National

Head of Todai is an advocate for collaboration and diversity

by Shusuke Murai

Staff Writer

Collaboration from East and West is key to spurring innovation, and the University of Tokyo should become an academic hub for that purpose, its president says.

Makoto Gonokami, 57, was appointed president of the prestigious institution, better known as Todai, in April. He’s determined to ensure the university serves as an academic center in which people with different values can come together to collaborate, helping to keep the institution’s position as a leading university in the region.

“It’s known academically that diversity is essential for the preservation of species, and the same is true for human beings — by cooperating together with different perspectives, we can come up with an innovative idea that can contribute to establish a better, sustainable human society,” Gonokami said in an interview with The Japan Times last month.

Instead of following the path of Western academics, Gonokami’s goal is to provide a unique academic perspective from East Asia to diversify the global community.

Todai has extensively recruited Western academics and has the potential to become a unique academic institution in Japan when it comes to innovation, he said.

Established in 1877, Todai has been recognized as one of the most respected academic institutions in East Asia, ranking 24th among the world’s 500 leading universities in U.S. News & Global Report’s Best Global Universities Rankings for 2015, the highest of all Asian universities listed.

But vying for a high global ranking is not significant for the development of global society, the president said.

“We are not competing with each other. . . . It’s not about who become the first to produce a notable achievement to lead the next paradigm shift,” but about creating innovation together by combining different values, Gonokami said.

His predecessor, Junichi Hamada, served as president of the school for six years and worked to produce tough global students — the university’s purposed for being, according to one former president.

After taking the reins, Gonokami said he plans to push forward his predecessor’s goal to make the university more diverse.

Gonokami says Japan’s strengths include the stock of knowledge compiled over its 70-year postwar history, including industrial development during its rapid economic growth.

“If we review the 70 years of the postwar period, it’s a fact that Japan has successfully built up a democratic, highly industrial country that stands out economically in the world,” said Gonokami, who has a PhD in physics.

He added that Japan’s success in the last half of the 20th century has served as a role model for other developing Asian nations.

The rapid economic growth from the 1950s to 1970s, when Japan’s economy grew an average of 10 percent annually, was part of a nationwide effort to catch up to the West after the devastation of war, he said.

But globalization means that cooperation is becoming more necessary than competition, and Japan’s previous attitude has become a weakness for the country, he said.

While utilizing the wisdom Japan has gained in the postwar era, the nation should play a greater role by embracing diversity and collaboration in the international community, Gonokami said.

And the University of Tokyo has the potential to become a hub for such collaboration, which can produce what Gonokami calls “professionals of wisdom” who can work across borders.

To attract high-caliber applicants from all over the world and increase on-campus diversity in terms of cultural and educational backgrounds, the university launched the first all-English program for undergraduates in October 2012.

Gonokami sees this attempt as an important step forward for the university to increase its recognition in the international arena.

“If closed to international society, Japan can never contribute to the sustainability of the global community . . . and that’s not what Todai (pursues) as its mission,” he said.

That challenge, however, suffered a setback last year, as nearly 70 percent of students who were accepted for the PEAK program declined admission for the 2014 school year.

But Gonokami argues it’s too early to judge the program as a failure. In fact, he sees it as recognition that Todai is considered an option for international applicants who aim for the world’s top universities, such as Harvard and Stanford.

“Before then, only people who had keen interest in coming to Japan applied for Todai,” he said. “This is not what we wince about.”

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