A Farewell Interview with UNU Rector Dr David M. Malone

Dr David M. Malone looks back at his time as Rector of UNU.

Today (28 February 2023) marks the last day of Dr David M. Malone's 10-year tenure as Rector of the United Nations University.

During his decade as Rector, Dr Malone drove several significant changes that fundamentally altered the character of the UNU. His achievements include realigning UNU’s work programme to be more responsive to the needs of the United Nations and its Member States; strengthening the University’s linkages with other UN system entities; and streamlining the global UNU system’s governance and management. Other important accomplishments were the achievement of gender parity in UNU senior leadership positions and establishment of the public UNU Conversation Series to bring international voices to Tokyo.

Earlier this month, UNU Office of Communications Head Kyra Bowman and Senior Editor William Auckerman sat down with Dr Malone to talk about his time at UNU, his thoughts on the university’s operation and evolution, and his plans for the future.

Following are selected excerpts from that interview (condensed and lightly edited for clarity).

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What do you think will be your legacy as UNU’s sixth Rector?

Dr Malone:  It's a very modest accomplishment. My first few years were spent administering, as gently as possible, a major course correction. My achievements have been, above all, to steady the university, strengthen its management, and strengthen the UNU Council and its authority over the institution.

What was your greatest satisfaction during your time as Rector?

Dr Malone: First of all, spending 10 years in Japan has been an unusual privilege. It's been a fascinating experience, and I've benefited a great deal from being here.

I was lucky to come to UNU late in my career, with quite a bit of knowledge of the UN system that I somehow had accumulated. I never thought of myself as a UN expert at all, but … I had been a scholar of the UN and the law of international organisations more generally, as well as leading a New York-based think-tank that focused quite heavily on international organisations. And as my somewhat chaotic but always gratifying career unfolded, I got to know many aspects of the UN. So I found, on arriving at UNU, that I could be quite useful to the United Nations itself in a modest way.

As well, while in Tokyo, I continued to contribute to academic scholarship, producing five books. I’ve very much enjoyed the luxury of having the time to do that … and how much teaching I've gone on doing in spite of other pressures. I loved it all and didn't want to give up any of it.

But now, I’m ready to knock off and simply enjoy the years left to me.

What was the path that led you to becoming the Rector of UNU?

Dr Malone: I actually came to scholarship quite late; I didn't get a graduate degree when I was a young student. I only became curious about what I could learn from my first full-time job in the Canadian foreign and trade ministry, which inspired me to sign up for a graduate [master’s] degree programme after I had been working for about four or five years. And not until much later, in my early 40s, did I sign up for a doctoral programme. I was teaching on the side of my main job in New York; I realized that I loved teaching, so I went off to school again. That is how all of this came about: one thing led to another, rather than there being a plan.

Also, it's very unusual for a guy like me to have been essentially single my whole life. You miss out on a great deal, unless you have very nice friends who include you in their family life, but one of the few advantages of being single is that you have only yourself to worry about. It empowers you to take more risks.

What did you find to be the biggest operating constraint that UNU faces?

Dr Malone: UNU has a lot fewer constraints than many higher education institutions. But, scale ― scale can be a huge constraint. We can't pretend to be Harvard - anybody who thinks we could be needs a serious reality check. Our modest scale is a very real constraint.

Money isn't UNU’s greatest barrier; we have a sizable endowment, for the number of employees we have. For many academic institutions, money is the only constraint worth mentioning. So many universities in the developing world have students desperately eager to learn, and have faculty who could teach them very well, but don't have the resources or other wherewithal they need to provide top-notch programmes to their students.

Here in UNU, we can pick and choose rather selectively what we're going to do. And we try to make sure that our students really benefit. All of our programmes bring in students from the developing world – in Tokyo nearly all of them are – and the overwhelming majority are from middle-class rather than elite-class families. In nearly all cases, we can support them if they don't have other outside support. Though we’re very small, we have partner universities who are happy to work with us, and to whom we can delegate a number of responsibilities, including the teaching of many courses.

One thing that is difficult for us, though, as a university, is the UN's rulebook. In terms of staffing and administration, the UN rulebook is quite micromanaging, which isn’t useful if you're working with people who are outcome-oriented. The UN's rulebook is over-developed, relative to what we do; but we have to live with it, not least as we support the UN’s objectives and actively want to help the organisation.

What is one of the significant ways that UNU has become more responsive to the policy needs of the UN and its Member States.

