"The Social Impact of the University," Remarks by Jonathan Fanton as Part of the Danforth Lecture Series at Washington University
April 5, 2007 | Speech

I am honored to be part of the Danforth Lecture Series on “A Higher Sense of Purpose.”  I have watched with admiration as Washington University has grown rapidly in quality and distinction to rank among the world’s leading research universities.  And, while many have contributed to this remarkable rise, the 24 years of courageous, imaginative, purposeful leadership of Chancellor William Danforth stand out.  He, the Danforth family, and their Foundation have helped make Washington University a beacon of excellence, reminding the world that America’s first-rate universities do not cluster on the coasts. 

Chancellor Wrighton asked me to speak on “The Social Impact of the University,” a topic of great interest to me, given my time at Yale, the University of Chicago and, for seventeen years, President of the New School for Social Research.

I have learned even more about this topic at the MacArthur Foundation, which supports universities in most of the 60 countries where it works around the world.  We turn to universities for help with our programs in population, conservation, disarmament, migration, housing, juvenile justice, education, and more.  Indeed, 25% of all our giving has been devoted to universities, about a billion dollars to date.

My plan this afternoon is to suggest a framework for understanding the social impact of universities using examples drawn from MacArthur’s experience.  In the question period, I look forward to elaborating on MacArthur’s work.

But first let us reflect on core characteristics of universities:

  • Universities illuminate and preserve culture and tradition, respecting differences and seeking common values and purpose;
  • Universities train young people for a life of responsible citizenship, and provide a society with skilled leadership in business, government, social services, the arts, and more;
  • Universities offer enormous freedom for exploration and inquiry, honoring evidence over ideology, stimulating debate, and respecting dissent;
  • Universities encourage risk-taking in research, recognizing that important new social paradigms and scientific discoveries may take years to win approval and find practical application;
  • Universities attract faculty and students on the merits, from diverse backgrounds with diverse interests, creating an environment where people and ideas can mix across disciplinary, geographical, racial, and ethnic boundaries.

I could go on, but these are sufficient to give us a point of departure.  Notice I did not put today’s topic, “social impact,” on my list of core characteristics.

Virtually everything a university does has social impact:  research that saves lives or stimulates the economy, exploration of trends that will shape our future, training that produces skilled leadership, providing safe haven for discussion of contentious issues, opening opportunity to all on the basis of merit, and tending to its immediate neighborhood.

None of these is new to you, but when taken together they paint a powerful portrait of universities in the service of humankind’s best values and highest aspirations.

Before exploring each element in turn, let me ask a question: Can you think of any healthy, stable democracy that is not nourished by strong and independent universities?  Or the reverse:  Can you think of any authoritarian regime that tolerates academic freedom and independent universities?  There is an extricable link between long-term democracies and strong universities, so too with sustained economic growth.

That is why MacArthur is investing heavily in universities in Russia and Nigeria, two critical countries in transition. In Russia, our centers of excellence in the sciences aim to stem the brain drain; parallel centers in the social sciences are tackling pressing issues like changing demographics and the role of women; and a network of independent think-tanks is offering advice on macro-economic policy, ethnic tensions, and the rule of law.

Transition to democracy in Russia is a long-term proposition with setbacks along the way.  But as you read the negative headlines, probe beneath, ask about the state of higher education, and you will see a brighter picture with hope for the future.

Now for the elements of our framework, six in number:

(1) The social impact of medical research at universities is easy to document.  At Washington University alone, the achievements include pioneering the use of insulin—rescuing diabetics from prolonged suffering and certain death; a cure for early Hepatitis B infections; the world’s first nerve transplant; advances in the use of cochlear implants to restore hearing to the profoundly deaf; and the development of new drugs to attack malaria, one of the world’s deadliest diseases.

And from MacArthur’s experience in Russia:  We see practical discoveries that can be put to use in the economy — from transgenic disease-resistant potatoes and tomatoes at St. Petersburg State, to “shape memory” alloys for coronary stents at Urals State, to nanostructured ceramics for the aerospace industry at Tomsk State.

