The role of the university in changing the world

Universities must adapt to address urgent challenges, ASU experts say


Collage showing hands collecting water sample, women working in a plastic recycling microfactory, a man looking at a carbon capture device, the city of Phoenix and men looking out over an array of solar panels

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Editor’s note: This is the first story in a series exploring how ASU tackles complex problems to help transform entire systems for the better. Read the second story about solving the CO2 problem.

Ravenous wildfires, parched countrysides, coral reefs turned to ghost towns, microplastics infiltrating our food and our bodies — everywhere we turn, we find increasingly dire news about the state of our planet and the toll it is taking on our health, our livelihoods and our well-being.

But what if we could change that?

We know people can change the world in monumental ways, because we have done it repeatedly throughout history. The important question is: How can we change the world with purpose, in a positive way, for ourselves and future generations?

We are in a decisive decade. The issues facing humanity have reached a scale never seen before in history. We cannot fix these problems by using the same approaches that got us here in the first place.

According to Sally C. Morton, executive vice president of Arizona State University’s Knowledge Enterprise, it requires changing the way we solve problems.

“The problems that we’re facing have taken on a complexity and an urgency that I don’t think the world has faced before, and the challenges are compounded by the interconnectivity of the world,” she says.

What does it really take to change the world? Here, Morton and other ASU leaders talk about what we need to do differently, and the role universities can and should play.

Start with asking: Where do we want to go?

ASU President Michael M. Crow has said universities share responsibility for creating the global crises we face today.

“Chemistry faculty members have built, over the last 200 years or so, tens of thousands of human-made synthetic molecules that cause cancer in humans. Why would you do that? Why would you not start from the beginning to think about designing molecules that don’t cause cancer or don’t cause ecosystems to be destroyed?” he said in a panel discussion at the ASU + GSV Summit in 2022. “We did not understand how to intellectually design a teaching, learning and discovery organization capable of actually keeping us from killing ourselves.”

The reckoning that needs to happen, Crow said, lies at the design of the university itself. That belief underlies ASU’s charter, which commits to taking responsibility for the communities it serves. Doing this requires us to envision the future we want, understand the risks and consequences of our actions, and chart a positive path forward.

“We have to learn to be more anticipatory,” says Peter Schlosser, vice president and vice provost of the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory at ASU. “We have to envision what futures are possible, and then we have to decide which ones are desirable.”

The Global Futures Laboratory is dedicated to holistically reshaping our relationship with our world and its network of physical, environmental, social and economic systems. This involves looking at the world as a whole, identifying where systems are under pressure, and then exploring options for moving forward.

We have to envision what futures are possible, and then we have to decide which ones are desirable.

Peter Schlosser, vice president and vice provost, Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory

“Sustainability is a big part of Global Futures, but Global Futures is more than sustainability,” explains Schlosser. “Our framework is transforming complex systems through innovation.”

Gary Dirks, senior director of the Global Futures Laboratory, says it’s important to engage communities to discuss the futures they want and the potential trade-offs involved. When he thinks about changing the way the world solves problems, he sees a process driven by stakeholders. He believes universities should play a bigger role in convening stakeholders to discuss their priorities, how they make decisions and what resources they need to implement them.

“Universities don’t solve problems alone. Universities have puzzle pieces, and when they engage with publics and with stakeholders, they contribute their puzzle pieces to the larger picture,” he says.

“The university should be a place of questioning and communication. We can bring together the industries and the climate change activists. It should be a place where this important debate and conversation takes place. I think universities should step up and take that role on very bravely,”  Morton adds.

As our ability to impact the whole world increases, stakeholders often span the globe.

“The stuff we put up in the atmosphere mostly came from advanced economies — the U.S., Europe, Japan. And yet the greatest impacts are happening in emerging economies who are still trying to not only survive but thrive,” says Sanjeev Khagram, director general and dean of ASU’s Thunderbird School of Global Management.

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He says technologies like carbon removal are exciting because they not only solve environmental problems, but also create new industries that can provide sustainable livelihoods.

“We can’t just do carbon removal here in Arizona. That’s great, but we need to do it in Kenya. We need to do it in Indonesia. We need to do it in other places,” he says. “And guess what? It’s happening.”

Go forward faster

Knowing where we want to go points innovators in the right direction. But as our global challenges accelerate toward critical thresholds, we need to get there faster.

“If we are not acting faster, then the planet will take care of it by self-regulating, and that will not be a pretty picture for us,” Schlosser warns.

“We have to solve these problems not in 50 years, not in 20 years, but in the next 10 years,” Morton says. “The thing that worries me about the way science is done is it tends to be in discrete aliquots — you work on your paper, I work on my paper, they get published. Ten years later, someone connects the ideas. We don’t have time for this anymore.”

Morton says universities need to adjust their incentive structures, which often reward siloed, individual work over transdisciplinary collaboration and the volume of publications over the impact of the work.

Researchers should also accelerate solutions by identifying partners at the outset of a project. While universities are society’s primary entity for generating knowledge, the private sector is better suited for scaling and distribution.

Schlosser says that, historically, universities tended to operate in isolation. They put out ideas without much thought to where or how they could be used, thinking somebody will pick it up and make good use of it.

“It’s true, people did pick it up, but not at a rapid timescale,” Schlosser says. “That is not the university of the future.”

