Inaugural message

Creating a Hokkaido University that flourishes with a spirit of independence and autonomy

1. Hokkaido University in the world today

The worldwide population has surpassed 7 billion and continues to grow at a pace of about 80 million per year, exacerbating food and resource shortages. Furthermore, Japanese society is faced with a low birthrate, an aging population and environmental problems, which have been worsening. As the world economy globalizes, problems that can be solved by a single country are disappearing, and the world has a mountain of complex, intertwined issues that must be dealt with internationally. 

Moreover, the rapid development of information and communications technology has created an environment in which massive amounts of data can instantaneously traverse the globe. Scientific and technological innovations that were previously unimaginable appear one after another. All of these changes are pushing universities to reform and adapt to innovation and globalization.

Hokkaido University promotes an educational philosophy founded on the ideas of the “Frontier Spirit,” respect for “Global Perspectives,” “All-Round Education” and “Practical Learning,” which have helped us train many qualified professionals and provide the world with much beneficial research. Under the leadership of former President Keizo Yamaguchi, we worked to become one of the world’s leading universities. Unfortunately, in the last several years our spot on global university rankings has gradually fallen, and the university has experienced problems on its operational side. Moreover, basic expenditures have fallen, which has put pressure on the university’s researchers to apply for competitive grants and saddled them with administrative tasks once funding is acquired, all of which leaves them with less time for actual research. This has dulled the competitive edge of the university’s research and educational programs. The expansion of competitive grants that demand short-term results has weakened basic research programs with long-term prospects, creating a crisis as young researchers leave the academic world. This has produced a situation in which Japan, the creator of revolutionary, world-class technology in the 1980s, has seen its accumulated wisdom waste away, and possibly in danger of disappearing.

2. Two missions for Hokkaido University

I would like to discuss two things I want to accomplish in the next six years. The first is to create a research and educational base ranked in the top 100 worldwide. I want to draw up a quantitative agenda for the kind of education and research that is needed for success on the global stage. I expect to set quantitative targets for reform policies, and make progress by tackling them one by one.

The second is to have the university become a leader in regional development in Hokkaido. The information-technology revolution has made use of the internet and other tools to reduce distribution costs, create new businesses and dramatically lower communication costs to make the economy increasingly borderless. Success in a global economy requires better competitiveness on an international scale, as well as uncompromising craftsmanship and innovation. New businesses built on these are bringing major changes to our lives, the economy and society. Moreover, as companies and their subcontractors move overseas, domestic industries are being hollowed out and local businesses are being destroyed. Less-populated areas face major social problems as per-capita incomes fall and the lack of jobs cause people to move away.

About six years have passed since the Great East Japan Earthquake. The national government has been under a stable administration for some time now and Japan’s economy is recovering. However, there is still much that needs to be done. Hokkaido University is a core institution of research and higher education responsible for developing Hokkaido, Japan’s frontier. In addition to playing a leading role in vitalizing the region and building Hokkaido’s economy and society, the university can serve as an engine to drive the revival of Japan as a whole.

Fortunately, Hokkaido University has a long history and illustrious track record of world-class research in its schools of agriculture, medicine, and science and engineering, the latter of which Dr. Akira Suzuki, winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, graduated from. The bases for the university’s world-class research include the School of Veterinary Medicine, Institute of Low Temperature Science, Institute for Catalysis, Research Institute for Electronic Science, and the Slavic-Eurasian Research Center. Other departments in both the humanities and sciences have generated a wide variety of research that has led their respective fields in Japan. I hope the university can help lead Hokkaido’s development by further strengthening its accumulated wisdom, encouraging collaboration and integration, and disseminating information so brilliant figures from around the world converge here to bring forth new knowledge and technology. The university also can attain this goal by nurturing various industries and carrying out relevant policies.

In my six-year term as president, I hope to achieve both of these goals—to create a research and educational base that ranks in the top 100 worldwide and to have the university lead the development of Hokkaido. Yet even if only some progress is made, I want to build a strong foundation so the next generation can realize these goals.

3. Innovative education and research ranking in the top 100 worldwide

Society expects universities to be the highest institutions of learning. Stated broadly, a university’s mission is to contribute to the development of society through education and research. Moreover, what is demanded of a university education in a global society is not the school’s “brand,” but the assurance of a quality education. We have already introduced a GPA (grade point average) system, and are steadily implementing strict programs for assessing performance and credits. The entire faculty is now having students prepare for classes and review their classwork to meet a requirement that students must spend 45 hours of learning to earn each credit. They are also developing lesson plans that require active learning, which is helping students transition from a “listen to lectures” style of education to an “independent learning” style.  

