Honorary Degree Speech
Shanghai Jiaotong University
June 23, 2005
I am deeply honored to receive this degree. I understand that it is only the second you have given in your 110-year history.
This university is one of China’s oldest, with a golden tradition of scholarship — and one of China’s most forward-looking. Your top-ranked engineering and science programming, your ambitious and path-breaking reforms, and your outreach to the world are making Shanghai Jiaotong an education leader in your second century, as you were in your first.
Today, Michigan and Shanghai Jiaotong create China’s first comprehensive university-to-university partnership with degree-granting programs. Our students will cross the Pacific to study everything from life sciences and engineering, to language and culture.
Our researchers will cross boundaries of discipline, as well as nationality, to change our world with potential projects from shaping the industrial innovations of the next generation to discovering drugs that save lives in our generation.
From Michigan’s side, the partnership that we celebrate today has its roots in the visit of another Michigan president to China more than 100 years ago.
In 1880, University of Michigan President James Angell visited China for the first time. Although he had come to China to negotiate on behalf of the U.S. government, he went home convinced that his university and China had something to offer each other — something vital to the future of both.
James Angell opened Michigan’s doors to Chinese students as the world around him changed rapidly and beyond recognition. Telephones and radios, automobiles and steam-powered ships broke down the barriers between nations and people. Through travel and trade, the world was more closely linked than it would be again for two generations.
This new world was unsettling. Americans, fearful of foreigners, closed their borders to immigration. Chinese rose in rebellion against foreign domination.
The bonds between Michigan and China helped educate a generation of young people unafraid to lead in unsettled times. From the 1850s to the 1950s, more students from China attended U-M than any other U.S. university.
Among those students were many names you know: Dr. Wu Ta-You, father of Chinese research physics; Dr. Zhu Guangya, founding president of the Chinese Academy of Engineering; Dr. Samuel Ting, winner of the 1976 Nobel Prize for Physics; and Dr. Wu Yi-Fang, China’s first woman university president.
At the dawn of this new century, we again face a rapidly changing and unsettled world. Technology is sweeping away not just barriers of time and space, but also some of our most basic habits: how we work, how we communicate, how we protect ourselves from danger and disease.
Many people, Americans and Chinese alike, find this new world daunting. At great universities like Michigan and Shanghai Jiaotong, though, we also find this change exhilarating.
It provides us opportunities to be, as James Angell and Michigan’s first Chinese students were 100 years ago, at the forefront of re-shaping our societies to meet new challenges.
Today I want to share with you my vision of what our great public universities must do to thrive in the century ahead. I believe that we have four tasks:
- Create a university culture that draws on expertise across disciplines, collaborates widely, and is driven by the faculty;
- Make our university communities as diverse as the wider world in which we and our graduates must compete, and to which we must contribute;
- Use technology to make information and ideas widely available;
- And lead in meeting the needs of our local communities, which, paradoxically, means that the university must be global.
I will talk about these challenges as they look from Michigan, how we have met some and are working to move forward on others. Every university must meet these challenges in its own way — but every university that aspires to greatness must meet them.
Let me begin with the hardest challenge, changing the way we organize ourselves.
I am a biochemist. I trained expecting to work alone in a lab, or perhaps with a few scientists from the same field. Today, that model of research is as outdated as writing scholarly papers with a brush on ricepaper.
Consider some of the challenges both our societies face: Unlocking the secrets of the human genome. Managing the medical and economic and social consequences of aging populations. Retooling our manufacturing base to compete in a world of automation.
No single academic discipline can unravel these complex challenges alone. Today the challenge for the university is to identify problems, assemble and support teams of brilliant people, and then get out of the way.
We at Michigan are always working to do this better, and we have had some exciting successes.
Our Life Sciences Institute is exploring an entirely new frontier in cellular biology, involving physics, chemistry, engineering and computer science — as well as scuba diving and herbal medicine. The new Center for Chemical Genomics is using robotic lab equipment and computers to sift through tens of thousands of chemical compounds, looking for candidates for future medications.