Dr Malone: Future-scanning is quite important. When we decided to have a policy-oriented think tank as our principal institutional objective, we incubated a new unit, the UNU Centre for Policy Research [UNU-CPR], here in Tokyo. That team, in order to generate business (because ultimately, UNU-CPR needed to become self-reliant), did quite a lot of future-scanning: What are the coming issues that, if UNU can get in on the ground floor, could be our bread and butter for the next four or five years, or become one of our strengths?

UNU-CPR, now based in New York, still does lot of future-scanning, not least because the UN Secretariat tends to move slowly and is very tied down by the challenges of the here and now. Some agencies, like UNICEF or the World Food Program, are very good at future-planning and reacting quickly to events. But much of the UN system isn't.

Future-scanning helps to know about an issue before it becomes a big problem, and to develop some ideas about it. And once one establishes a reputation for good work, funders are willing to part with money for more work on a particular issue that could be of use, either to the UN or to the wider global community.

Individual academics are always doing future-scanning in their field, but we do more of it institutionally than do many academic institutions.

Has the research-to-policy interface changed over the past 10 or 20 years? And if so, how is the University evolved to adapt?

Dr Malone: I'm not sure there's been a fundamental change in the wider world; but for UNU, it was a big change to move towards a policy focus rather than only an academic one. UNU-CPR, which is now based in New York, works only on policy, and has become quite successful at it  ― such that now they have the luxury to pick and choose what they're going to do, and with whom they're going to work.

It's can be a difficult management challenge because in policy research, you really need to work with the very best. Often the best people are very young, and they're not easy to identify. Word of mouth works best, actually in scanning for such talent.

Also, the timeframe for policy is much shorter than for academic work. University research aims primarily to increase knowledge in some way. Think tank research, however, aims to have concrete impact on policy challenges; think tanks need to be nimble and extremely alert to coming issues, but also know when to ditch yesterday's news. Both types of institutions deal with knowledge, but their output is very different and what they consider success is different.

How do you think UNU might change over the next decade?

Dr Malone: Within the university, nearly everybody ― and I'm in the minority on this ― probably thinks UNU should expand. The problem is that expansion is risky, because if you get overextended financially and then start under-delivering, the result is pretty gruesome. On the other hand, it's very difficult to raise more money for the status quo.

We're a very small institution, on the scale of full-service universities. While we're lucky to have a sizable endowment, if that endowment were to be eroded, that would have consequences very rapidly, further restricting what UNU can do.

But I think the University may be ripe for more innovation now, and my successor may be inclined to see whether he can raise a bit more money to do perhaps more ambitious things. I think that Rector Marwala, in dialogue with the Council and having consulted colleagues within the University, will be best positioned to know where he'd like to place a bet or two, and then how to fund it.

What advice will you give your successor?

Dr Malone: Well, first of all, I hope my successor enjoys the job as much as I have. Prof. Marwala is a scholar, and his field is a tremendously contemporary one: artificial intelligence. So, he's going to have a completely different point of view. I think he's a very exciting figure, having presided over one of Africa’s best higher education institutions, the University of Johannesburg. And I envy him being nearly 20 years younger than me, in that he still has a lot of the energy I have been gently losing in recent years.

So, I'd advise him to enjoy it, and to enjoy Japan, and also to think about what he can do to support the UN as a scientist, an African, and a natural leader. Contributing to the UN can come in many forms, but if you figure out one area or one set of global issues on which you can contribute, that can be very gratifying.

What are your plans after leaving UNU?

Dr Malone: I plan to enjoy myself. A lot of guys ― and it's a very “guy” thing ― are worried about retirement because a lot of their own self-worth is tied to their job. I've never felt that particularly, so that's not going to bother me at all. I just want to enjoy my remaining years of good health, because if you're close to 70, you can hope for, if you're very lucky, 10 more years of good health. So why not enjoy them as your major project?

That's my basic philosophy. I love reading. I love all sorts of music, but above all, classical music, I love good films, good theatre, pretty much anything in the performing arts. So I don't think I'm going to be bored for a second. And I’m very fond of my large circle of friends, scattered all around the globe.

Fortunately, in both places I'm retiring to, I have such old friends. That happens to very few of us who live internationally. But because I was single, I’ve kept up those friendships that really mattered to me. Being with people I've known for a very long time is something I'm looking forward to very much.

Being able to live in Japan for as long as I've lived here has been a huge privilege, as well as having had the opportunity to provide input to the work and management of the UN. I've also really enjoyed working with my colleagues leading other agencies, and I was extraordinarily lucky to work with my UNU colleagues. Overall, for me it's been a great experience.

But now, just pure fun, I hope, if my health cooperates. Also catching up with old friends, and newer friends quite soon. Bliss on wheels!

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