Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Anna Stenport Discusses INSPIRE

INSPIRE, the Illinois-Sweden Program for Educational and Research Exchange, is a program with the goal of establishing a transnational partnership alliance between the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (Illinois) and three leading research universities in Stockholm, Sweden. INSPIRE is funded in part by European Union Center grants, and EUC-affiliated faculty members are at the forefront of the initiative. One affiliated faculty member and an INSPIRE faculty liaison, Anna 
Westerståhl Stenport, was interviewed for the April 19 edition of Inside Illinois to discuss INSPIRE. Check out the full article below or by clicking here.

by Mike Helenthal

The odds are good you won’t see an umlaut above the university’s legendary “Block-I” logo anytime soon.

But an Urbana campus summit with the leaders of three prestigious Swedish universities April 25-26 shows just how big a partnership with Sweden is becoming.

“It’s innovative and unique,” said Tim Barnes, director of the year-old Illinois Strategic International Partnerships. “There’s never been anything like this; we are looking to build very broad and deep collaborations, sustained over time, of mutual benefits, and which affect all of the core missions of the partner institutions.”

The summit’s origins go back two years, after officials from Sweden’s KTH Royal Institute of Technology approached university officials about investigating a mutually beneficial academic partnership.

An agreement was signed and the consortium held a symposium on the Urbana campus in 2010, and a second at KTH last May in Stockholm, attended by a contingent of more than 40 UI faculty members and academic leaders. The effort also led UI leaders to form the Illinois Strategic International Partnerships and its pilot program, INSPIRE, Illinois-Sweden Program for Educational and Research Exchange.

The upcoming summit will continue facilitating the search for identifiable, cross-disciplinary collaborations, but it also could lay the foundation for an expansion of the INSPIRE partnership to include two of Sweden’s other prestigious universities, Stockholm University and Karolinska Institutet.

Leaders of the two institutions, which already have extensive collaborations with KTH in strategic areas, also will participate in the symposium, as will civic leaders invited from both countries.

“They are basically the CEOs of these universities and it’s very unusual to have them all together in the same place,” Barnes said.

Mirror images

Barnes said adding the institutions to the consortium would broaden its academic reach and round out the partnership, considering Stockholm University features comprehensive liberal arts, natural science, law and education programs, and Karolinska Institutet is a world-class medical research and teaching university.

“We see great opportunities that align with campus priorities,” Barnes said. “We’re all looking at the same science questions and it makes great sense to look at some of these things together.”

In all, the Swedish three-campus footprint is very comparable to the UI structure, with 70,000 students and a broad realm of academic and research activity. 

“The (April) symposium is all about trying to foster those interconnections,” Barnes said, noting that higher-education research partnerships normally form at the personal level – an inherent weakness that makes them difficult to sustain over time. He said that’s why university officials have worked so hard to ensure the Swedish partnership – and others in the future – goes beyond one-to-one contacts and becomes integrated throughout the institution.

“It takes the will and desire of the individual faculty and departments to make those connections really happen,” he said. “Then it’s a matter of corralling them and pulling them all together. By pooling our limited resources we can do much bigger things. It becomes mutually beneficial if you do it right.”

Urbana Chancellor Phyllis M. Wise said partnerships such as the one with Swedish education leaders are tantamount to sustaining the UI’s world-renown reputation.

“These types of partnerships can have an almost exponential effect,” Wise said. “And not only do they lead to new relationships and research that produce new and innovative ideas and partnerships, they create answers.”

Beyond the obvious academic benefits, the defined partnership with Sweden’s top universities presents cost-saving, economy of scale opportunities and a regional presence with a European Union member, Wise said.

“Our future as a top-tier research university depends on maintaining global pre-eminence in an ever-changing competitive environment,” she said. “That can only be achieved by reaching out, discovering new opportunities and then adding our footprints.”

Barnes said the partnership is further enhanced by the fact that Sweden has a high population of English speakers. The country also is ranked among the highest in the world for its investment in research and development (as a percentage of gross domestic product) and the number of citizens who hold doctoral degrees, on a per capita basis.

“We’re looking at the INSPIRE alliance as a kind of gateway to Europe,” he said. “The university hasn’t had a go-to partnership like this that can take advantage of connections within the European Union.”

Teams approach

Collaborations between researchers at the two institutions started forming prior to the first meeting, according to two Urbana professors serving as faculty liaisons and involved with the INSPIRE process since its inception.

In fact, already there are more than two dozen collaborative projects being conducted between UI and Stockholm researchers alone. One of the projects with the most immediate impact is a joint interdisciplinary and co-taught class on the Arctic and climate change. The class is being offered at KTH over the summer.

The course, co-taught by a multidisciplinary team of Illinois and KTH faculty members, will provide UI students from a variety of programs with a well-rounded, multifaceted consideration of climate change and its effects on the Arctic, culminating with an up-front view through fieldwork in the Arctic circle, at a facility in the Svalbard archipelago.

Another new project has teamed researchers of the Illinois Rail Transportation and Engineering Center with the KTH Railway Group. The partnership led to a workshop last November and eventually could aid in the development of a federally proposed high-speed rail system in Illinois.

“A core feature of the two previous strategic research symposia was the comprehensive engagement across multiple colleges, schools and faculties, including engineering, natural and social sciences, arts and the humanities,” said Anna Westerståhl Stenport, a professor of Germanic languages and literatures and the director of the UI’s Scandinavian Program, who is currently on sabbatical at Stanford University.

She said those engagement possibilities will continue to be actively pursued at the April summit.

“Sweden and the U.S. both have a lot to gain from close collaboration in higher education,” she said. “INSPIRE is another way for faculty and students to gain access to more resources and help provide additional opportunities for global impact and significance. We know our Swedish partners see the partnership as a reciprocal opportunity to collaborate with a top U.S. research institution.”

Harry Dankowicz, a Cannon Faculty Scholar in mechanical science and engineering, a professor in the UI’s Information Trust Institute and a graduate of KTH, said he could see from the first meeting between the institutions that great things would arise from it.

“It became clear from the initial handshake that there was a natural match here,” he said. “Although one might have been content with a narrowly defined exchange agreement, that wasn’t the final destination of this partnership.”

One particularly innovative feature of the partnership, he said, is the integration of the core missions of the four universities: education, research, public engagement and economic development.

“By attending to the interest of all our stakeholders, namely students, faculty and the commercial and civic societies of the state of Illinois and Sweden, we aim to build an alliance that can provide global leadership in higher education, research collaboration and civic engagement,” Dankowicz said. “The upcoming April summit is an opportunity to bring these strategic components of the partnership into focus.”

Stenport said she sees a positive trajectory in the partnership as it gains momentum.

“The partnership is already adding value on campus,” she said. “Next steps will be to implement it as a valuable alliance across many different disciplinary areas. There is the potential to have a critical impact on the issues facing both countries, as well as the entire world.”


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