One unusual source for these compounds is deep-sea life — that’s where the scuba divers come in — and another is plants used in traditional medicines. The Center is hoping to collaborate with Shanghai Jiaotong, to tap not just your excellence in these scientific fields, but also China’s deep and scholarly tradition of herbal medicine.
Some of the most exciting advances in science today are coming in nanotechnology, creating devices so small they are assembled, and operate, at the molecular level of matter. At Michigan, our medical researchers, biologists and engineers have worked together to develop two promising cancer therapies that unleash tiny robots — or nanobots — within human cells. Other researchers have created an environmentally benign disinfectant that works at the molecular level.
We have committed $10 million to bring all our medical and biological nanotechnology research under one roof in a new interdisciplinary Nanotechnology Institute for the Molecular and Biological Sciences. We have created a $5 million fund for cross-disciplinary research in nanomaterials, nanoelectronics and nanobiology. And our nationally ranked business school is helping bring the resulting products to market.
In all these areas, we’re sending a clear message to our faculty: we will give you the time, the funds and the freedom you need to succeed. I believe this approach works best with the style of tenure we have evolved in the U.S. — bring in the strongest young faculty we can find, give them plenty of support and freedom to work, then hold them to the highest standards before offering tenure.
In turn, then, the faculty must take the lead in setting our research agenda, in making fundamental judgments on the direction of the university.
This approach has a long history. More than 50 years ago, a few Michigan professors combined a group of smart people with tools developed during World War II, to create modern social science survey research. Today the organization they founded, the Institute for Social Research, is the world’s largest academic survey and research center. It brings together economists, sociologists, and statisticians. The research they produce cuts across disciplines to shape business and government decision-making in every area of our lives — which is what good research, after all, should do.
Interdisciplinary work demands diversity — bringing together Americans and Chinese, junior and established faculty, sociologists and statisticians and economists. For our scholars and student body alike, diversity isn’t a separate value — it’s an absolute imperative for getting results in a complex world. And intellectual diversity is only the beginning.
Universities need to reflect the ethnic and cultural diversity of the societies in which we operate, as well as the world beyond our own borders.
In the United States, the debate over diversity has crystallized around the issue of affirmative action — the right of American universities to assemble student bodies that are racially, ethnically and culturally diverse. The University of Michigan fought and won a long legal battle to affirm that right, because we know that our diversity, with students from across the U.S. and 125 other countries, is a sign of our strength.
I also believe that we need more women in science and engineering. I don’t believe women do science differently from men, but I do believe they ask different questions. It’s no coincidence, for example, that it wasn’t until women began to be represented in medical research that we discovered how differently heart disease affects the sexes.
Universities also need economic diversity. We can’t afford to become institutions where the wealthy train the wealthy in the service of the wealthy. Public universities have a special responsibility to make opportunity as broadly available as possible. We make opportunity available by charging tuition to students who can afford it, and offering support to those who cannot.
We secure that support by melding public and private financing, asking our broad community of stakeholders to do its part as well:
- The businesses that hire our graduates and license our innovations;
- The local and national governments that depend on our research;
- The cultural and philanthropic organizations that look to us for leadership;
- And the alumni whose successes burnish our reputation, and expect our achievements to burnish theirs.
Although different diversity issues arise in the U.S. and China, the same underlying truths apply: Diversity in our workforce is critical for our future economic vitality. We cannot have diversity in our workforces if we do not have it in our universities.
The job of the public university is to make ideas and innovations as broadly available as possible. Our future depends on how well we use information technology to do that. I have two specific issues in mind: striking the right balance on intellectual property protection, and facilitating the broadest exchange of ideas and information.
When it comes to intellectual property, I am not a copyright absolutist. The university is not a marketplace of goods and services — it is a marketplace of ideas. Our goal is to transfer innovations into the business sector as efficiently as we can.
