The Ecphorizer

Wanted: $4.5 Billion
George Towner

Issue #61 (December 1986)

Be the first on your block to build your own university

Among life's many fantasies, some of the most interesting and useful center around the notion of one's being in charge of Really Big Money. I am not talking about a mere twenty or fifty million. The idea of that kind of cash evokes merely personal, inward fantasies — private islands, jets

I am not talking about a mere twenty or fifty million...

stocked with compliant bunnies, and so on. No, Really Big Money is by definition beyond the capacity of any individual to consume. Thinking about it forces one to look outward at the state of the world and how it could be bettered.
Let's talk about $4.5 billion. I pick this figure because, according to Forbes, there happens to be a gentleman in Arkansas who actually has that much. Hence our fantasy is not just a pipe dream. Suppose he could be convinced to lay it all out on a single project for the betterment of mankind. What would we propose?

As you may have guessed by now, I have a suggestion.

As I look into the foggy blue future, I see an increasing amount of international conflict. Not between the "superpowers," although they will doubtless continue to stick their fingers into as many foreign pies as they can get away with. Not with Western Europe or Japan, as long as they remain prosperous. The conflicts I foresee will ferment in the balkanized Third World -- particularly those misbegotten "nations" with rudimentary governing skills, halting economies, and massive internal ethnic conflicts. Back when the actual Balkans were generating World War I (and, by extension, World War II), a British wit remarked that their problem was that they "produced more history than they could consume locally." I believe we face the same kind of problem today, except that it is now spread over most of the globe and is fueled by weaponry that makes the two World Wars look like barroom brawls.

Let's now consider the typical process by which these conflicts arise. The government of Blogistan, having mismanaged into collapse the local industries that traditionally fed the population, casts about for a diversion to keep itself in power. Behold, it's all the fault of the Wagga minority, who are supported by the evil neighboring country of Bugistan! The Blogis have just enough money left to buy a fleet of attack helicopters and attack Bugistan, so they do it. But then Waggistan, to the south, feels compelled to invade Bugistan to help the Waggas, who are now fighting as guerillas. This attracts the interest of Washington and Moscow, and so we're off to the races...

Is there any point in this process at which the application of $4.5 billion might break the chain? Just perhaps.

While the visible top players in these melees may be ex-colonels with minimal education, the real support comes from the civil services involved. They represent the educated, competent elite of their countries. These career managers, diplomats, and technocrats usually provide the advice and implementation that can spell the difference between war and negotiation. If, for example, the Blogistan Ministry of Economics had been a little more sophisticated in their planning, or the Bugistan Foreign Office a little more diplomatic, or if the Waggistan Cabinet had understood the historical context a little better, things might have turned out differently.

So it is germane to ask how these civil servants are educated. A tiny fraction have been to Europe, or the US or Russia. Most, however, are educated locally. I have visited their universities and talked to the professors. They do as good a job as they can, but their approach tends to be inherently provincial. At the University of Blogistan you learn the glorious history of the country (now 20 years old) and what is known locally about its industries and agriculture. You learn very little about neighboring Bugistan or Waggistan, and what you learn about modern management and finance is limited to the extent that you can attract professors from Europe or America. You may get a fair education, but it will be a strictly Blogistanian education. Separate, and not very equal.

Hence I see a possibility. If the future civil servants of the Third World could be induced to start with a broader education — learn firsthand what is going on in other countries, rub elbows with students from the neighboring states, talk to professors with a world-wide perspective — they might not lead their countries into their present chronic troubles. Would Blogistan be as likely to invade Bugistan if their Prime Ministers had shared the same dormitory? Would their Ministry of Food have screwed up as badly if the senior officers had gone to a good agricultural college? Would the Blogi diplomats have been as ready to blame the Waggas for their troubles if they had taken Regional History from a Wagga professor? Maybe not.

How could $4.5 billion make this happen? What I envision is a unique kind of university, one made up of many small campuses spread around the world. Both students and faculty would circulate among the campuses. It is too much to ask that every small country accept a campus ("we already have a very good university, thank you"); but there are certain places, reasonably accessible to students in their region, that probably would. Hong Kong, Singapore, India, Kenya, Egypt, and the Ivory Coast spring to mind. Maybe Hungary, Pakistan, and someplace in South or Central America. Plus, of course, Britain, France, Germany, and America. The campuses would all be small, and they needn't all be built at the outset, but this kind of distributed structure would be the goal.

Thus an engineering student from East Africa might start out at the Kenya campus. After one year he would transfer to Singapore for electronics classes, then finish up in Germany. A student destined for his country's foreign service might go to Hong Kong and Britain. Along the way, all the students would have an opportunity to get to know each other. Who knows? Some of the problems they would otherwise try to solve with helicopters twenty years later might get disposed of in dorm-room debates.

Similarly, some of the faculty would rotate.  Each campus would be able to get its share of top-rate professors (who wouldn't mind two years in India, for example) from the total teaching staff.  In addition there would be permanent cadre at each campus, most of whom would be drawn from the region.

I realize that what I propose is already being done to a limited extent through student exchanges and extension campuses at universities like Harvard and Cambridge. But the institution I envision would have far greater neutrality. It would not be associated with any particular country or culture. Its graduates would not be as stigmatized by a "foreign education" — often an important point with their governments. And more of them would opt to return home than those who had gone for four years to Britain or America.

The key factor would be the truly international nature of this university. It would be "owned" by the Third World as a whole, not by one of the industrialized countries. It would emphasize teaching its students how to function better in their own cultures, not how to imitate someone else's culture. It could form a rallying-point for the best third-world teachers, who now tend to migrate to European or American universities. All this would be possible as long as it maintained a neutral and trans-national posture.

Would such a university attract students and faculty? I think so, if it were properly done. Besides the attraction of go-to-school-and-see- the-world, it would offer a good compromise between local education and the Harvard/Cambridge variety. It could easily acquire a cachet of quality and a recognized name without imperialistic overtones. Third- World parents would consider it an honor to send their children there, and graduates would find readier employment when they returned home.

How about costs? While board and tuition would be steep by Third World standards, it would probably be cheaper than the equivalent American or European universities. And I believe the money is there. To begin with, most students would come from the relatively affluent families that exist in all Third-World countries. Others could be supported by government grants (as many are now in America). I can even imagine a support-a-student program of small donations from individuals in Europe and America to fund scholarships.

Such a university would have unique, but not unsolvable, logistical problems. Every campus would need comprehensive housing for students and faculty. The university as a whole would charter a lot of airplane seats. A significant portion of the staff would do nothing but fool with visas and passports. Some students might not be able to go to all campuses, and all would be under strict behavior rules with respect to their host countries. The curriculum would have to allow closing any campus in the event of political trouble.

But given a sufficient monetary push at the beginning to get the project going, I think all these problems could be overcome. In short, I believe that the university I envision would work. And it just might go a long way toward alleviating some of the political problems the world will face in the twenty-first century. At least, I believe that it's worth a try.

In fact, I think this fantasy could be realized for only $4.4 billion, giving our hypothetical Daddy Warbucks $100 million left over to pursue his own private fantasies. No one could ask for more than that. 

Fantasist GEORGE TOWNER has come up with a neat way to spend $4.5 billion. You can send your check, or the equivalent in small, unmarked bills, to the address on the back cover. You can read about George's latest book here!

More Articles by George Towner

We have collected the essential data you need to easily include this page on your blog. Just click and copy!close
E-mail Print to PDF Blog
Return to Table of Contents for Issue #61