Examples abound of university scientific research that has prolonged life, improved living conditions, and stimulated economies.

Russia aside, MacArthur’s own experience is mainly in the social sciences.  Twenty-five years ago, we pioneered the idea of an interdisciplinary research network drawing faculty together from many universities to tackle complex problems.  Thirty networks have explored challenging issues like Successful Aging, Adolescent Development and Juvenile Justice, and Economic Inequality and Social Interactions.  Their findings have changed paradigms and public attitudes, leading to important policy shifts.

Some headlines:  When the MacArthur Network on Aging began, in 1984, we thought of old age as a period of irreversible decline.  Our network, with scholars from Duke, Harvard, John Hopkins, and elsewhere, looked through a different lens for examples of successful aging.  They observed more than a thousand high-functioning older people over eight years, conducted extensive studies on the role of heredity, and looked at the process of aging in the brain.  Their first article in Science sparked a revolution in how we think about aging, showing it can be a productive period and that exercise and diet can prolong disability-free life expectancy.  Policy changes followed, for example in pension plan formulas to encourage working longer.

Take a more recent example:  MacArthur was concerned when the American justice system turned to harsh punishments for juveniles in the 1980’s:  adult time for adult crime was the slogan.

We wondered if a case could be made that young people treated in a juvenile justice system with redemptive options could be rehabilitated.  A lot hinged on showing the difference between adult and youthful offenders.  So, we created a network of scholars from 17 universities, including Temple, UCLA, Georgetown, and Columbia, focused on the themes of adolescent competence, culpability, and capacity for change.  Studies in neuroscience showed that, in adolescents, the parts of the brain that govern decision-making and long-term planning were physically immature.  Even when young people perceived that a situation was risky or morally wrong, they often made unpredictable choices.  The Network’s Juvenile Adjudicative Competence Study involved more than 1,400 young people and adults at four different sites, finding that, on measures linked to competence, most adolescents under fifteen were poorly prepared for trial.  They could not assess the risks of their decisions, were overly influenced by police and prosecutors, and chose poor legal strategies.

The Network’s research persuaded policy-makers, social workers, and judges that immaturity was a powerful mitigating factor in crime and anti-social behavior.  When the Supreme Court outlawed the death penalty for juvenile offenders in 2005, Justice Kennedy noted that adolescents are inherently less culpable than adults, by virtue of their immaturity.  His opinion was based squarely on our Network’s findings. 

We also saw, as a practical matter, that jailing young people with adults is counterproductive, expensive, and more likely to increase recidivism.  Adolescents processed in adult rather than juvenile court for felonies are twice as likely to be rearrested for a violent offence within six years, and more than 80 percent go on to commit serious crimes as adults.  Each inmate costs $160,000 per year.  Rehabilitation, using clinically tested treatment programs, was shown to cut recidivism by 38 percent, at one tenth of the cost of jail.

Armed with this evidence, a new MacArthur initiative is moving the Network’s research findings into practice.  We are working in a dozen states ready to establish Juvenile Justice Systems with alternatives to incarceration and good mental health treatment.

A final example:  our Network on Economic Inequality and Social Interactions seeks to understand how class divisions and low status are internalized and perpetuated.  At Stanford, Tufts, Carnegie Mellon, the University of Iowa, and elsewhere, its members have developed new ways of thinking about inequality — how one’s membership in a group, and identification with its ethos, influences a person’s opportunity to escape poverty.  Researchers developed a statistical method to identify places where social poverty was profound and compared them to others in which there was more interaction between classes.  They studied schoolchildren in Texas, inner-city dwellers in Philadelphia, and college students in Michigan.  In each case, they found that the social environment of poverty had a deeply negative effect.  When people mixed with others of higher economic status, their chances for success improved.

The Network’s findings have provided a valuable counter-weight to economic theory that centers on individual achievement, and have important implications for policy-making.  If we are serious about breaking the cycle of poverty, we must unravel the social structures that create and perpetuate it. 