Video by ASU Knowledge Enterprise

Scale solutions far and wide

Scaling makes new technology accessible and affordable. This is necessary for large-scale changes such as transitioning away from fossil fuels, which 200 nations agreed to do at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28) in December.

“No government will change something as fundamental as the energy system and make it a lot more expensive or a lot less accessible,” Dirks says. “What we need is to build out the renewable system as fast as we can on the supply side so that kind of confidence will emerge.”

Addressing complex, global problems at speed and scale requires a bigger resource pool, both intellectual and financial. It also requires greater connections within and outside of academia.

Federal funding agencies are recognizing this need by creating large-scale, transdisciplinary programs to address complex challenges. For example, in January, the National Science Foundation selected ASU to lead a multi-institutional enterprise to confront the climate challenges facing the desert Southwest and spur economic development in the region.

Supporting Earth's life-support systems

In addition to SWSIE, ASU leads several large-scale, transdisciplinary projects that advance solutions for environmental sustainability, economic prosperity and social equity.

  • Electrified Processes for Industry Without Carbon (EPIXC) is driving decarbonization of the industrial sector using clean electricity.
  • ʻĀkoʻakoʻa fuses state-of-the-art science with the leadership and cultural knowledge of Hawaii’s community partners to restore vitality to Hawaii’s coral reefs and the health of its coastlines.
  • A NextGen grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture supports future leaders of our food systems through scholarships, paid internships and creation of the free MyUSDA app.
  • The Arizona Water Innovation Initiative provides actionable and evidence-based solutions to ensure that Arizona will continue to thrive with a secure water supply.

NSF Engines: Southwest Sustainability Innovation Engine, or SWSIE, combines the extensive expertise of ASU and more than 50 partners from academia, industry, nonprofit and entrepreneurial organizations, and local and regional governments across Arizona, Utah and Nevada.

Empower our workforce

While new technologies and industries create new economic opportunities, they often come at the expense of existing jobs and skill sets. Groups that are already marginalized often bear the brunt of these losses. Public universities have a responsibility to prepare a diverse workforce to succeed in new industries.

Our most important asset is our students. They will join the workforce and serve local and global communities to solve problems and improve lives.

Sally C. Morton, executive vice president, ASU Knowledge Enterprise

ASU’s Learning Enterprise was created to expand access to learning opportunities at every stage in life. For example, ASU Online offers over 300 fully online degree programs, with more than 82,000 students currently enrolled. Employees at Starbucks and Uber can receive full tuition coverage for an ASU Online degree.

In 2022, the Thunderbird School launched the Francis and Dionne Najafi 100 Million Learners Global Initiative. The initiative offers online education in entrepreneurship, business and leadership in multiple languages, at no cost to the learner.

“Part of that is to ensure that every individual is empowered with the capabilities and the confidence to realize their full potential,” Khagram says. “We think 3 billion people are looking for access to those skill sets. We can’t build universities and schools fast enough, and most of those individuals can’t pay a lot, if anything. We also need to educate in multiple languages to achieve global inclusion.”

Learn more

Explore lifelong learning opportunities, including many no-cost options, at ASU for You.

“We are one of the nation’s most productive research institutions, generating new ideas, technology and business at among the highest rates in the U.S.,” Morton says. “But our most important asset is our students. They will join the workforce and serve local and global communities to solve problems and improve lives.”

Innovate incentives

The good news is that scientific and technological solutions already exist for many of the problems we face. Yet they are not being implemented as quickly or widely as they could be due to a variety of obstacles.

“For example, agriculture is where a large amount of water is used in Arizona. Let’s say a university comes up with methods to use water more efficiently in agriculture. Suppose you’re a farmer out in Yuma. How do you actually implement it? You’d like to, but you can’t just change your irrigation system overnight,” Morton says.

Turning new technology into viable solutions requires us to understand people’s values and needs and provide opportunities to fulfill them. This could range from finding new ways to share information to updating public policy to creating economic incentives. Experts in the social sciences, humanities, education, law and business are essential for bridging the gap between invention and implementation.

“The reason we need to change the world is that humankind got out of equilibrium with Earth’s life-supporting systems” Schlosser says. “We have to understand the decisions that led to that, but also how we can incentivize decisions that are different.”

Be the change you want to see

ASU itself has made a lot of changes to advance its positive impact and has been ranked No. 1 in the U.S. for advancing the UN Sustainable Development Goals. But it is one university on a planet of over 8 billion people.

“No matter how good we are, one university will not solve this. But what we can be is a role model,” Schlosser says.

Morton says she was struck by the “generosity of ASU” when she joined the university in 2021.

Leaders and teams from other universities often come to ASU to explore its approach and operations.

“Sure, we’re always competing in the rankings, but we cannot solve these problems by ourselves. I think changing the way the world solves problems also necessarily encompasses some generosity. And by that, I mean collaboration with what would sometimes be viewed as competing institutions,” she says.

Just as ASU can serve as a role model to other universities, individuals can be role models for their families and friends. A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences compared multiple approaches for promoting pro-environmental behaviors. It found that social influences (along with financial incentives) had the greatest effect on behavior change. 

“Educate yourself about what is actually happening, think about small changes you can make in your own life and then get involved,” advises Morton, “whether it’s in a community organization where you feel that you can have an impact, or making sure your children or family members are also educated on the issues and what they might do.”

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