Humans of J-WEL Higher Education: Alfonso Reyes | MIT J-WEL

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Humans of J-WEL Higher Education: Alfonso Reyes

Based off of Humans of New York, Humans of J-WEL is a new series designed to build our global community, allowing our members to get to know one another by sharing each another's deep knowledge, expertise, and challenges.

Alfonso Reyes
President, Universidad de Ibagué, COLOMBIA
(formally Dean of Engineering, Universidad de los Andes, COLOMBIA)

Alfonso Reyes is a physicist and a system engineer from Universidad de los Andes (Uniandes).* He has an MSc in Computer Science (University of Maryland), a PhD in Management Cybernetics (University of Humberside, UK) and completed postdoctoral studies in Organizational Learning (University of Lincoln, UK). He has worked for the last 30 years in addressing organizational problems in the public sector, especially in the administration of justice from a cyber-systemic stance.

He has been an international consultant for the Interamerican Development Bank and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in applying management cybernetics to the public sector. Reyes has also published several papers on individual and organizational learning and self-organization from the point of view of second-order cybernetics. He was the past president of the Universidad de Ibagué in Colombia (2009-2016) and a Dean of the Engineering School at Uniandes in Bogotá (2016-2020). He has recently been re-appointed as president of the Universidad de Ibagué starting in October 2020.

*Uniandes is a member of J-WEL Higher Education.

Question 1:  What is the main higher education topic on your mind right now?

I just have been appointed as president of a small (5,000 students) private university in my hometown (Ibagué, Colombia). It is a nationally recognized high-quality university focused on promoting local social development. About 90% of its students come from low-income families. My main concern is transforming the organizational structure of the university towards a transdisciplinary hybrid institution by moving teaching towards a non-disciplinary education, research towards a mission-oriented process of co-production of knowledge with communities (enterprises, public institutions and local communities), and extension towards a development of local capabilities.

Question 2: Could you provide insights into the engineering curriculum redesign process at Uniandes? Any shareable lessons?

The new curriculum is based on four pillars:
  1. Connecting students' abilities to solve problems with actual challenges that organizations have, starting from the first semester and continuing throughout the curriculum.
  2. Developing a set of common competencies for the 21st century to students of the school regardless of the specific engineering program they are studying.
  3. Integrating the different curriculums to allow students to have different paths to follow and graduate to.
  4. Stressing a teaching based on evidence from the science of learning. 

Question 3: What advice would you give to deans, or those who may become deans, in their respective universities?

  1. Have a clear vision you want to move towards.
  2. Share this vision in a way faculty embraces it as a common dream.
  3. Personally eliminate any obstacle (administrative, economic, technical, or cultural) that may interfere with achieving this dream.
  4. Build as many supporting networks as you need to pave the way to success.
  5. Let faculty be (and enjoy) themselves! (Once you motivate them, move out of their way!).
  6. Always keep in mind that enjoying the journey is as important as reaching the end.

Question 4: You have been instrumental in bringing together a consortium of universities across Colombia. Could you share your experience in this and why you see this as being a critical part of education transformation?

One of the main challenges that many Latin American countries face is inequality. The wealth is not only concentrated in few hands, but also the capacities to develop the country are located in few cities. Although the talent and potential to grow is homogeneously distributed across the nation (in their young population) the opportunities to unleash those potentials are centralized in few universities. That is why I'm convinced that one of the main responsibilities of well-developed universities (like Los Andes) is to share their knowledge, expertise and good practices to small regional universities (in a similar way that MIT decided to share publicly and at no cost the materials their professors use in their courses, and in the same path J-WEL has being following with many universities in the last four years). 

Los Andes built a campus in the Caribbean region of Colombia two years ago, so it seemed natural to invite all universities of that region to come together and reflect and share among them about their common challenges. We did this with the help of J-WEL. It was the first time they saw each other (private universities and public ones) not as competitors but as potential allies. If we manage to overcome the natural instinct of competition and embrace the more helpful practice of cooperation, we will move towards diminishing the gap between regions regarding high quality education.  

Question 5:  What is the future you envision for higher education?

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the purpose of higher education is twofold: on the one hand, to educate the new generations to be effective professionals that can contribute to the social and economic development of their countries; and, on the other hand, to produce knowledge that can be useful for such development. In other words, students are trained to know how to play the rules of the market to pursue for a better quality of life. 

I think we need to go beyond a market-oriented educational system towards a more ethically sustainable education that permeates society. So, the purpose of higher education as a system could be, on the one hand, to prepare good world citizens who will adequately perform in the different social roles they will assume throughout their lives - one of these roles, of course, is as professionals - but certainly it is not the only role they will play in society. On the other, universities should co-produce knowledge with different communities that can be transformed into social agency. All this with the aim of contributing to a better social well-being.