That insight animated Chicago’s commitment to tear down all of its high-rise public housing ghettos of isolation and replace them with mixed-income communities of opportunity.  The research on the negative consequences of concentrated poverty is powerful.  Still to be established are the actual benefits of mixed-income housing and communities.  We are now supporting that research.

A reappraisal of the aging process, a more rational approach to juvenile justice, a dramatic shift in housing policy – just three examples that research flowing from university faculty can have social impact.

These examples address society’s needs here and now:  But what about the future?  Universities also help us (2) comprehend patterns, trends, technology, that will have huge implications – good and bad – out ahead.

Let me give you an example.  MacArthur is interested in understanding how young people’s use of digital media is changing the way they acquire content, develop analytical skills, make judgments, and relate to others.

Consider these data points: 

• On a typical day, more than half of U.S. teenagers use a computer;
• 87 percent of young people between the ages of 12 and 17 are on-line;
• 83 percent of young people play video games regularly;
• 72 percent use instant messaging. 

Technology has profound implications for families, institutions, even our democracy.

So MacArthur is undertaking an initiative to understand what is going on.  Naturally, we turned to universities as we seek to create a field we call Digital Media and Learning.  Here is a sample of work underway.

At the University of Southern California, we are supporting an ethnographic study of how young people use digital media in their everyday lives.  This study will enable us, for the first time, to understand what young people are actually doing with games, cell phones, instant messaging, and other tools, and to what effect. 

Even before the results are in, we know that there are new skills required to help kids maximize the upside, and minimize the downside, of new technology.  Call it a new conception of literacy, one that honors the visual and expression through creations made by drawing on the work of others.  We have funded a group of faculty at MIT to define the new media literacy and to develop a curriculum to teach it.  This curriculum will take seriously the dilemmas of online activity, seeking to help young people make good judgments about the credibility of information, the safety of public participation, and the ethics of interacting online.  A team at Wisconsin is working on an application called "Game Designer."  It promotes media literacy through digital creations, including the making of games, and will help students learn about ethical judgment, aesthetic design, systemic thinking, and collaborative problem-solving.  

We are also supporting a new digital media after-school program run by the University of Chicago, which works with low-income urban youth in digital storytelling, robotics, and game design.  As young people gain confidence and enthusiasm, they are taking their creations into the classroom, sharing their insights with their teachers, and moving the collaborative digital learning environment into the school day. 

This all may sound wide of the mark when it comes to improving our schools.  But I don’t think so.  MacArthur and other foundations have tried hard over the years to improve schools – without much success.  We are now placing a bet that digital media will do what earnest school reform has been unable to accomplish: change an institution, the public school that has been remarkably resistant.  And maybe just in time: an argument can be made that “No Child Left Behind” and high-stakes testing run counter to the skills required in a 21st century global economy.  Digital learning, by contrast, is tailored to an individual’s modes and levels of learning, teaches skills that cross disciplines, and encourages co-operation—all features of the emerging workplace.

Let me move next to (3) Training.  I think we all believe that higher education produces a better informed citizenry, able to exercise its democratic rights more responsibly. 

But universities are also the source of highly trained professionals who craft economic and social policy, who lead NGO’s implementing conservation projects on the ground, and who provide health services to poor rural communities.

In Africa, for example, there is a crying need for indigenous talent able to craft macroeconomic policy suitable for developing countries.  Western scholars and World Bank analysts can help, but ultimately a deep understanding of local politics and culture is essential.  So MacArthur helped found the African Economics Research Consortium.  AERC is widely recognized as one of Africa’s most respected research and training network, instrumental in building the field of economics across Africa.  Working with 27 African universities in 23 countries, AERC programs have graduated more than 1,200 students with Master’s degrees.  AERC alumni have quickly found their way into top policy positions, like governors of the central banks of Nigeria, Kenya, and Uganda and the Minister of Finance in Côte d’Ivoire.

