The recent news that Kyoto University will publicly seek candidates for its next president from abroad, as well as from Japan, may come as a shock to some in academia. The proposal is a provocative move intended to improve university education in Japan.

Everyone knows that Japanese universities need to become more globalized and competitive, but this is the first time for a national university to consider a presidential candidate from outside Japan.

The proposal is not an easy one to imagine. Japanese universities are deeply entrenched in their present systems, and change comes slowly.

The current Japanese practice of hiring from within the ranks of full-time faculty has the advantages of having a president who knows details well and has established contacts. However, it is sometimes just those details and contacts that hinder reform.

Japanese universities need to be creative, thoughtful and open-minded in tackling the institutional, systemic and personnel changes that would best facilitate much needed reforms.

If Japan is ever going to truly educate a future workforce, nurture active citizens and produce scholars and researchers, the old habits of teaching, researching and learning must be renovated. Hiring an outside, non-Japanese as president is one good way to do that.

Universities also must continue to improve learning in other ways, too. Globalizing universities involves more than top-down decisions. Faculty and students need to work together to upgrade the level of English. That means getting more foreign students onto campuses in Japan and getting more Japanese students onto foreign campuses.

That will also involve current administrators making consequential reforms, especially about English.

Universities also need to consider new systems to handle practical issues such as budget allocations, together with broader pedagogical issues such as developing more active classrooms and promoting autonomous learning. By bringing in an outside point of view, a non-Japanese president could help with such structural reforms and educational approaches.

Fresh ideas and the power to get them instituted could provide an important spark for globalizing Japanese campuses in many ways.

Handing over decision-making to an outsider may seem anathema to many universities in Japan, although hiring from outside the faculty is a common practice in America and Europe.

Chinese universities have already made strides in globalizing by hiring foreign-trained faculty and by instituting specific student requirements. Japan unfortunately continues to lag behind

Because of the power of the status quo, few other universities are likely to follow Kyoto University’s lead. If they don’t, they must find other ways to globalize Japanese universities.

Bringing in fresh ideas, reorganizing structures and pushing for excellence are core values that must be brought into Japanese universities, whether from abroad or from inside Japan.

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