October 4th, 2013
This is beautiful Pest from the Buda side of the Danube, from what is known as Castle Hill. Those are the impressive Parliament Buildings across the river, a most elegant site of democracy in a city that has seen more than its share of twentieth century trouble. A visit to the infamous House of Terror, where first the Nazis and then the Communists held prisoners, and tortured and killed them in the name of whatever ideology was current, is enough to put Hungary into some darker perspective.
Yet with almost 40 other deans of graduate schools from around the world, I felt warmly welcomed and then inspired by so much history and culture. Budapest is often referred to as Paris of Central Europe and indeed the city has been planned and reconstructed with a very human-centred sense of proportion and beauty. The Danube shapes it and the two cities that comprise Budapest boast some of the finest architecture and tree-lined boulevards I have ever seen. The goulash is pretty memorable, as well.
We were here for the 7th annual Global Summit on Leadership, sharing papers and ideas and experiences. The event was sponsored by the Council of Graduate Schools based in Washington D.C. and the Central European University. The latter is a unique phenomenon, a completely graduate-student-dedicated institution with a strong research focus. Our purpose was to come to some consensus about technologies and the graduate student experience. Notwithstanding some significant differences between us (academic freedom is not a familiar concept in, say, China, or even Hungary), consensus was easy and natural after several days of comparing practices. We are all ambivalent about the long-term survival and benefits of MOOCS but cognizant that the “chalk and talk’ model of university instruction is pretty much over. What is difficult to assess is how graduate education will be radically altered by new technologies. Distant learning has been in play for decades already, more or less successfully, but, as someone observed, in graduate school the classroom is already “flipped.” This is to say that the small seminar or group is foundational to graduate programs. We are already there. Where we all are not is well resourced, and so we heard, for example, how South African students are still completely disadvantaged because they do not have the easy access to tablets or desktops that Western students have, or that Japan and Chinese students have. Generally we operate on a one computer/five student model, but in South Africa the reality is more like one computer for 70 students. Access doesn’t mean the same thing to all people. In Europe, competition for Euros is so intense it’s a wonder some of these deans are as calm as they appeared. North American deans generally want their governments at many removes from their decision-making. The same is just not possible elsewhere. Ultimately, crafting a document of principles on which we could all agree was remarkably painless. It’s about respecting our national differences, and getting on with it. There are no Tea-Party idiots here.
Coming to these meetings is always humbling. Memorial is well served by government and we have so little to complain about. My account of our external examiner webcasting for final doctoral examinations was met with great interest, and one dean said he was determined to convince the Hungarian academy to adopt it for all universities. Likewise with the Netherlands. Some traditions just refuse to go away, no matter where you are, and so it felt good to be able to set an example of adaptability and change at such a summit. Of course, there is nothing that substitutes for the in-person discussions these meetings encourage and so I hope we don’t resort to virtual versions of them in the future. Besides, how else would I get to savour so much paprika?