Let me offer another example, this time from the field of conservation.  MacArthur works in eight biodiversity hotspots in the developing world to preserve large land and seascapes.  Hotspots are defined by rich biodiversity under immediate threat.  Creating a national conservation plan based on sound science, designating protected areas, and managing the parks well are all part of the program.  And while international groups like WWF and Conservation International are instrumental in getting started, the ultimate success depends on well trained local experts who follow through.  At the University of the South Pacific in Fiji, the University of Antananarivo in Madagascar, and the National University of the Peruvian Amazon, MacArthur programs are training conservation scientists, park managers, and lawyers ready to fashion and defend environmental protection laws.

Such professionals also have an intimate knowledge of local culture, custom, and the sensitivity of indigenous peoples who often feel threatened by the creation of national parks and restricted areas.

And we can see demonstrable progress.  Graduates of the University of the South Pacific have helped train 1,800 local Fijians who have developed a management plan for all of Fiji’s marine areas.  There are signs that marine life is reviving in numbers and diversity.

These are just two examples of social impact.  I could have talked about Tsinghua University in China training barefoot lawyers for the country side or how Ibadan University Hospital in Nigeria is teaching midwives to save mothers from dying of post-partum hemorrhage with a simple anti-shock garment, the “Life Wrap.” 

(4) Universities are also safe havens for exploration and debate of society’s toughest and often most divisive issues.  They also provide a safe space for students to become active in public affairs.  While our national political debate grows increasingly shrill and rancorous, universities set the standard for civil, reasoned, and open exchange.  Missouri’s Stem Cell Research and Cures Initiative made national headlines in the last election cycle, as voters decided whether to amend the State constitution.  I need hardly remind you of the associated media storm that saw activists of all stripes subject the public to a blizzard of competing sound-bites.  This kind of process may be an inevitable feature of modern democracy in the entertainment age, but it is no way for a mature society to make important ethical and scientific decisions.

It was notable that voices from universities, people such as Dr. Steven Teitelbaum of your Department of Pathology, worked steadily against this trend of sloganeering and oversimplification.  Dr. Teitelbaum’s lecture series presented honest, accurate assessments of what science now knows about stem cells, giving voters sound information on which to base their choices, whatever their philosophical or ethical opinions. 

It is this kind of balanced, nuanced discourse that our society so badly needs.  Universities are well equipped to bring together experts in many fields, scientists and humanists alike, to air issues of great importance, to reach consensus where possible, and to narrow the grounds of our disagreements where it is not. 

This is evident also in the international arena, where university faculty can play a constructive role in narrowing disagreements.   When two nations are at odds, official negotiations can be confrontational and fruitless.  So-called “Track II Talks” provide an alternative route: Experts, academics, and former government officials meet unofficially to discuss problems and exchange ideas.  Sometimes, they find new ways forward.  MacArthur supports groups like Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation which is now engaged on the nuclear issue with North Korea. 

We have been talking a lot about the university as an institution, about the faculty, and about the good work alumni do in the world.  But current students also have a role to play in enhancing the social impact of universities.  Universities provide a protected environment for students to challenge inherited orthodoxies.  Political unions that invite controversial speakers; rallies that oppose unpopular wars or call us to account for falling short of our best intentions; and student chapters of the ACLU, Amnesty International, or EcoWatch; are part of a mosaic that brings fresh eyes to enduring problems.

(5) Universities have a role to play in opening opportunity to people who have been disadvantaged by life’s circumstances.  And in so doing, they contribute to building a more cohesive society that also reflects our basic principles of fairness, non-discrimination, and opportunity.  We all know that higher education is a pre-requisite to leadership in most walks of life, and that attending a first-rate university gives a competitive edge.  The steady investment in opening opportunities to people of color at our best universities is beginning to show results with a more diverse complexion of America’s leadership – who knows, maybe an African-American President is soon to be in our future.