Having said that, a modern society needs a reasonable regime of protections for its inventors. It is the small-scale, domestic inventors — such as university researchers — who need the protection of intellectual property rights in the new Chinese economy. Those individuals will naturally emerge in universities — but they will not stay there unless they can reap some of the rewards for their work.
No country puts these protections together overnight. In the U.S., we had a debate more than twenty years ago about what kind of intellectual property rights university employees should have. The results of our debate are now bearing fruit.
Last year, for example, Michigan faculty were responsible for 285 inventions and launched 13 start-up companies. We can take credit for FluMist, an alternative to influenza vaccination that can be taken through the nose, and Intralase, laser eye surgery technology that has already become standard in hundreds of operating centers around the U.S.
Putting in place similar protections for China’s own innovators will ensure that China’s universities and people benefit from an invention boom of your own.
Innovators in all fields need the broadest possible exchange of ideas in order to do cutting-edge work. We at Michigan have launched a phenomenal partnership with the search engine Google — whose co-founder Larry Page is a Michigan graduate — to digitize and make available online seven million volumes from our library collection.
Without Google, the process would have taken a thousand years. With Google, we will complete the work in ten years and make information available to anyone with access to the Internet.
Finally, the future of the great public research university is closely attuned to the needs of the place it is located.
Let me highlight three ways that Michigan is working to meet the needs of our community: helping revitalize local industry; putting our best minds to work on issues of national policy; and educating a generation of leaders with international experience and a global outlook.
We take seriously our responsibility to our local economy. If innovation is the key to job creation, then a country’s universities are among its most valuable assets.
Just last month, we inaugurated a $3 million partnership among local universities, businesses, and government aimed at making southeast Michigan a national hub of business creation. We aim to double the number of technology companies — and triple the number of technology jobs — in the next ten years.
Michigan has been the headquarters of the U.S. auto industry for as long as the U.S. has been making cars. Today the auto industry faces significant challenges — it must compete with companies and workers in China, Japan and Europe, but also collaborate with them.
We at Michigan are helping U.S. firms do both — through cutting-edge training, safety research, and a partnership with Chinese research institutions to help Americans understand where China’s auto industry is headed.
The public university also has a vital role to play in informing and leading national policy on key issues. We send some of our best minds to Washington, including, by the way, the senior staff on China policy to Presidents Nixon, Carter and Clinton.
As a university, we weigh in on policy issues. I’ve already mentioned two — intellectual property and affirmative action — where universities played a decisive role.
I want to mention another one which I know is important to this audience — America’s visa policy. The University of Michigan has been at the forefront of efforts to fix the problems with student visas — to make sure that protecting American security doesn’t mean rejecting thousands of qualified and eager foreign students.
We are seeing improvements already: the U.S. Department of State has cut the average time to issue a visa by two-thirds, increased the rate of visas issued, and told U.S. consulates to make student visas a priority. We have just learned that, as of June 20, Chinese students will now receive one-year, multiple-entry visas, instead of six-month, two-entry visas.
Today, because communities depend on global business and research, the future of education must also be global. Right now, 40 percent of Michigan undergraduates have an experience overseas while they are with us. I would like to see that number go higher. Providing international experiences to our future leaders is a key responsibility of public universities.
I believe that our partnership with Shanghai Jiaotong will help us meet that and all of these challenges. I believe it will become a model for how other universities work together across distance, languages, cultures and disciplines — in China and elsewhere.
But most of all, I believe our partnership will open new doors beyond anything we imagine today.
When I trained as a biochemist in the 1960s, I could not have dreamed that I would one day be the second recipient of an honorary degree from a prestigious Chinese university, in one of the fastest-growing, most innovative cities in the world. Those of you who are old enough to remember the 1960s probably could not have imagined a Chinese institution granting an honorary degree to an American woman university president.
This degree is a great honor to me. The partnership we celebrate today is a great honor and opportunity for Michigan.
Let us commit ourselves to collaboration that grows deeper and more fruitful over time, and look forward to seeing unexpected and world-changing results even before another one hundred years — or another forty years — have gone by.