“If I had any advice, it would be to dream big dreams”, said Robert S. Langer on the occasion of receiving Queen Elizabeth Prize. The Queen Elizabeth Prize, worth a million pounds, is awarded annually to an engineer for his or her groundbreaking innovation in engineering for global benefit to humankind. Bob Langer is as worthy of this prize as they come. An institution in himself, he is among the most distinguished of scholars in biomedical and chemical engineering with over a thousand patents to his name, over 170,000 citations of his papers and technologies that have been licensed by over 200 companies. And while Professor Langer has touched the lives of millions, and continues to maintain a research group of over a hundred scholars, this article is not about him, but about the most important piece of advice he can give.
By no means is Bob the first person to say that we ought to aim for the fences, to reach for the stars, but he is certainly among those who have acted on this advice and changed the world for the better. The problem, for many of us, and more importantly for our institutions, is the lack of a grand vision, and in many cases, any vision whatsoever, grand or not. In my recent conversations with university administrators in Pakistan, some of whom I recently met, and with others I communicated with via email, none could articulate the grand mission of their institution beyond doing more of the same. For many, it was hard even to understand why a vision is needed in the first place. Besides many other problems about not having a grand vision, even doing more of the same should be quite concerning as the status quo is hardly anything to be proud of!
I am fully cognisant of the substantial barriers that force so many Pakistanis to live one day at a time. For many citizens, getting through the end of the day is a painful struggle that most of us cannot even imagine. I am sensitive to the plight of women, minorities and those marginalised groups who are always ‘they’ and never ‘us’. I also recognise that it is easier said than done to dream big. But universities ought to be different. They have to provide the platform, irrespective of gender, ethnicity, socio-economic status and any other distinctions to cultivate big dreams. The university has to be a special place of grand ideas, and needs to do everything to maintain that unique position in society.
The role of a modern Pakistani university cannot just be limited to teaching those who enter through its gates. Indeed, it has to deliver towards that end with quality but it must do much more than that. It must include the development of ideas and ideals that make the future of the society better. The grand vision of a university does not mean that it should focus exclusively on the next device or an expensive adventure that will cause the institution to go bankrupt. Universities should chalk out a vision which is grand enough to improve the human state in the society through a better and a more rigorous understanding of our past, present and the future. Our universities may not be living up to their full potential, and may have a long way to go, but they remain our best hope for fostering tolerance and understanding, of equity and opportunity. They must do everything to preserve that hope.
William Butler Yeats wrote, “in dreams begin responsibilities” — and in dreaming big, our institutions will one day be able to discharge their big responsibilities for a better tomorrow. In doing so, they may be able to nurture the next Robert S Langer.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 9th, 2015.