We have made tremendous progress in opening the best universities to talent irrespective of economic circumstance and in building a more diverse student body.  According to the American Council on Education’s 2006 Minorities in Higher Education Annual Status Report, minority enrollment in the nation’s colleges and universities rose 50.7 percent to 4.7 million students between 1993 and 2003.  But disparities of opportunity remain as African-Americans and Hispanics do not go on to four year colleges at the rate of whites.  And, while 10 percent of the U.S. population hold advanced degrees, only 5.5 percent of African-Americans do.  So, we may need another concentrated effort to open pathways for people of color to our best universities, especially at the graduate level. 

I think back to my days at Yale, in that period when Kingman Brewster made it a priority to search the country for talent and to offer special programs to overcome the hardships of family background or poor schools.  At the high point of that initiative, Yale had nearly 1,000 students on campus in such programs – ranging from a student tutoring program for New Haven kids starting in grade 6, a National Upward Bound Program, to a post-high school transitional year, and a three-year Intensive Summer School program to prepare students of color for graduate school in the arts and sciences. 

(6) Finally, I come to the university as a local institutional citizen.  The cases I know best are Yale, Chicago, and The New School.  I have been educating myself about Washington University.  I had a good meeting with your Committee for Urban and Community Programs today and learned a lot about the strong record of outreach to the larger community.

In the late seventies, the New School was threatened by a deteriorating neighborhood along 14th Street and around Union Square Park, then known as Needle Park.  With a strong quotient of self-preservation, the New School joined with the other employers in the area to form The Union Square 14th Street Partnership.  Collectively we had the ability to get things done – small projects like cleaning up the park, middle-sized initiatives like adopting the local high school, and big ventures like changing the zoning to attract market rate housing with retail on the ground floors.  But we also had a vision of a community that honored its past – local stores and affordable housing, for example. 

Today Union Square is a vibrant neighborhood, but one with a character and a conscience as a new building for the formerly homeless shares the same block with a new NYU dormitory.

MacArthur is pleased to work with the University of Chicago and IIT in a Partnership for New Communities, a civic group assisting in the transformation of Chicago’s high rise public housing into new mixed-income communities.  Each has pledged jobs for local residents, has helped attract retail activity, and offered security and social services in its neighborhood.  Through the Center for Urban School Improvement, the University of Chicago has provided leadership for improving 20 area public and charter schools.

And here, your university, already so entwined with the work and aspirations of its city, is making renewed efforts to strengthen St. Louis through community engagement, especially in the Forest Park, Southwest and University City neighborhoods.  You already boast an impressive range of initiatives: I think of the Stroke Caregiver Support Program, the impact of your Medical Center Redevelopment Corporation, the Interdisciplinary Clinic for Children and Youth, Science Outreach, and the Skandalaris Center’s promotion of social entrepreneurship, among many.  I was impressed to learn of the large number of students who volunteer in the community (about 57% of under-graduates), tutoring in Juvenile Detention Centers; working for the Pro Bono Alliance, and Project Good Days, for those with serious and chronic illnesses. 

These local social investments make great sense:  they give the university a more attractive neighborhood and city, they offer community service opportunities for staff and students, and they express the university’s highest values of compassion, fairness, and opportunity.

Now for a closing thought.  As I hope you can tell, I feel passionately about the importance of universities to American society and, indeed, in all 60 countries where MacArthur works.

We all share a responsibility to protect the integrity and reputation of the university and to make its good works known.  In a world where citizens have less trust these days in their political leaders, in business, and in some advocacy groups, universities remain the beacon of hope and integrity that give us optimism about the future.

The university is one of our most valuable institutions.  Any nation that aspires to compete in a globalized world, to perpetuate a system of genuine participatory democracy, and to further the well-being and high ambitions of its people, will have great, and growing, universities.  I hope and expect that America’s higher education sector will continue to be the envy of the world, and that Washington University will be among our brightest stars.

Stay Informed
Sign up for periodic news updates and event invitations. Check out our social media content in one place, or connect with us on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and LinkedIn.