Research continuum

KyotoU moving forward

Nagahiro Minato
Kyoko Inagaki

Nagahiro Minato (left), elected president of Kyoto University in July 2020, assumed office as the institution’s 27th chief executive in October. Here he joins executive vice-president Kyoko Inagaki, whose portfolio includes international affairs, public relations, and gender balance, for a conversation on new directions and opportunities for the University in the wake of the pandemic and its disruptive effects on campus life.

Minato: We definitely face a challenging situation as we begin our six-year term. Every facet of our society has been touched, exposing fundamental questions that we haven’t faced in decades, including what role a university should play in relation to its students.

In the past there was a simple breakdown between education and research. But the pandemic has forced us to think about exactly why a university — specifically a research university — has students.

Inagaki: We know instinctively that education is at our core, but how that is manifested differs between private and public institutions. If you were merely to put numbers to it you could talk about tuition or operating costs, but that wouldn’t tell the full story.

Minato: KyotoU’s long history as a research institution means that our education is tightly intertwined with research, and we actively train students via courses of independent work. This integration — whether beneficial or not — is fundamental to both the university and the education the students receive.

Inagaki: Compared to that, universities in the West, even those with strong research output, place much more emphasis on active support of student education.

Minato: Our primary organizing principle has been research, but the pandemic has changed that. Our students are not on campus, so the resources they need to do their research are inaccessible. We have to admit that something large has been lost because students are not able to be physically present. We must re-think our role as a university and actively discuss what we can do for our students.

Inagaki: I very much agree. Education can be considered a service, but at KyotoU — because of our strong focus on research — education is inseparable from research. It’s ingrained in our culture of academic freedom, where groups of students don’t simply support their professors’ projects but rather learn to build a foundation for pursuing their own original work.

Minato: Another obstacle is that our shared concepts of academic freedom(gaku’mon-no-ji’yû) and KyotoU-ness(kyôdai-rashi’sa) are poorly defined. One aim of my tenure is to make these commonly used ideas more clear.

Inagaki: And everybody has different definitions of these concepts!

Minato: Defining KyotoU-ness is no easy task: it’ll take time. It’s similar to a Nobel prize being awarded for work done decades earlier. The time we invest in defining the expression today will only pay off at a much later date.

Since most graduates won’t become career researchers, we must first explain what research is, and why it is at the core of the curriculum.

The answers will come from understanding our stakeholders. As a public university, these are the citizens of the country, and our students are amongst them. I feel that our fundamental mission is to train citizens who can think critically and practice sound judgement. Using research as a pedagogical tool allows us to pursue this goal.

Traditionally, KyotoU hasn’t been a training ground for policy makers or bureaucrats, but rather for scholars who know how to think, how to conduct research, and how to focus on contributing to the intellectual fabric of society.

But in today’s world that isn’t enough. The pandemic has given us an opportunity to rethink everything.

Inagaki: This is a chance to reflect on the advantages of KyotoU and what made it the institution it is today.

Minato: And likewise an opportunity is to rethink our role in the world. While we must contribute globally, we must also focus on our place in the region. What role can Japan play culturally, socially, and economically in Asia? And within this framework, where does Kyoto University stand? As an institution, we’ve long been a part of the essential fabric of Asia, but where are we now? Where will we go? We need to know our place here if we are to continue contributing productively.

Inagaki: The university’s approach to Asia has traditionally been based on relations with the West. But Asia’s immense diversity — for example in differing paths to modernization — points to numerous alternatives, such as no longer catching up with the West but working to develop a post-modern Asian understanding of society. KyotoU has long developed that foundation almost subconsciously. Now we must bring it into the open.

Minato: What society most expects from us is KyotoU-ness: our innate curiosity, spirit of inquiry, hunger for knowledge, and urgent desire to do what’s right for the world.