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President Cohon moderates the World Economic Forum

President Cohon, pictured above, was invited to the WEF. (credit: File Photo) President Cohon, pictured above, was invited to the WEF. (credit: File Photo)

While just receiving an invitation may be the most significant achievement for the individual attendees at the annual World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, the overarching goal of the event is to stage conversations between leaders in their respective fields and glean insights about the state of the world from these conversations.

“Its purpose is not to solve problems.... The incentive is getting interesting and important people from around the world together to talk about problems,” explained Carnegie Mellon President Jared Cohon, who participated in this year’s forum as a moderator.

According to the WEF website, the forum “provides a rethinking of our systems and exploration of strategies and solutions that have positive transformational implications.

“For more than four decades, the Annual Meeting has provided leaders from industry, government, academia, civil society and the media with an unrivalled platform to shape the global agenda and catalyse solutions at the start of each year.”

The WEF finds university presidents ideally suited to moderating such discussions.

“Jerry [Cohon] brings us ... a capacity to address topics in a holistic fashion, a skill that we value, for example, in moderating sessions at Davos and that experienced university presidents like him offer,” said Michele Petochi, director and head of university community for the WEF.

This was Cohon’s second visit to Davos.

“I was there once before three years ago.... One of our alumni, who is now a CEO, arranged to have me there,” Cohon explained.

However, this year, Cohon is attending as a part of the Global University Leaders Forum (GULF), a community initiated by the WEF in 2006 that currently includes twenty heads of leading universities from across the world.

As a member of the GULF, Cohon received and will continue to receive invitations to the WEF each year. “We made sure that the World Economic Forum staff knew of Carnegie Mellon ... and we had [Petochi] visit campus for a day to learn more about us,” Cohon recalled about how he joined GULF. “He was very impressed, and on that basis we became a member.”

Petochi emphasized that in terms of the WEF gathering interesting and important people, universities are extremely rich resources. “We involve universities primarily by engaging the best faculty in groups of experts, ... [in] sessions at Davos and other summits, and other advisory roles,” Petochi said. “Having [Cohon] involved represents a unique opportunity of engaging CMU and its amazing faculty in our activities.”

Finally, Cohon stated that expertise in the field of education is always relevant.

“The problems that the world faces today always have the kind of educational element to varying degrees, and sometimes it’s essential, so you need and want higher education leaders in the discussion,” Cohon said. “Education, especially higher education, is something on the mind of every government leader and every corporate leader around the world.”

In addition to being president of a leading research university, Cohon is the chair of the Executive Committee of the Association of American Universities.

During the WEF, Cohon moderated an interactive group session titled “Getting Things Done: Macro and Micro Strategies,” which addressed how technology use can help increase productivity.

“This session was one of their dinner sessions,” Cohon said. “Every night they have sessions over dinner, and these sessions are intended to be informal by design. Unlike a formal session where people sit on a stage and make remarks, debate with each other, and respond to questions on the floor, this is much more informal where ... most of the session is just the conversation over dinner at each table.”

It might sound odd to students used to the classroom setting, but Cohon explained how the atmosphere and context at Davos is different: “The reason it works is that interesting people come to Davos. You never know who you’ll be sitting with at dinner, and the discussion I found was always very interesting.”

At Cohon’s table, the discussion leaders included the deputy prime minister of Vietnam, a professor of psychology and behavior economics at Duke University, and the CEO of Infosys Technologies. “It was a very interesting group,” Cohon said.

Cohon recalled that the most interesting part of the World Economic Forum was at another dinner session where the two speakers were Amy Chua, a professor of law at Yale Law School and author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, and Lawrence Summers, the former president of Harvard University and former director of the National Economic Council.

“Had you told me in advance, ‘Hey, you want to go to dinner to hear Tiger Mom and Larry Summers?’ I would have passed,” Cohon said. “But it was a very interesting dialogue, ... and both were very intelligent.”

Another major part of the WEF is networking. “It’s a very large crowd of very prominent people, and there’s value for each person in connecting with others,” Cohon said. “You’re walking out of the hallway, and there’s Bill Clinton, there’s Bill Gates, there’s George Soros talking with the president of Russia.... Getting access to any one of these people might take months and months if it happens at all, but here at Davos you can just go up to them and say, ‘Hi’ if you have the guts.”

However, Cohon admitted that he was shameless in this regard.

“My goal was to promote Carnegie Mellon in this very influential and important group of people and to meet people who could help Carnegie Mellon,” he said. “I’d say I did quite a bit of both.”