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Sunday, 2001, April 22
His Highness the Aga Khan addressing the International Convocation of the Association of American Universities (AAU). 2001-04-22

How can leading research universities better serve society Is access to information technologies alone sufficient to enable institutions to improve the quality and reach of education. Why, today, more than ever, do universities need to help build capacity for moral reasoning and how can they do so.His Highness the Aga Khan, Imam (spiritual leader) of the Ismaili Muslims, last night addressed the presidents of over 100 leading public and private research universities from around the world at the International Convocation of the American Association of Universities on these issues, expressing the hope that he could convince institutions in both the developing and industrialised world to come together to work on common problems, opportunities and responsibilities.

For universities to serve their purpose in a developing country, the Aga Khan observed, quality is not enough to justify the support of donors, society and the authorities a university's offerings must also be relevant. He pointed to the kind of role that a small private university with strong international connections can play if it seeks opportunities to share its experience and human resources with other institutions and society as a whole. Citing as an example, the impact of the Aga Khan University in Pakistan, he noted how it went beyond the training of students at high levels in their respective fields. The University's programmes have helped give status and recognition to women professionals who constitute an overwhelming majority of teachers and nurses in South Asia. It has also contributed to national curricula in medical and nursing education, and to policy-making in educational management. Private institutions, the Aga Khan concluded, can make a contribution through experimentation, and where successful, as models.

Technology, the Aga Khan acknowledged, can provide the first real opportunity for lifelong education on a broad scale.But, this is only the first step, he said, supporting recent public comment about the need to make the contents of libraries, schools and museums digitally available via the Internet. Illustrating the possibilities, the Aga Khan mentioned ArchNet, a project being developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to provide interactive access on the Internet to twenty-five years of scholarship, research and archiving of the built environment and architecture of Islamic societies by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture. Universities should not only develop educational materials and resources for the Internet, he said, they should add their voices to critics of regulations and policies that impinge on the use of the World Wide Web for educational purposes in favour of commercial interests.

Although remote education may involve high initial overheads and mean that learners are physically distant from an instructor and a classroom, the Aga Khan pointed out that it has the advantages of scale, it dramatically increases the reach to scattered rural communities -- which still represent the vast majority of the developing world's population, it adds the possibility of bringing imported expertise into remote and isolated contexts, it creates opportunities for cross-cultural experiences, and it makes possible the broad collaboration of specialists in scattered locations. He noted, for example, that information and communication technologies would play a critical role in the operation of the University of Central Asia recently founded under an international treaty that he had signed with the governments of Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and the Kyrgyz Republic. This University will seek to give remote mountain populations scattered across Central Asia access to experience and knowledge from databases and human resources specialised in mountain studies from around the world, in addition to direct interaction on its campuses.

Noting that building capacity for moral reasoning and moral judgement is a goal that appears in the foundation documents of many of the world's oldest and most prestigious universities, the Aga Khan expressed concern that insufficient attention is being paid to the development of these important capabilities and that the situation may worsen in the years ahead.

The history of the twentieth century, he said, is replete with examples of the danger of the systematic propagation and uncritical acceptance of dogmas, ideologies and even theologies. Accepting that the recent advances in the biological sciences and the engineering that underlies computer and information technologies are important for economic development and attractive to students and scholars, the Aga Khan said I applaud these developments but worry that they will crowd out parts of the curriculum devoted to the study of the great humanistic traditions that have evolved in all civilisations throughout human history. Exposure to these traditions contributes to the formation of values, as well as an understanding of the richness and diversity of human experience. More than ever, the Aga Khan concluded, I believe that universities must shoulder the responsibility for building capacity for moral judgement in complex settings.

* * * The Aga Khan is the 49th hereditary Imam (spiritual leader) of the Ismaili Muslims, a community that resides in some 25 countries mainly in West, Central and South Asia, Eastern Africa and the Middle East, and North America and Western Europe. He emphasises that Islam is a thinking, spiritual faith: one that teaches compassion and tolerance and upholds the dignity of man.

In consonance with this view, he has established and leads a number of private, international, non-denominational development agencies, collectively known as the Aga Khan Development Network. The Network seeks to empower communities and individuals, often in disadvantaged circumstances, to improve living conditions and opportunities, especially in Africa and Asia. Working over 20 countries, the Network's underlying impulse is the ethic of compassion for the vulnerable in society and its agencies and institutions work for the common good of all citizens, regardless of origin, gender or religion. Agencies of the Network have specific mandates that range from health and education to rural development, culture, architecture and the promotion of private sector enterprise.

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