Contributing to society: excellence, trust and the public good

Keynote address to the Times Higher Education World Academic Summit, Tuesday 27 September 2016, University of California, Berkeley

Chancellor Dirks, friends and colleagues—

I’m grateful for the invitation to address you this afternoon.

As Vice-Chancellor I am used to being asked to talk about universities’ roles in incubating innovation, or in fuelling economic growth, or in driving research agendas.

It is much rarer –and most welcome—that we should be gathered to consider the connection between world class universities and the public good.

It is a subject that I feel passionately about, and one that –because it is difficult to measure, or quantify— is too often overlooked.

My interest in the subject stems partly from my clinical background, and in particular my formative experiences of clinical practice in West Africa.

These days, I am chair of the Advisory Committee for the UK’s Department for International Development.

I also chair a small Foundation that seeks to develop and deliver drugs for neglected diseases to patients around the world who are unable to afford the full cost.

So I am very clear that when I talk about contributing to the public good I mean it in the widest possible sense.

We’ve heard earlier today about the role of universities in reversing widening inequality.

There has been some discussion about the social value of universities, and about whether investment in higher education should be seen as a form of investment in the public good.

I may pick up on some of these strands as I go along, but I’d also like to take a slightly different angle.

I’d like to argue that there are two pre-requisites in order for institutions like the University of Cambridge to fulfil their obligation to contribute to the public good: public trust, and autonomy.

Defining the public good

We ought to begin by asking what we mean by the public good— and how we serve it.

I refer to our University’s mission statement, which is simply this:

“To contribute to society through the pursuit of education, learning and research at the highest international levels of excellence.”

But when talking about “contributing to society”, what society –or indeed societies— do we serve.

On the most immediate level, of course, our first commitment is to our local communities.

Universities create jobs and support livelihoods far beyond their own walls.

Today the University of Cambridge is at the centre of a cluster of over 4,300 businesses employing 58,000 people.

Our capital investment projects, such as our North West Cambridge campus, do not only address the University’s need for expansion, but also address some of the region’s urgent housing and transport needs.

The North West Cambridge development includes the opening of a primary school –the first in the UK to be managed by a university.

So we are deeply embedded in –and committed to—serving our local community.

But naturally we serve our societies at the national level, too.

All of us here are standard-bearers –and indeed standard-setters—for the higher education sectors in our countries.

This privileged position creates obligations.

We are all familiar with the words: “From those who have been entrusted with much, much more will be demanded.”

Within our respective countries we have been entrusted with a lot, and so we are expected to do even more:

We are relied upon to deliver the discoveries that will fuel our countries’ development.

We are asked to nurture the academic, professional, business and civic leadership that our countries require.

We are called on to instil the attitudes that will transform our countries in the decades ahead –very possibly in ways that we cannot even begin to imagine at present.

Contributing to society at the national level means engaging with national conversations that have repercussions beyond the labs and the lecture halls.

For instance: As the demand for access to higher education grows in all our countries, how do we balance the need to widen participation with the need to ensure that academic attainment remains the basis for admission?

How do we weigh the imperative to defend freedom of expression and freedom of enquiry within our institutions against the duty to protect our staff and our students from views that can be considered offensive, or even harmful?

Our institutions’ response to these and other predicaments will set the standard for how our societies respond to them.

So yes, we serve our societies at the local and the national level.

But we also serve society in a much more comprehensive –indeed in a global— sense.

And it is this particular aspect that I will dwell on.

As I constantly remind my colleagues, there are currently 1.2b people around the world living in extreme poverty –with all the pernicious effects this has on health, education and nutrition.

That’s close to 15% of the total population.

Some 4b are still living on under $9 a day.

1b children worldwide are living in poverty.

805 million people worldwide do not have enough food to eat.

More than 750 million people lack adequate access to clean drinking water.

These are only the most obvious among the many challenges we face.

And as recent events have shown, no institution, no country, no matter how seemingly isolated, is immune to the impact of humanitarian tragedies occurring somewhere else on the planet.

The society we serve is no longer limited to our community in the fens, or even to the country we’re in.

Whether it is understanding the molecular basis of neurodegenerative diseases, or helping farmers in India increase their yield, or discovering better ways to live in large cities –I know that what we do in Cambridge affects lives, and livelihoods, the world over.

The men and women we educate at Cambridge, hailing from over 120 countries around the world, are likely to become leaders of government, of civil society, of academia and of industry in their countries of origin.

This is what I mean by contributing to society.

It is in this broadest sense that I understand serving the public good.

Public Trust

There is an unwritten but widely accepted contract between society and higher education institutions.

We are given license to operate, and the space to educate and generate knowledge, because we deliver excellence.

And the public trust placed in us is directly linked to an understanding that our pursuit of excellence in education, learning and research is for the benefit of society.

We gain public trust by reaffirming that society’s goals are also our own.

We gain public trust by widening access and enhancing levels of participation.

We gain public trust by being open about what we do, and about how we do it.

There is another way in which we gain that public trust:

Universities –and research intensive universities in particular—are perhaps the only modern institutions with the means and the legitimacy to bridge the gaps between disciplines, between different sectors of society, and between different cultures.

This legitimacy gives us a convening power unlike anyone else’s.

No institutions are better placed than ours to bring together policymakers, non-governmental and international organisations, businesses and the knowledge community to thrash out solutions to the challenges ahead.

This legitimacy allows us to lead in efforts to improve lives not just at our doorstep, but wherever in the world that improvement is needed.

