is, in knowledge creation. 

Last is the belief that universities, private and public, are in the business of knowledge regardless of national boundaries and funding sources. They collect talent from all around the world and educate students from every single nation on earth. It is only the pursuit and dissemination of knowledge that matters. 

These three characteristics have allowed America to (a) serve a large number of students and (b) produce leaders who spur global innovation. For a long time, America has been able to balance both these endeavors. So, it's only logical that other countries facing the dual challenges of providing access and seeking global competitiveness look to American higher education for best practices. 

America, however, must look ahead and move toward a new model. 

It must build a new global university, a university that is as responsible to its immediate community as it is to communities everywhere else. Given the changing demographics of American society, universities cannot afford to ignore millions of Americans who are unable to gain access to college for one reason or another.

In the 20th century, American universities contributed to America's prosperity and America's prosperity, in return, provided American universities with their global credence. However, the future credibility of American universities will depend on America's continued prosperity, not only economically but also socially. We must close gaps, leave no potential students behind, and improve a situation where only a third of our adults have college degrees. 

Secondly, American universities must hold on to their wealth of international talent. The higher-education world is not yet perfectly flat, but it is clearly moving in that direction and picking up speed. Countries such as China and India are committed to building world-class universities. Hong Kong, the United Arab Emirates, Korea, Qatar, and many nations like them want to become world-class destinations for students from their regions.

Are there enough talented professors in the world to fill the need? Right now, America is a repository of global talent, but for how long? Education complexes funded with massive investments are emerging in various parts of the world. Other nations have started to reach out to their diaspora, offering competitive salaries and greater leadership opportunities to reclaim talented people of their heritage.