PEI Gang: How the University Makes Society More Beautiful




In the course of the development of human society, education is paramount in responding to the threats of globalization. It is often said that top-notch universities produce top-notch students, but if students are unequipped to respond to the challenges of globalization, they cannot be said to be high-quality, top-level talent. With that in mind, how should universities respond to the dangers of a globalized world and accommodate the demands of society and business? In this regard, Chinese universities have a number of things that can be done in order to tread where no one else has gone before.  


In the past, talent honed in universities was recognized mainly in terms of its knowledge and skill sets. But is it possible for universities to offer something more powerful and comprehensive as they deal with the advance of human civilization and the blanket changes brought about by globalization? This is a crucial issue facing universities today. Consider, for instance, the active participation of the student body of Tongji University at the Copenhagen Summit; they organized the trip of their own volition, not the school’s. It is readily apparent that many are profoundly conscious of the need to conserve energy and reduce emissions. At its heart, education ought to increase a student’s sense of social responsibility and cultivate his or her civic awareness. Universities, just like businesses, ought to have a sense of social responsibility.  


The “Green Campus Initiative” is not merely an attempt to cut down on the use of coal, electricity, and energy, but aims rather to cultivate a campus with sustainable development by influencing the very thought and action of students. This movement, then, demands a basic change in the universities as to their basic function, implanting in education, research, and community service the philosophy of sustainable development. It is only by formulating this kind of educational philosophy that we can hope to build a wise campus and an intelligent university.  


What does it mean exactly to have an education of sustainable development? First of all, it involves increasing a student’s breadth of knowledge, emphasizing both the honing of scientific skills as well as the nurturing of humanitarian concern. It is essential that universities cultivate in students a broad knowledge base that covers not only the disciplines of science and technology but also a love and appreciation for humanity. This is necessary if students are to leave campus with understanding and insight into the global changes of today. 


Second, an education of sustainable development means attaching greater importance to a student’s social practice. Autodesk CEO Carl BASS points out that invention is the prerequisite of innovation. But this cannot be achieved fully in the classroom alone; it must be cultivated through practice, including practice in business as well as certain forms of social work.


Third, and most important, an education of sustainable development seeks to raise a student’s sense of social responsibility. It is purported that the worldwide financial crisis was actually caused by a loss of the sense of social responsibility on the part of the financial community. Previously, the financial personnel cultivated in colleges and universities exhibited a remarkable capacity for creativity, but what some of them may have lacked was a sense of civic duty. That the future may bring about a similar financial crisis is not out of the question, particularly as the advance of science and technology confronts humanity with the potential for greater change and greater danger. Moreover, these crises are essentially the product of the students our universities cultivate. We are faced with a serious challenge indeed. It is therefore critical that we instill in our students a sense of social responsibility. 


Fourth, the responsibility taken up by a university must be extended beyond the campus premises to include the society at large, including regional, national, and global development.


Fifth, there must be sustainable development in a university’s community service. This is a distinctive of China and Oriental culture in general. The integration of production, learning, and research requires the cooperation of both the government and consumers; hence some refer to it as the integration of government, production, learning, and research. To make such integration a reality, it is necessary to provide a kind of working link between college and society, and business in particular. But the number one function of college is to cultivate high-level, qualified personnel; otherwise it is no university at all, but only a corporation. A corporation can incessantly strive for novelty, but such is not the case with universities. The university must continue its task of creating knowledge and assuming social responsibility. The campus is a part of society; it is, in fact, a miniature society in its own right. Therefore, we need first and foremost to build a campus as a model of social development. It is of great importance that sustainable development in the university finds its place in every course, every credit, and every classroom.


Finally, I want to say that in order for human society to experience new advance: we must achieve harmony between man and nature as well as man and society; we must create a campus of sustainable development; and we must facilitate a kind of “trinity” of education, research, and social service. By the same token, there must be a kind of “trinitarian” relationship among professors, students, and social practice. As we confront the flood of global challenges, we have to remember that we are all in the same boat; we must therefore be of one heart and one mind and seek, with one accord, to build ourselves a Noah’s ark suited for the present day.


 (Written by an academician of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and president of Tongji University.)


Source: Jiefang Daily October 30, 2012  


Dr. PEI Gang received the Qiu Shi Outstanding Young Scientist Award in 1997.



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