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President Brown’s vision of the University’s expanding role

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Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

The following is the text of remarks delivered by Boston University President Robert A. Brown at a roundtable of university presidents convened yesterday by the Consortium of Universities for Global Health. The meeting took place at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md.:

It is a pleasure to be with you today at the first presidents meeting of the Consortium of Universities for Global Health. I believe this is a landmark meeting as it marks an important public statement on the role of research universities.

The concept of an American research university took root after World War II, as universities began focusing on research as a major part of their role in society. Today, across all fields, but especially in medicine, science, and engineering, faculty members, research staff, and graduate students work, with government and private sector support, to make fundamental discoveries and develop new technologies, medicines, and treatments. Research universities have been very effective engines for economic growth, for improvements in human health, and for the general betterment of mankind and society. This engine has been so wildly successful that it is being emulated around the world, as other countries attempt to build knowledge hubs with research universities at their center.

Our country has developed an unparallel mixture of public and private research universities. Boston University is a relatively young example of a private institution. Although founded with Methodist roots 140 years ago, we began the evolution into a research university only in the last quarter century, but today attract over $340 million of research support, putting us among the 25 most active private research universities in the country.

As for all the universities represented here, the success of our institution has made us truly international; the quality of our programs and the opportunities for research have attracted faculty and students from around the world who come to study, research, and many times to stay with us.

One of the drivers of today’s meeting is that our universities are in the middle of another revolution; we are becoming global.

We are changing from places where people come from all over the world to study and work to institutions that are truly engaged in the world — universities with programs, students, and staff actively participating in the world. Why? What is driving this revolution? Like most positive and sustainable movements in universities, this revolution is being driven by the interests of our students and faculty. Their perspectives are increasingly global, whether it is a faculty member thinking about research collaborators or students thinking about their future or how they might have an impact. The pressure on research universities to engage globally has never been greater.

You can see this transition at Boston University. Two weeks ago, I welcomed more than 4,100 new freshmen to the Boston University campus. Of these, more than 11 percent were international students, who came from 71 countries, joining other undergraduate and graduate students, researchers, and scholars representing nearly 140 countries. Boston University is in the top 10 of private universities measured by the size of its international student population.

What about global engagement? If last year was a measure, more than 40 percent of our graduating seniors next May will have spent one or more semesters off campus in one of our study-abroad programs, which operate in 28 countries around the world. Moreover, we have graduate programs in disciplines including management, public health, and medicine that all have significant internship opportunities outside the country.

All of this might be obvious. Haven’t students always wanted to go to Europe for a semester? Everyone believes the slogan that the “world is flat,” so isn’t the interest in the developed world outside of the United States just a natural consequence of the compression of time and space and new economic opportunities in the 21st century?

There is a substantive difference on our campuses today. It is a deeply held and pervasive view that our universities — their faculty, staff, and students — can make a difference in the whole world, not only those with affluent societies and not only by bringing students and scholars to our campus. Boston University has had this commitment from its founding, as exemplified in the early missionary work by graduates of our School of Theology, in our graduates who founded the Goodwill Industries at the turn of the last century, and today in programs across the University.

There is no issue where this interest is more intense than global health, and there are few arenas where universities may have a larger global impact. Our students and faculty want to be involved, whether by studying infectious diseases and finding treatments and vaccines, developing affordable technologies for health care, mounting public health programs in places where none exist, educating public health professionals and family medicine specialists, or finding treatments that address critical medical needs, like neonatal mortality, in developing countries. Our School of Public Health is a leader in this effort. The school hosts a robust research program that has more than doubled in size in the past decade, to over $35 million annually. Beside vibrant professional master’s and doctoral programs, the school hosts the largest undergraduate minor — a minor in public health offered jointly with the College of Arts & Sciences — on our campus. Student interest in global health is driving the interest of these undergraduate students and also is a focus of many students in the Master’s of Public Health program, with the student body in the department of international health being the largest in the school.

As we continue to develop as a research university, Boston University is committed to making global health research, outreach, and education important components of the University. To do this we have been building and expanding our global health programs and activities, with an accelerating pace of interest and involvement from across our entire campus. Much of our progress has been accomplished in the last five years under the University-wide Global Health Initiative, led by Professor Jerry Keusch. Today we are expanding our efforts and commitment.

