By His Highness the Aga Khan, Karachi, Pakistan · 18 March 2023 · 6 min
Forty years ago, the Aga Khan University received its Charter from the Government of Pakistan as a vast crowd of well-wishers looked on. It was a truly historic occasion – the kind that comes only a few times in one's life. It filled my heart and the hearts of many others with joy and pride.
Four decades later, we have gathered to celebrate a trio of milestones. This time we have done so on three continents and before a global audience, a testament to the University’s enormous growth and transformation. And if our joy and pride were great in 1983, how much greater they should be today, given all that we have achieved together, and the promise of our graduands.
Some in the audience today were here in Karachi on the 16th of March, 1983. They will surely remember the high spirits of the day. If you ask them, they may also recall that the size of the audience far exceeded expectations and the number of seats available!
Some will recall as well the ceremony that followed two years later, at which we inaugurated the Aga Khan University Hospital and the Faculty of Health Sciences. I spoke then about the arduous journey from the project’s announcement in 1964 to the completion of its first phase in 1985. For the creation of AKU was an immense task, involving moments of exhaustion as well as moments of exultation. I remain grateful to all those who, with me, battled to bring the University into existence.
Yet, exemplary devotion to the University’s founding vision has not ceased in the decades since. AKU's donors continue to build its endowments with boundless generosity; its faculty and staff to serve as the guardians of its culture and values; its volunteers and partners to freely share their invaluable expertise. It is to celebrate such ongoing commitment and all that it has made possible that the University has established Founder’s Day as an annual tradition. Founder’s Day refers not to one person, or even one generation. Instead, it acknowledges the collective work that moves AKU ever forward in line with its distinctive mission: to bring knowledge, leadership, and excellence to bear upon the challenges facing the world, especially in Asia and Africa, and to build bridges of understanding between countries, cultures, and faiths.
Underlying that mission are a number of fundamental convictions. As we step confidently into our fifth decade, there has never been a better time to revisit them.
These convictions include the belief that the pursuit of knowledge is not a threat to faith but its natural complement. As the philosopher Al-Kindi wrote more than a thousand years ago, “No one is diminished by the truth, rather does the truth ennoble all.” The conviction that Africa and Asia can make mighty contributions to global innovation. That high standards are not a luxury to be dispensed with in low-income settings, but the wellspring of progress. That diversity is a blessing rather than a burden, and that half the world’s talent – at least – lies in the minds of women.
To these principles can be added several important observations. Among them that the world has entered a new era, that of the knowledge society, in which intellectual achievement decisively shapes the fate of individuals and peoples. That in an age of polarisation, strong civil society institutions can reknit the torn threads of community. And, crucially, that all these insights can be united and made real in millions of lives via a uniquely powerful institution. Namely, the modern university.
While it was founded in deeply held convictions, no one should imagine that AKU’s success was inevitable. The University was conceived amid the chill of the Cold War, as the high hopes that followed decolonisation were encountering stubborn realities. It took shape in a time of crisis for higher education in the developing world. Across Asia and Africa, universities struggled to meet lofty expectations, leading to many questioning their value altogether. Abroad, experts argued that low-income countries ought to spend their scarce funds on elementary education rather than higher education. AKU’s planners were swimming against the tide.
The University’s greatest growth occurred during a period of local and global transformation, as the bipolar era thawed into one of tremendous uncertainty. I must say: our boldness in such circumstances caused us some trepidation. Questions abounded. Would the University’s vision galvanise the support of its diverse constituencies? Could it attain international benchmarks of quality while remaining accessible to the least advantaged? If it could strike that balance in an institution of limited scale, could it do so in one of growing scope?
Forty years on, these questions have been answered in the affirmative – if not for all time, then at least for the time being. The University has amply vindicated the faith of its champions. AKU’s achievements are many, varied, and increasing in number. They are a source of great happiness to me. Among the most recent is its appearance on the global rankings of leading universities. It seems that AKU is, as I hoped it would, “catching the imagination of the world”. That it has done so is thanks to the dedication of its people, the achievements of its alumni, the generosity of its donors and volunteers, and the support it has received from government and private-sector institutions at home and abroad.
But rather than list laurels, I will cite here only what seems to me the most indelible of the University’s accomplishments: that it has become a source of hope for so many. From the patients who seek relief from suffering at its hospitals, to the parents who dream of seeing their children don its graduation robes – AKU’s name conjures hope. There is no force more powerful or more needed today. When we plant hope in people’s lives, we lighten all their burdens. It is a source of energy and inspiration that is endlessly renewable.
Obstacles to AKU’s ambitions will not cease to arise in the years ahead. Change in our various contexts will be ongoing – if anything, it looks likely to accelerate. The University must keep one eye fixed on the horizon, evolving and adapting to new circumstances. At the same time, it must keep its founding vision firmly before it. A great university is not built in a few decades, or even in a lifetime.
AKU’s purpose must remain lucid and constant, transcending the generations even as it is reborn in each new generation’s passion and commitment.
Today, as in 1983, the future of the University lies in the hands of its leaders, faculty, staff, and supporters. It depends no less on the excellence of its students and graduates. I have the utmost faith that the Class of 2022 will continue to add lustre to the University's name, whether from within its own classrooms and clinics, or from institutions equally vital and renowned.
Together, all of us are the custodians of the founding vision. Our history gives us every reason to believe that so long as we remain true to that vision, AKU’s light – the light depicted in the University’s seal – will grow ever brighter, helping to illuminate the path to a better future for the people it serves.
Graduands, my wish today is that you will know the joy of planting hope in people's lives, of building bridges of understanding, of venturing into the uncharted waters where new knowledge is discovered. May your futures be rich in challenges embraced and overcome. May you be bold amid uncertainty, and see your boldness rewarded.