Here we are, a stone’s throw away from Silicon Valley.

Now imagine (this is hypothetical) the CEO of an influential social media company announcing that she wishes to invest significant amounts of her capital into curing all diseases.

Do people immediately think she is a great philanthropist, or do they wonder: what’s in it for her?

I am not throwing shades on anyone’s philanthropic aspirations, but simply reflecting on where public trust tends to gravitate towards.

Which is why philanthropists have so often decided to partner with universities, just like Facebook has very recently –and very generously—done with Berkeley and Stanford.

The public trust us, the universities, because we are not subjected to the short-term goals of policymakers—who have to deliver to their constituents— or the even shorter-term goals of industries –which have to deliver to their shareholders.

I think of my own discipline of vaccine development, where the process of translating research from a lab bench to actual therapeutic use can take, on average, as long as 17 years.

In the world of policy, or in the world of business, this is far too long.

But universities are able to buck the trend of short-term gain over long-term planning.

I would go as far as saying that they are among the very few places where this long-term planning for future challenges still happens.

There is a caveat to this.

Like our reputations, this public trust is hard won, and easily lost.

One of the biggest risks to our legitimacy as honest brokers is the public feeling that universities’ goals and our societies’ goals are no longer shared.

A particular worry for me ahead of the UK’s June referendum was the rhetoric surrounding evidence-based arguments, famously summarised in the phrase “Britain has had enough of experts”.

If that is really so –and it would be a mistake to underestimate the strength of feeling, or the sense of grievance felt by many— then we –universities—need to make a better case for our role as institutions that contribute to the public good.

If society does not believe that we have its interests at heart, we need to do a better job at engaging with it and communicating the impact of our work.

It is in our gift to cultivate that public trust –and it is in our hands not to squander it.


So I’ve said –and I hope you’ll agree—that Universities can only contribute to the public good if they have the full trust of the public they serve.

But there is another variable in the equation –autonomy.

Institutional autonomy is essential for universities to effectively discharge their duties.

Not only does it help to protect our ability to deliver the excellence we should always aspire to, but it safeguards the most fundamental tenet of higher education: academic freedom of enquiry.

Naturally, we expect autonomy to be grounded in a proper recognition of the skills and qualifications of teachers and researchers.

And I do not resist the notion of being properly monitored by relevant independent bodies to determine the quality of our output.

But as head of a world-leading global university I would be concerned by attempts to direct, or determine by committee, what and how universities should be doing.

There is an academic argument for this:

We must fiercely defend the right to carve out a space for intellectual enquiry that will not be obviously or immediately impactful –because we know that the benefit to society may come many years down the line.

Universities need the autonomy and flexibility to make decisions for themselves.

The truth is that we never know how today’s “blue skies” research will turn into tomorrow’s innovation.

But there is another argument, which ties into my earlier remarks:

The public trust that allows us to do what we do is intrinsically linked to public perceptions that we are able to function with autonomy.

If our institutional autonomy is eroded, so is public trust in what we do.

Society –rightly— loses trust in institutions that are dictated to.

And losing society’s trust leads to a further erosion of our ability to deliver excellence in research, learning and education.

Global universities and their global responsibilities

I have made the case that autonomy and public trust are inextricably linked, and that they are both essential to our ability to contribute to the public good.

But I hear a question being raised:

Does the pursuit of the global public good stand in the way of our need for autonomy?

I often turn that question around and challenge my Cambridge colleagues by asking:

Should we not be prepared to give up some of that autonomy to work with partners –and I think here, in particular, about partners in the developing world—to tackle some of the monumental global challenges ahead?

If we are not prepared to give up some of that autonomy, do we not risk failing the public good?

Yes, autonomy is a prerequisite for excellence, but autonomy does not mean isolation.

I have often argued that, at a time of ever more complex problems, we can only deliver excellence in partnerships with others –with other universities, with donors, with governments, with industry, with NGOs.

From mitigating the effects of antimicrobial resistance, to improving crop yields or ensuring energy security, the challenges we face are global –and so must be the solutions.

The threats posed by infectious disease don’t stop at international borders.

Climate change affects us all, whether we are based in Cambridgeshire or California.

So collaboration between research-performing institutions is no longer optional.

Nor is it simply an added extra to our institutions’ daily work.

No matter how good it is, no matter how well established, an individual research-performing organisation cannot attain excellence on its own.

World-class institutions must harness the power of those strategic partnerships.

As resources diminish, and as challenges increase in complexity and scale, this becomes an imperative.

The lone researcher –even the lone institution— is no longer a viable model for the delivery of world-leading science.

The good news is that we have more tools at our disposal than ever before to facilitate these interactions.

The University of Cambridge has recently entered into an agreement with industry and academic partners in India to help enhance the productivity of India’s corn crops.

We work intensively with partners in Ghana and Uganda to build research capacity across the African continent, with the support of the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

We are partners with the University of California, and with the National University of Singapore, in coordinated research projects on smart systems, precision medicine and cities.

We expect this ambitious joint research initiative to help us develop a systems approach to problems such as air pollution, from Mexico City to Mumbai.

Ladies and gentlemen—

In fulfilling our ambition to serve society, we rely on our continued (and indeed enhanced) collaboration with our partners.

Far from forcing us to relinquish our autonomy, these collaborations help us to underscore it, because they reiterate that our purpose is to contribute to society.

Global collaboration is the embodiment of our commitment to the public good.

And by helping us cultivate and maintain the public trust, global collaboration is the only way to ensure we attain and continue to deliver excellence.