Thursday, August 6, 2009

The World is Still Round

It’s another 747, this time headed for Atlanta. I still possess a sense of wonder that one can cross the Pacific and then North America in approximately 13 hours, in part because our world is spherical, and not a rectangle as once imagined. International travel and international collaborations have never been easier. This is, as many have commented upon, both a challenge and an opportunity. I think the University of Rhode Island is uniquely positioned to benefit from and contribute to our increasingly globalized society.

At the 14th International Meeting on Biological Inorganic Chemistry in Nagoya, Japan, I could not help but be impressed by the international scope of scientific inquiry and the frequency of international collaboration. Very few speakers, regardless of their origin, did not acknowledge the importance of the contributions from collaborators from countries other than their own. Twenty, perhaps even ten years ago, this would not have been the case. The research I presented at the meeting would not have been possible without the participation of scientists from Japan, and was initiated by very productive collaborations with colleagues in Germany and England. While at the meeting I hosted a small dinner with students and colleagues from three continents and four nations (see photo) – all of whom are contributing to the success and productivity of research in biological inorganic chemistry. Many faculty members at URI are similarly connected, and not just in the sciences. Our students can pursue their studies across the globe and we can bring students and scholars from around the world to Rhode Island.

In many ways the world is already present in our state: Rhode Island is now, and has been for many years, a destination of choice for immigrants. I think this represents an important continuing opportunity for URI and Rhode Island. Events like the international meetings I just attended remind me that talent, inspiration, ambition, and the commitment to improve the quality of our lives are not restricted by geography, ethnicity, culture, or religion. We can both benefit from and contribute to local and global efforts to meet the challenges that are currently so evident. I think we need to continue the critical examination and enhancement of our academic programs and curricula, our research efforts, and our outreach to engage the big issues – not just in science and technology but also in building more inclusive, more understanding, and more humane societies.

The official language of both international meetings I attended in Japan was English. This is now the norm for such international gatherings, seemingly regardless of discipline or subject. But the informal discussions, the heart of meetings such as this, took place in probably at least a dozen languages. I believe it will be an enormous advantage for our students, our graduates, to be able to engage in such conversations in languages other than English. Language is an irreplaceable window into the culture and history of a country. The ability to communicate in more than one language is, I think, critical in a world that is both flat, in terms of opportunity, and round in terms of its connectivity. We already see this advantage in the International Engineering Program at URI, as well as the International Business Program and our dual degrees in Pharmacy and French, and Textiles and French. It is worth considering whether we should endeavor to create such advantages, and the accompanying opportunities, for students in additional disciplines.

What else might this mean for the University of Rhode Island? I would like us to increase our efforts to build a more welcoming and inclusive community on campus and in the state. And I would like us to increase our engagement with the world outside of the United States. The partnership with Central Falls High School in a very diverse community and the Honors Colloquium on India are two notable examples of URI’s involvement in these areas. Based on what I have observed so far, I think our campus climate is an excellent one: welcoming, intimate, with great faculty-student interaction, and a commitment to embracing and affirming both what we have in common and our differences. If this impression is accurate, then we have a great foundation to engage the world and to build on the successes from that engagement. During my first year at URI, I will be actively seeking to identify and develop opportunities to globalize our campus on one hand and to deepen our local engagement on the other. I don’t regard these as competing priorities but as mutually reinforcing endeavors.