In today’s chaotic social circumstances, students need to acquire a reliable and expansive vision that enables them to both know where they stand and to see far into the future. It is essential to train leaders who can make decisions after considering the root of a problem. In many Western countries, a liberal arts education has long been seen as a means of training leaders. Hokkaido University, ever since it was Sapporo Agricultural College, has emphasized the liberal arts, and our undergraduate and graduate schools provide education on a wide range of fields along with lectures on specialized topics. However, as times change, the kind of education students need also changes. We need to examine the shifts that are taking place in the natural and applied sciences, as well as in the humanities and social sciences, and reevaluate what a liberal arts education should provide today. How this can be made consistent with a specialized education? How to provide fulfilling extracurricular activities? These and many other issues are important, but education should always be a university’s highest priority. With this in mind, narrowing down the core subjects and making them mandatory will help give students the education they need by the time they graduate.

Moreover, as information technology advances and the world becomes increasingly borderless, an understanding of foreign languages is essential, as is communicating with people with different cultural backgrounds and values, which will encourage mutual learning and understanding. “Training professionals who can thrive internationally” is a key concept in university education. At Nitobe College, which opened in 2013, we seek to create dignified, autonomous graduates who have identities grounded in their individual cultural and social backgrounds, but are also qualified to exhibit leadership internationally.

Furthermore, as a “palace of wisdom,” the university needs to demonstrate what a healthy human society should look like, help create the culture of the next generation, and contribute to the development of the region. The peat and volcanic soil common in Hokkaido are not well-suited to growing crops. Despite these disadvantageous agricultural conditions, Hokkaido University is committed to helping create good-quality soil through drainage and amendments, and by returning the fruits of our research to society, we have helped Hokkaido achieve a food self-sufficiency rate of 200 percent. I hope the university will continue to give back to society through its research, to create a better tomorrow.

To make Hokkaido University an institution that ranks with the best in the world, further progress is needed in publicizing our research both in Japan and overseas, and in promoting joint studies with international partners. Making progress in top-class research will draw the world’s eyes and ears. While this may be stating the obvious, to accomplish this Hokkaido University must build on the excellent research it is already engaged in, and improve in areas that have been lacking. This will require each department to objectively analyze its strengths and weaknesses, and discuss what reform measures are needed.

Hokkaido University’s research philosophy is based on “practical learning.” While we may be prone to emphasizing research that can help society and concentrating resources for this aim, we should not forget the importance of diversity in research. Putting research into practical use in society does not always need to happen immediately. Speaking broadly, basic research has been successful at enriching society while expanding the breadth of research at the university. Going forward, I want to support a system that will allow applied and basic research to coexist and cooperate to make progress.

The university’s Creative Research Institution, which was set up to establish new academic fields, has had success mainly in the life sciences. Around the world, new areas of data sciences such as artificial intelligence and big data, and network sciences are being created, the latter of which fuses mathematical sciences, engineering, life sciences, infectious disease studies, medicine, agriculture, the humanities and social sciences. It has been pointed out that Japan has lagged behind in this area. In the future, I want the university to look outside the life sciences to create new fields of scientific study through interdisciplinary fusions. I hope these initiatives will focus on solving problems faced by humankind, such as climate change, declining birthrates, aging populations, and the exhaustion of resources.

4. Leading regional development in Hokkaido through innovation between the public, private, and academic sectors

Next, I would like to discuss my second goal, to have the university be a leader in the development of Hokkaido. Throughout its 140 years of history, Hokkaido University has worked with the community to create bonds of affection with the people of Sapporo in particular, and of Hokkaido in general. Next, I would like to develop a common relationship with Hokkaido’s two main cities – Sapporo and Hakodate – that also comprises the prefecture overall. To achieve this, I believe we need to make better use of the Institute for the Promotion of Business-Regional Collaboration, which was set up to return the fruits of research to society.

As one example, I would like to create a “food valley” with Hokkaido University at its core. A food valley is an area where there is a high concentration of enterprises engaged in research and production related to the food, agriculture, forestry and fishery industries. Hokkaido is blessed with enormous fields for farming, and its agricultural output exceeds \1 trillion per year, making up 12 percent of the nation’s total. Hokkaido’s calorie-based food self-sufficiency rate (208 percent in the 2014 fiscal year) is No. 1 in the country. It is safe to say that Hokkaido is Japan’s greatest food supply base. While Japan has the technology to produce safe and high-quality food, as an industry there are many improvements that could be made, particularly in terms of scale and costs. I would like to establish a “Hokkaido Food Valley” by attracting and linking national research institutes and food industry companies in the vicinity of the university. The foundation to be established for this purpose would receive funding from industry, academic and government sources, and Hokkaido University could serve as a mediator between corporations and research institutes. This organization would procure outside finances and also fund research. It could also serve as a kind of research administrator that provides counseling and advice based on a solid grasp of how research projects are progressing. The Hokkaido Food Valley would be open not only to our university, but would encourage close cooperation with other institutions of learning in Hokkaido, Japan and overseas to carry out vigorous joint research programs. Creating a highly flexible organization with a solid financial base would make it possible to plan and engage in research and development on a long-term scale of 10 to 20 years.

