By guest contributor Juliet Sorensen

As our world shrinks, universities must prepare their students for life outside the ivory tower while they are still inside it. The 2013 Global Alliance for Justice Education Worldwide Conference in Delhi focused on demand from the legal profession that law schools produce “the practice-ready lawyer,” graduating students with experience advocating for social and economic rights. Consulting firms recruit MBAs to advise companies on how to fulfill their social responsibilities even while they turn a profit. American hospitals seek newly minted doctors with cross-cultural competence and training in the social determinants of health.

Global experiential learning,  in which students across disciplines further their education while using their training and experience to do international work under the supervision of faculty, satisfies this demand squarely. Nonetheless, many universities are failing to provide this opportunity, particularly in global health. Last year’s University Global Health Impact Report Card graded 54 top American and Canadian research universities based on their contributions to global health research, education, and community partnerships, and most fared poorly. These grades were based largely on the universities’ scant research into so-called “neglected diseases” — illnesses and treatment needs for HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria — that are largely ignored by pharmaceutical companies. As institutions that aim to produce millennial citizens of the world, universities should take notice.

Here in the United States, the modern history of public health is full of heroic tales with happy endings, thanks in significant part to the commitment of non-profit research universities. Walter Reed was on the faculty of George Washington University while researching the causes of yellow fever. Jonas Salk developed the polio vaccine while at the University of Pittsburgh. These milestones now behind us, global health challenges such as malaria and tuberculosis still loom, as well as challenges in realizing the right to the highest attainable standard of health. Nonetheless, all too few major research universities are applying their multidisciplinary expertise to global health, whether in the laboratory or the courtroom.  As a director of the Northwestern Access to Health Project, an interdisciplinary partnership between Northwestern faculty and graduate students and a community in the developing world, I work with colleagues at Northwestern’s medical, engineering, and business schools to assess the community’s health needs and to implement a sustainable, capacity-building response based on the assessment.

The English poet John Masefield wrote in 1946 that “There are few earthly things more beautiful than a university.” The importance of the university is no less significant today than it was when Masefield wrote his poem.  He did not refer to Gothic architecture and pastoral settings. Rather, he admired the beauty of a university because it was, he said, “a place where those who hate ignorance may strive to know, where those who perceive truth may strive to make others see.”

The role of the truth-seeking university in the 21st century includes cutting-edge laboratory research. Just as importantly, it includes highly trained doctors, faculty, and graduate students leveraging their collective expertise to seek a truth in the form of a sustainable solution that will benefit the health of a community on the other side of the globe.

Occasionally, someone asks me why I bother, and why Northwestern bothers, with global community work such as the Access to Health Project. The questioner may believe that the health needs of distant lands are not the concern of a university in the United States. Rather, that work is the provenance of public international organizations; large NGOs; or government agencies. To be sure, these organizations pursue global health challenges with resources and dedication; however, they lack the profound depth of knowledge and resources possessed by a university with its abundance of scientific researchers, economists, and international legal scholars, not to mention an energetic corps of globally minded students.

But work on global health issues is not only something that a large research university in North America is uniquely capable of doing; it is work that such a university must be doing. Moral philosophy teaches that if an institution has a unique capacity to solve a problem, then it has an ethical obligation to try. The North American research university possesses profound excellence and expertise in medicine, economics and business, engineering, and the law. The field of health and human rights applies university resources in all these critical dimensions, bringing groundbreaking research into practice in the developing world. This is one of the things that makes a university beautiful. Research universities must show their commitment to global health to make it happen, and to give today’s students the opportunity to grow into global citizens.

Juliet S. Sorensen is a Clinical Assistant Professor of Law at Northwestern Law School, where she teaches Health and Human Rights. She is the founder of the Northwestern Access to Health Project, an interdisciplinary global community health partnership.