Today I am announcing that we are establishing a University-wide center to be known as the Center for Global Health and Development with Professor Jonathan Simon, of the School of Public Health, as the founding director. The new center will be administered in the School of Public Health and will be an expansion of the mission of our existing Center for International Health and Development, which was established nearly two decades ago and is now led by Professor Simon.

Today more than 90 faculty and staff are engaged in center-based research activities. They include clinical scientists trained in infectious diseases, internal medicine, and pediatrics; epidemiologists and demographers trained in the core public health disciplines; biomedical engineers; and social scientists in disciplines such as economics, medical anthropology, and religion. The center has engaged in research and collaborations in some 30 countries with the objective of providing empirical evidence to support policies and programs to improve public health.

Ongoing research includes programs to improve community case management of the major killers of children under age five; prevention of mother-to-child-transmission of HIV; applied economics on the impact of infectious diseases, especially HIV/AIDS; research on pharmaceutical policy; and rigorous program evaluation work to improve the efficacy and efficiencies of global health interventions.

While the new Center for Global Health and Development will continue to pursue this original mission, it will expand its reach within the University to sponsor new opportunities for collaboration, partnerships, and engagement, and increase its programmatic impact in the world. We are seeding the new center with $10 million of support from the School of Public Health, the University, and private philanthropy. We have high hopes for the expanding impact of the center.

Our commitments to global health through the Center for Global Health and Development parallel our efforts to develop a world-leading research program in emerging infectious diseases, in partnership with the National Institutes of Health. All of us in this room understand the motivation for infectious disease research. First and foremost, mankind needs treatments and vaccines for the infectious diseases that have devastating impact on the poorest populations. The list of these diseases is growing longer; HIV/AIDS, drug-resistant tuberculosis, SARS, dengue fever, and more exotic and very deadly diseases such as the hemorrhagic fevers.

Second, and equally as important, these diseases have no respect for borders. By aiding in fighting these deadly diseases as they afflict populations around the world, we also are better preparing ourselves for the potential spread of these diseases to our communities.

The NEIDL faculty will be housed in a state-of-the-art facility that is to contain 13 scientific cores with multiple novel research platforms alongside the largest array of BioSafety Level 2, 3, and 4 laboratory spaces in one location in the world. This array of biocontainment facilities will make possible advanced research on the infectious diseases that most threaten the public’s health. Internationally recognized faculty from seven departments across the University are developing research programs ranging from the genetics of susceptibility to tuberculosis to vaccines for many of the hemorrhagic fever viruses to pathogenesis of lung injury from respiratory viruses such as influenza, and an extensive program to discover new antimicrobial agents as well as predict and combat antibiotic resistance.

Finally, we are collaborating with others to best leverage our resources in global health and medical research. Some of our programs in India are excellent examples of these collaborations; in September 2007, I led a University delegation to India, which resulted in several new collaborations, including:

An agreement with the Department of Biotechnology in the Indian Ministry of Science and Technology to jointly develop programs in biotechnology and bioengineering.

A partnership with the Indian Council for Medical Research, initiating a partnership for research and laboratory training targeted at drug-resistant strains of tuberculosis and viral hemorrhagic fevers.

In addition, our School of Public Health is working with both the Public Health Foundation of India and the Indian Council for Medical Research to establish new schools of public health in India and to develop the faculties of future and current public health institutions through training conducted in Boston and in India.

Community service is a phrase used in the mission statement of almost every University. Today community means the world. Research universities are ideally positioned to engage not just in teaching and research in the field of global health, but also in service through efforts to affect policies, improve practices, and to help build and support infrastructure around the world.

The economic challenges all universities have faced this past year and that we are facing going forward might make a decision to devote more resources to global health seem problematic. It is a challenge, but one which we must embrace. Perhaps in this room I’m preaching to the choir; let us, together, take a leadership role among American colleges and universities in this critical area. I hope our consortium, with our shared vision and energy, will lead to increased visibility and funding for these important programs.

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