Universities Can Help Governments Overcome Short-Termism
By Annelise Riles
As 2021 G7 Summit discussions commence, universities must work together to ensure the voices of the youth they serve are heard. Virtually every critical global issue of our time–from climate change to economic inequality–will affect the futures of younger generations, and our best hope for making meaningful, long-term progress in addressing these issues is to offer them a seat at the table—to promote ongoing intergenerational dialogue in a global context, not simply multilateral dialogue amongst leaders of the world’s wealthiest nations.
Universities are well poised to facilitate this kind of dialogue as institutions sitting at the crossroads of generations and conducting cutting-edge research to answer questions relevant to some of the greatest global challenges of our time. Universities also still garner widespread public trust at a time when faith in other public institutions has diminished. While government leaders and the business sector are often beholden to short term election or sales cycles, universities can take the long view on these and other policy issues, enabling them to represent the interests of youth and future generations. As we prepare the next generation of leaders, we have a responsibility to ensure youth voices are represented in multilateral discussions, and can do this most effectively when we come together across borders.
This was part of the impetus for the launch of the U7+ Alliance of World Universities ahead of the G7 Summit in 2019. The alliance includes more than 100 university leaders from 17 countries representing millions of students worldwide and can bring those youth to the table for intergenerational dialogue on pressing global challenges, while serving as a unique source of ideas rooted in evidence versus ideology.
The alliance has begun moving in this direction. Last year’s U7+ Presidential Summit concluded with the unanimous adoption of a commitment to intergenerational justice and engagement with the G7 to address challenges our youth will inherit. This year, the Alliance—led by Northwestern University’s Roberta Buffett Institute for Global Affairs—is hosting a series of intergenerational roundtables that will bring scholars and students worldwide together for dialogue on critical global challenges including climate change, intergenerational justice, the global gender gap and other inequities.
The U7+ Alliance has also affirmed its commitment to advocating for the interests of today’s youth through engagement with the G7 and other multilateral organizations. University leaders must make ongoing coordination a priority to accomplish this. It will require a combination of direct engagement with G7 delegates—bringing youth voices and scientific evidence to the fore of the G7 agenda setting process—collaborative research and experimentation on our campuses in alignment with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, and coordinated global information campaigns to raise public awareness of how research suggests global issues ranging from climate change to economic inequality will impact the prospects and futures of young people. The hope is that this approach can help shift the public conversation in a direction that places greater pressure on government leaders to think beyond their immediate interests and focus on the long-term implications of their decision-making.
This work has begun through the U7+ Alliance. For example, leaders from U7+ universities have already begun collaborating to develop and publish specific targets for improving energy efficiency and reducing their greenhouse gas emissions from 2018 levels by 2030. Likewise, more than a dozen U7+ universities, led by the University of Montreal, have published 16 recommendations for how universities can bolster their leadership role in the responsible use of technology in society. Meanwhile, the University of Ottawa and the University of Bordeaux are working alongside Osaka University, the University of Cape Town, University College London and more than half a dozen other institutions to develop new approaches to fostering global citizenship — those that “develop self-reflective people, capable of adjusting their values and behavior, with flexible problem-solving skills and the ability to adapt to complex and unfamiliar environments. These efforts represent concrete, tangible actions that universities can take, in sync with intergovernmental groups such as the G7.
Ultimately, if universities are to contribute to a sustainable future, they must take coordinated, collective action on multiple fronts, and serve as platforms for intergenerational dialogue. Through networks such as the U7+ Alliance, universities can collectively engage with the G7 and other multilateral organizations to create space for global intergenerational dialogue, research, and experimentation to confront our greatest global challenges together.
Annelise Riles is the Associate Provost for Global Affairs, Executive Director of the Roberta Buffett Institute for Global Affairs at Northwestern University, and leader of the secretariat of the U7+ Alliance at Northwestern.