University Design | David J. Staley

Universities as Geostrategic Assets

William C. Kirby, Empire of Ideas: Creating the Modern University from Germany to America to China (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2022).

My inbox fills each week with reports about the demise of higher education in the United States.  These take various forms: the surveys of Americans who feel that higher education is not worth the cost.  The attempts by politicians in a growing number of states to eliminate tenure and otherwise interfere with academic freedom.  Decades of disinvestment in higher education by states.  The adjunctification of the professorate. The culling of knowledge called the “Queen Sacrificing” of programs, named by education futurist Bryan Alexander “after the desperate chess move, when a player gives up the most powerful piece on the board (here tenure-track faculty stand in for the queen) in a bid to win.”   Claims by technology firms that they need not hire people with four-year degrees.  Indeed, there is an entire cottage industry urging young people to eschew college and learn a trade.  Most distressing for me, at least, are the “innovators” who announce all of this with glee: that the Golden Age of the American University is coming to an end…and good riddance, they exclaim. 

It would be an oversimplification to say so, but we might nevertheless venture that the decline of the university in the United States coincides with the rise of the Chinese University. The one is not necessarily caused by the other, and William C. Kirby makes no such causal claim.  But what is beyond dispute is the central thesis of Kirby’s arresting new book:  that “The foremost global political and economic powers of the past three centuries have also been powerful leaders in scholarship and learning.” (3) This means Germany—and their research universities–in the nineteenth century, and the United States in the twentieth century. Indeed, I would argue that there could not have been an “American Century” that did not also include the global leadership of US universities.  Kirby’s book induces us to consider whether the twenty-first century will be the era of the Chinese University.

“American leadership in higher education—as in other areas—is today under great stress, particularly in its public universities but also in the realm of private research universities,” (4) observes Kirby.  That stress, it must be noted, comes from the inside, not from external pressures.  It is self-inflicted. 

“As Germany retools and revives its universities, and as America disinvests, at least from its public institutions, China has shown an unmatched ambition to build more of the best, ‘world class’ universities than anyone else.  To this effort it has mobilized both state and private resources, and it has at hand more of the best human capital—Chinese scholars at home or in the diaspora—than any other university system in the world.  Chinese universities continue to rise in the various rankings tables, and two of them, Tsinghua and Beida, will surely be among the world’s top ten in short order.  For their ascent is a factor both of their own growing excellence and the broader geopolitical rise of China.” (390)

Weakening or dismantling or disinvesting in American higher education is not without geostrategic consequence, no matter how politically satisfying it might be for some.  Kirby is not saying that American or German global leadership was because of their strength in higher education.  Such leadership is a manifestation of global power, and so declining American universities might be a signal of declining American geostrategic power.  “President Xi Jingping aspires to build Chinese universities that are singular and distinctive from their international partners: not China’s Harvard, but China’s Tsinghua, China’s Nanda.  And Chinese universities have been mobilized for a new national goal: China going abroad along the ‘New Silk Road’ (NSR), presumably to provide Chinese models for higher education in Central Asia, Africa, and even Europe.” (390-391)

We are witnessing today a newly-emerging geopolitical reality that will doubtless define the future of the university in the United States—provided there is visionary and courageous leadership to leverage it.  “The global economy is gradually drifting in the direction of what could be called strategic capitalism,” argue two researchers from the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.  “States increasingly intervene in the production and flow of goods, services and data, as well as in the development and diffusion of technologies.”  Threading the needle between a strategy of complete disengagement of the state from economic affairs and a strategy of oppressive regulation, “strategic capitalism” is a return to what four decades ago was called “industrial policy.”  “Whether backed by claims of national security, resilience, economic sovereignty or self-reliance, there has been an uptick in state policies designed to safeguard ‘strategic assets’, ‘critical infrastructures’ or ‘emerging technologies’ from the free interplay of market forces – and ultimately from transferring control over these assets to foreign ‘strategic competitors’ or ‘systemic rivals’ through market mechanisms.”

American universities must be treated as one such critical strategic asset.  At exactly the moment that China is growing theirs into world class status, the United States seems intent on devaluing its universities. 

David J. Staley is a higher education philosopher, strategist, futurist and designer, and is an Honorary Faculty Fellow in Innovation at CHELIP.  He is the author of Alternative Universities: Speculative Design for Innovation in Higher Education and the forthcoming Knowledge Towns: Colleges and Universities as Talent Magnets.

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