Putting dialogue first An interview with President Fujii

May 6, 2021

UTokyo President Teruo Fujii sits down with Public Relations Office Director Hiromi Yokoyama for an interview on March 26, 2021.

Teruo Fujii, a microdevice researcher turned university executive, took office as president of the University of Tokyo on April 1, 2021. In a statement released the same day, Fujii showed his resolve to cultivate a new vision of UTokyo by promoting dialogue between people of different backgrounds and those who espouse different values.

Days before formally taking office, Fujii sat down with Hiromi Yokoyama, a UTokyo professor and director of the university’s Public Relations Office, to share his ideas on building a new model of the university. He also answered a wide array of questions about himself, including reasons for becoming a researcher and his student days at UTokyo.

Yokoyama: You stressed the importance of “dialogue” in your inaugural message. What is your thinking behind it?

Fujii: We have seen many problems emerge in society and around the world, while the COVID-19 pandemic has deprived us of opportunities to meet and talk to each other in person. As a result, I feel that in many situations our thoughts are not fully conveyed to others, causing problems to escalate. When you look at the past year alone, I feel we have witnessed more problems such as civil wars, cases of discrimination and social divisions than usual. I feel strongly that we need more opportunities for people of all stripes to engage in dialogue and develop empathy.

Under the previous administration of President Makoto Gonokami, I was in charge of corporate and social relations, where I observed up close parts of the university that cross boundaries with society. A university needs to explain its activity to the outside world and seek the support and understanding of society. If the university does not make its activities public and continue engaging in dialogue with the public, we will not be understood or accepted by society.

Diversity as a basic principle

Yokoyama: While dialogue is a time- and energy-consuming process, it leads to nurturing of trust. I feel diversity will be key in earning trust from society. Many people have high expectations for your leadership, as you have emphasized the importance of diversity.

Fujii: We should promote diversity as a basic principle. There are many different people with unique backgrounds in the world. If people with different backgrounds get together and discuss a diverse range of ideas, we can raise the level of university activities. It’s no question that the university should value diversity, and it should be our top priority.

Yokoyama: The news that you have put together a nine-member Board of Directors in which a majority — five people — are women caught a lot of attention, especially because Japan lags far behind the rest of the world in gender equality, with few women in leadership positions. Was that a deliberate decision?

Fujii: Not really. I asked people I truly wanted to work with to become members of the board, and it turned out that way naturally. I did not intend that to become news.

Yokoyama: I reviewed materials on the new working groups tasked with creating the “Fujii Plan” (to be unveiled later this year), which sets forth the policies and actions of the Fujii administration over the next six years. I found the names and themes you created to be quite unique. Eight working groups have been set up along the themes of “research,” “education,” “collaboration with society,” “DX (digital transformation),” “GX (green transformation),” “CX (corporate transformation),” “diversity and global” and “MX (management transformation).” Would you elaborate on these groups?

Hiromi Yokoyama, a UTokyo professor and director of the Public Relations Office

Fujii: Research and education are the foremost areas of university activities, while collaboration with society is something the university engages in together with outside institutions. These are basic activities of the university so I created a working group for each. DX and GX concern all of the education/research/collaborations the university is involved in. “Diversity and global” are concepts that concern the entire university. CX concerns communication between the university and society, as well as the operations and workstyles at the university. In other words, education/research/collaborations are inherent activities of the university, while DX/GX/CX are concepts that cross them all. I was actually drawing a matrix of all these. MX supports university finances. Former President Gonokami pushed for reform of the university to make it a management entity, an idea I would like to promote further.

Yokoyama: In a news conference in October 2020 to announce your selection as the next UTokyo president, you said you wanted to make the university a place where “people from around the world would like to come and join.” What kind of university do you have in mind?

Fujii: UTokyo is a university so it’s of course a place of learning. By “people” I mean everyone — students, international students, researchers and staff. I would like to make the university a place where people would want to come and study or work, a place that they feel excited to be at.

Yokoyama: Does that include utilizing highly skilled staff?

Fujii: Yes. For example, in my previous duty as board director and executive vice president in charge of corporate relations, I worked with fundraising specialists. Whether in the areas of public relations or international relations, experts are absolutely needed. I would like to utilize such talents. At the same time, I think we should send the message that the university is an attractive place to work fresh out of college. In fact there aren’t many other institutions engaged in such diverse activities; you can be involved in student affairs, but you can also plan and hold events. You can do PR or work at hospitals. You can even experience financial work, like asset management.

Reconnecting learning with society

Yokoyama: You said during the October news conference that the university should be a place to reconnect students’ learning with society. Would you elaborate?

Fujii: Today’s world is so unpredictable that students who graduate from college and start working can’t tell what they would be expected to do. But they would still have to cope and use the knowledge they gained at university in real-world situations. So that comment reflected my thinking that students should seek more opportunities to step out of UTokyo while they are still enrolled and apply the knowledge learned in the classrooms in the outside world — like in other countries, municipal governments or other academic institutions. UTokyo has ongoing projects with many companies through academia/industry/government collaborations. Internships are currently connected to job hunting, but I have worked on creating internships that don’t necessarily lead to future employment, but ones that serve as opportunities for students to use their academic learning in real-life settings. I would like to expand such opportunities.

Yokoyama: So you mean students learn twice — in the classrooms and then in the real world.

Fujii: Exactly. Through such experiences, students learn what they haven’t acquired and then get motivated to learn more back at university. That’s what I mean by “reconnecting students’ learning.”

Digitalization of university operations

Yokoyama: You have also touched on digitalization of university operations.

Fujii: We cannot delay the digitalization of administrative procedures any further. Especially under the current pandemic, we should make it possible for administrative staff to avoid using paper as much as possible, which means that we have to connect various existing systems smoothly. It would help reduce administrative burdens, freeing up the staff’s time for new tasks.

Another type of digitalization I would like to push for is one for our campuses. For example, it is not easy for people with disabilities to find the best routes to move across the campus. Digitalization could help them. Also, I would like to make procedures for using rooms and registering for classes easier for the students so they can manage such information on their smartphones. In fact, we started discussing developing an app for such purposes. If students start using the app while in college and continue to use it after graduation, the university would be able to remain connected with them. Alumni relations are extremely important for UTokyo, so I am keen on pushing for digitalization as a way to expand the university community.

Yokoyama: I feel digital tools need to be interactive; if we don’t try to involve users they won’t use them for long. Are you going to involve all UTokyo members in your push for digitalization, not just people in charge of information systems?

Fujii: That’s right. I would like to share the culture among all UTokyo members to make UTokyo a place where everyone would want to join and fulfill their potential.

Date of interview: March 26, 2021

NOTE: President Teruo Fujii tested positive for the coronavirus on April 5, 2021, and resumed his official duties on April 16 after receiving medical treatment for mild symptoms of COVID-19. No infections have been confirmed among the other participants present at this interview.

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