International Studies to What End?

address on University Day, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 12 October 2007

What I am suggesting is that this and other universities have in this new century a special opportunity and perhaps responsibility—to help sort out the international tangle that the United States has gotten itself and to reinvigorate the democratic ideal of an educated citizenry engaging in genuine debate over the great issues before us. This is a role that the universities have not chosen; it has come to us through events we could not imagine and through the failure of other institutions that we have to lament.

How might the university make a difference in this alarming situation – a policy morass and a clogged, constricted market place of ideas? The answer may lie in a more boldly conceived, perhaps better funded and coordinated, and certainly (as far as faculty go) better rewarded outreach strategy. Here let me limit myself to identifying off the cuff four ways that the university is particularly well suited to assert itself:

  • as a source of information whether in response to immediate problems in the headlines or in anticipation of problems that the public, political leaders, or the media may be overlooking;
  • as a model and forum for what is for us a familiar process of methodically defining and exploring problems, of offering perspectives based on careful examination of evidence, of subjecting those perspectives to critical scrutiny, and of doing so with an insistence for respectful and reasoned discourse;
  • as a platform for the best judgments that emerge from campus or professional debates or from individual expertise and training; and
  • as a challenger to simplistic or muddied positions taken by media, politicians, and commentators.

Others with more experience in these matters will doubtless have a good deal to say about the feasibility and direction of a more energetic approach. What audiences might we reach? How might we use new technologies to make ourselves better heard and respond more rapidly to issues that erupt into public consciousness? What funding or other support might make us more effective? Can we do more with what we have – through collaboration on this campus across established lines of division or more broadly through cooperation between UNC and other universities?

Let’s be clear about the stakes if this university seeks to become a more audible voice in debate and discussion in American civic life on pressing international issues of our day. Such a shift will unsettle long established academic routines (especially dear to faculty) and displease powerful groups more comfortable with the current, circumscribed “trickle down plus” approach (a prospect to make administrators wince). But precisely because UNC is a place that honors knowledge and reason and open debate and precisely because many of us feel deeply a commitment as educators, as citizens, and as members of a global community, we need to give careful thought to speaking out more forcefully and more often. Let’s also remember, especially on this occasion, that the public voice that we now have and the greater voice that we can at least contemplate is the direct result of our recent achievements in international research and education. May those activities continue to prosper – and may we continue to contemplate the question: international studies to what end?

UNC News Service full transcript and video of address

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