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  June 1998    

New senior staff discuss challenges facing the UNU
Three senior academic staff joined the UNU in April: Ramesh Thakur and Motoyuki Suzuki as Vice-Rectors, and Hideo Sato as Senior Adviser. Since then they have been getting to know the University and formulating strategies to address the challenges it faces. In recent interviews they discussed these issues and what they hope to accomplish.

Professor Thakur (photo below) said the UNU's biggest challenge is to "maintain academic credibility by meeting minimum academic standards." He reckons that the University should produce more work of lasting value in printed form, such as journals and scholarly books. "We need to make UNU Press one that academics select as their first choice," he said.

He gave two examples of how this could be done. One way is to insert a clause into the contracts that the University enters which grants UNU Press the first right of publication refusal. "This may involve picking academic winners and investing in their careers at an early stage," he said. Another way is to offer travel scholarships to young academics working in developing countries so that they can attend upcoming conferences, like the International Peace Research Association's biennial conference to be held in South Africa at the end of June.

Prof. Thakur said he has been pondering four major issues since he came on board in April:

  • Determining the work that the UNU ought to be doing.
  • Figuring out what the University can do best given its comparative advantages.
  • Finding areas where the UNU can act as a catalyst to build on work being done elsewhere.
  • Reducing research duplication in the UN system worldwide.

Prof. Thakur realizes that coming up with a vision for the UNU is one thing but that getting those concerned to support it is another matter. "Once a vision has been set, we have to motivate the staff to meet the standards that we outlined," he said.

Prof. Thakur foresees formidable obstacles. "There will be constraints, some of which will be similar to those that impede other UN organizations," he pointed out. "And there will be issues more specific to universities, such as getting the best work possible out of academic scholars and relating their findings to the real world."

Prof. Suzuki (photo below) said the UNU should "function more like a regular university." To do this, he said the UNU's senior management is examining the direction the University will take over the next few years.

As a senior member of the environment team, Prof. Suzuki considers humanity to be the most important element in ecological crises. "I want the UNU to emphasize the connection between human actions and environmental degradation," he said. "Many universities are working on the scientific side of environmental issues. I think that our expertise fits in best with the human side of the equation."

He believes that the UNU has to work on changing people's attitudes. Industrial countries must stop preaching that the path to sustainable growth is through technology, which rich countries transfer to poorer ones in the hope that ecological destruction will be mitigated.

"This way of thinking needs to be changed," he said. "Developing countries must be encouraged to come up with their own solutions to environmental problems - ones that suit their particular circumstances and culture."

Prof. Suzuki is also concerned with the UNU's image. "We need to make the University more visible," he said. "People on the outside only see that we have a beautiful building. We should invite them inside so that they can learn more about the important work that we do."

Prof. Suzuki also agreed that dissemination of the University's research results should be a top priority. "The UNU doesn't have enough academic assets," he said, suggesting that in addition to holding conferences and symposia, the UNU ought to produce more high-quality publications which reflect its work.

This would involve collaborating more with scholars and scientists worldwide. "I have built up a substantial network of environmentalists working at Japanese universities. Many of these professors would like to combine efforts with the UNU, but at the moment there just isn't a well-thought-out way to coordinate such cooperation," he said.

Prof. Sato (photo below) said that his main priority is to try to improve the University's visibility. "The key to creating a better profile for the UNU is to carry out high-quality research and education," he said. Prof. Sato said he also is using his worldwide academic contacts to make sure that the UNU gets the finest scholars to join in its work.

Prof. Sato also suggested that better visibility will improve the University's capacity to raise funds. He is now in the process of identifying and calling on potential contacts in Japanese government ministries, foundations, and corporations. "The UNU needs a better public relations campaign, which means that I also will be trying to sell our activities to the media. But to do this, we need better products to sell."

One product that Prof. Sato has been developing is the new training programme that the UNU Centre will run beginning in the fall. Certificates will be awarded to those who complete the six-week courses on topics like human rights, peace-keeping, and sustainable development.

"We will be training young people for jobs in internationally-oriented public and private organizations," he said. "I think these courses will get a lot of attention, especially here in Japan, where few people work for international organizations such as the UN." He says this is one way to apply to real-world education what the UNU has learned through its research projects; it is also the kind of training that "normal universities can't take on."

Prof. Sato wants to see the UNU provide more options to policy makers. "When I worked at the Brookings Institution, every book that was published included a set of policy choices as conclusions. I think that UNU publications can also combine high-quality academic research and policy recommendations."

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