5. Securing personnel who can support innovation

Yet, these educational, research and regional development activities can only move forward if we have excellent personnel. However, the sharp rise in educational costs that has accompanied the internationalization of university education has put pressure on the university’s basic operating expenses. This is not just a problem in Japan, but in the West as well, and has led to the development of distance education programs, like Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). However, distance learning is not the final solution. Educators at American universities have spoken out on the importance of providing face-to-face instruction to the selected students, and have urged institutions to not cut faculty. Put another way, we need to reexamine the growth that has taken place in organizational and personnel costs as we have pursued various creative projects, and ensure we have the full-time instructors we need. I am doing everything I can to make sure personnel spending is only cut by 7.5 percent in the third midterm target period, which is equivalent to the cuts to basic funding from the national government. To make up for the shortfall in instructors created by the cuts to personnel spending, we hope that financial modifications will allow us to maintain employment for tenured professors, hire fixed-term instructors using outside funding, and bring back retired professors who are 65 years old or older for fixed periods.

To secure outside funding to fill this hole in the personnel budget, the university needs to open up more avenues for interdepartmental research and expand existing research subsidies. In addition, we could use the aforementioned foundation to increase funding for research and development by creating interdepartmental research groups and developing joint research projects with corporate partners to ensure personnel spending is only reduced by 7.5 percent.

6. Strengthen governance through a democratic operational system

I believe an unshakable “axis,” a willingness to learn humbly, and a bold resolve are important to managing a university. As the head of the university, I see my job as entailing the following:

  1. Presenting a clear administrative vision and creating a management plan based on it.
  2. Publicizing the administrative vision and action plan.
  3. Reliably executing the administrative vision and action plan that were publicized.
  4. Promptly disclosing information.
  5. Operating democratically by empowering the voices of each department.

To create a system for carrying out these tasks, I plan to create an organization that reports directly to the president, comprising a comprehensive office of institutional research, policy coordination office and public relations office. The office of institutional research is something akin to a corporation’s information strategy office, and will be responsible for supplying various forms of information that would aid the operation of the university. The job of the policy coordination office is to take the results of the information analyses performed by the Office of Institutional Research, and shape them into policies related to governance and resource distribution. The public relations office is in charge of not only publicizing the results of professors’ research, but also of relaying educational matters and information related to the university in general to both domestic and overseas audiences. In addition to reinforcing the university’s ability to communicate information overseas, I want to improve and strengthen the organization and functions of our overseas offices and international partnerships, all with the goal of increasing Hokkaido University’s presence in the world. As Hokkaido University internationalizes, the most substantial and effective tool at our disposal is improving the standing of our educational and research programs in the eyes of Japan and the rest of the world. I will do everything I can to improve the education and research environments to achieve this aim.

In fact, discussions are already going on in various departments about the problems facing Hokkaido University. I believe that if an environment where opinions can be freely expressed is created throughout the university, the excellent people who work here will definitely discover clues and ideas for improving the management of the university. Fairly screening the ideas that are proposed is the duty of the top administrators, who are the ones who set policy. Achieving big goals requires steadily meeting small, concrete, realistic targets one by one, which is how all faculty members can feel they are playing a role in helping the university prosper. We will create a workplace that people look forward to.

7. Building a campus to support lifelong learning: Not only four years, but also forty years

It is often said that it is ideal if graduates look back on their student days and think, “It was a nice campus.” However, I want Hokkaido University to strive to guarantee this feeling for life. My slogan for this is “Not only four years, but also forty years.” A lifetime guarantee means that the basic training and specialized knowledge acquired at Hokkaido University should continue to hold up in the face of scientific advancements or progress in the social sciences. Graduates should also be given the opportunity to return to the university to review or deepen their studies. I want to work with our alumni associations to study what needs to be done to provide this kind of lifetime learning.

Many universities in the West have built up excellent campus environments throughout their long histories. Hokkaido University should learn from the strong points of European and American universities by starting to envision what the campus should look like 50 or 100 years in the future. Let us create a lush, beautiful and safe campus by working out how we want its functions, arrangements, scenery, transportation network and community contacts to look like.

8. Concluding remarks

In closing, to realize the goals of creating a research and educational base ranked in the top 100 worldwide and having the university become a leader in regional development in Hokkaido, I believe the support and understanding of alumni and the members of the Elm Association – teaching staff, students and their guardians – is essential. Moreover, I want to encourage school spirit through a network linking the university and the association’s members, as well as networks among members themselves. In strengthening these ties, I ask for your cooperation in creating a Hokkaido University that flourishes with a spirit of independence and autonomy.

April 5th, 2017

Toyoharu Nawa,

19th President of Hokkaido University

Updated on   November 22, 2017