In August 2017, Team Sentinel interviewed President Susumu Satomi of Tohoku University. President Satomi’s presidency shall come to an end with this academic year. He speaks about his fondest memories, idea of internationalisation and the revival of Tohoku University post-2011.
Q1) You became the President of the university in 2012, the year following the Tohoku Disaster. What were some of the challenges that you faced then and how did you overcome them?
When I assumed Presidency, the campus was still damaged from the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami. At that time, we were working on both restoration and reconstruction of the campus. We were also working on the location to set up the new campus for the School of Agriculture. Around the same time, I developed the Tohoku University Broad vision at that time which consisted of the Satomi vision and the Faculty vision. It was also necessary to inspire and motivate the students and the faculty who lost their positivity. So, I asked one of the alumni members, Kazumasa Oda, to write a new song for the university. This is how the song Midori no Oka came to being. This made students revive their positive spirit which subsequently translated into them winning the National 7 Universities Athletic Meet for 3 years consecutively and Tohoku University being honoured as an institution in the list of ‘Designated National Universities’.
Q2) In the aftermath of the Tohoku Disaster, the entire region has suffered immensely. How has the University given back to the Tohoku society in the recovery and stabilization of the region?
As the director of the School of Medicine at that time, I sent medical officers on the ground and accepted several patients affected by the disaster. Many students worked hard as volunteers to clean the debris. We also established the Tohoku University Institute for Disaster Reconstruction and Regeneration Research in which we undertook 8 main projects and 100 other reconstruction project plans. One of the projects out of the 8 main was to establish the International Research Institute of Disaster Science for practical disaster mitigation. The other project was the Tohoku Medical Megabank Organisation under which we collected the genetic and medical data of 150,000 people to develop next-generation medical care system. Other projects like New Information Communication Systems helped extremely during the disaster. We are also very committed in the decommissioning of the Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant and we have also put in place entrepreneurship training courses to enhance jobs. After the United Nations World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction was held in Sendai, Tohoku University has become a global centre for disaster statistics and creation of Tsunami early warning systems using high speed computers in collaboration with Osaka University.
Q3) Since you assumed the role of President in 2012, we understand you have made various changes with your leadership on the management of Tohoku University. What kind of changes have you made over the past 5 years?
In the field of education, I set up the Institute for Excellence in Higher Education to expand the Admission Office entrance exams in order to match the international standards. Course numbering, GPA and Quarter system were a result of this. Few years ago, the Tohoku Global Leadership Program was also established and student exchanges were promoted under the Study Abroad Program. I also established the International Joint Graduate program in Spintronics and Data Science and Tohoku Forum for Creativity where, world-renowned researchers visit and guide students and younger researchers. The Frontier Research Institute for Interdisciplinary Sciences was established under my tenure to develop outstanding young researchers to whom we may also offer tenure positions. I also established the Global Research Hub under which institutes like WPI-AIMR (Material Science), CIES (Spintronics), ToMMO (Medicine) and IRIDeS (Disaster Prevention) came into being.
Q4) Can you tell us about some of your fondest memories being President of the University in the past 5 years?
Some of my fondest memories include construction of several buildings on the campus and rebuilding of infrastructure affected in 2011. Students resumed their activities and won the National 7 Universities Athletic Meet for 3 consecutive years. Recently, Tohoku University was also selected as a designated national university. These memories remain very dear to me.
Q5) We know that Tohoku University has eagerly tried to promote internationalisation in each department. We are here as a result of such a move. Would you tell us your personal feelings and motivation for such a move? And what is your view on the internationalisation of education in Japan?
In 1967, I entered Tohoku University. At that time, Okinawa was still under the American occupation. I learnt many things during that period and I thought that I would like to offer these opportunities to other international students too. Therefore, I wanted to increase the number of international students and building the new university dormitory in Aobayama is one of the few steps towards taken in this direction.
Q6) While internationalization certainly begins with bringing in more foreign students to study in Japan, it does not end there. The entire system of education must be transformed to truly be called international. There have been some challenges in this aspect such as the language gap, the Japanese society’s inertia to Internationalization etc. How have you dealt with these challenges to improve a situation?
It is necessary to change the language education system in Japan. Japanese people have translated western science, ideology and philosophy to Japanese so that we can understand it in our own native language since the Meiji restoration. Therefore, I think that it is important for us to keep our identity and originality first. I do agree that English language courses are necessary in the graduate level but I have my own apprehensions about introducing them at the undergraduate level.
Q７) Where do you see Tohoku University in the next decade, in terms of research, education and it’s influence and engagement with society?
Today, all the campuses are located within 9 minutes of travel time from Sendai Station. I would like to see many more companies building research centres on the campus. My dream is that Tohoku University becomes a leading research hub in Japan in the next 10 years.
Q８) What advice would you like to give based on your personal experience to the students, staff and all the members of the University especially with reference to how they can give back to society through their research or educational activities and strive to solve the problems in it?
Our duty is to give back to the society and strive to make a peaceful and just world. I think that it is difficult to do that today but there is definitely many possibilities. So, do your best and become a true member of the elite!
Interviewed by : Rohan Raj
Photograph and Video : Reyhan Daffa Athariq