What is a university?

Research Cooperative
05/04/18 10:32:13PM

This question was raised earlier this week, in the April 2, 2018, edition of The Japan Times, in an article by Haruaki Deguchi. The author is the newly appointed president of Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University, one of the most innovative universities in Japan. In its population of 6,000 students, 51.4% are foreign and come from 89 countries, and approximately half the teachers are also foreign. The new president is concerned about "the challenges facing  Japan's universities" (the title of his article), and thinks the universities here need to do much more to nuture creative and independent thinking, not just highly-skilled workers for factories that no longer exist. 

Deguchi finds inspiration in the three founding principles of Al-Azhar University in Cairo, established 1,000 years ago, here repeated as stated by Deguchi:

1. Students can come to the university when they want to study and take only the classes that interest them.

2. Students can graduate at any time if they think they have studied sufficiently.

3. Students can come back to the university whenever they encounter new questions.

If such principles can really be implemented, we might expect universities to have only students with strong self-motivation. But this system might be too free or undirected for students who have potential but need some initial direction to get started and discover their own interests. I like the principles, but they need to be adapted to the realities of human diversity and the organisational limitations of formal teaching systems (which need some day-to-day consistency in order to practically operate).

Deguchi may be placing too much faith in the power of individuals to think independently and make new discoveries alone. Not all graduates and scientists are loner heroes. Most scientists (or company staff) work in the more-or-less connected social world of a research (or company) community and benefit from the sharing of knowledge and ideas. Social interactions and unexpected encounters provide much better possibilities for creative thinking and action in science (and business).

For scientists, this applies to all stages of the research process, including the stage of interpretation and writing.

Some of the best ideas in a paper may only emerge at the last minutes of revision, when working through the comments of a diligent reviewer, before final resubmission to an accepting journal. 

So please look on the peer review process, and suggestions for revision, as an important opportunity for making a paper much better, not as an unfortunate delay in the publishing process.

And let's hope that universities can reduce the pressures to publish in quantity and provide environments conducive to better collaboration, thinking, and communication -- and fewer lost-opportunity papers!