Background and Rationale

The Aga Khan University [AKU] was established in 1983 by His Highness the Aga Khan, through a Charter granted by the Government of Pakistan. The Charter established several defining principles for the University’s development: it would be open to all; its purpose would be the promotion and dissemination of knowledge and technology; it would provide for instruction, training, research, demonstration, and service in the health sciences and such other branches of learning as the University may determine; it would be a fully autonomous corporate body with freedom to govern its academic functions and the right to grant degrees; and it would be allowed to establish faculties abroad.[1]​

As defined in the Charter, the initial focus of the new university was on the health sciences, with the launch of the School of Nursing, the Medical College, and Aga Khan University Hospital between 1981 and 1985. Over the next four decades, the University grew rapidly from a small institution in Pakistan to a multi-discipline, multi-campus, multi-country presence in South and Central Asia, East Africa, and the United Kingdom. Its academic and research programmes now include educational development, media and communications, human development, and the study of Muslim civilisations, with a student body of 3,200 and more than 16,000 alumni. The AKU Examination Board in Pakistan provides affordable, high-quality, school-leaving examinations for secondary students. The University has developed research capacities and centres of excellence in diverse fields including maternal and child health, cancer, infectious diseases, and digital humanities. AKU has also vastly expanded its provision of health services across its geographies, with seven hospitals and over 330 outreach clinics caring for over two million patients annually. 

As AKU approached its 40th anniversary, it had reached a critical juncture in its development. Looking to the future, AKU weighed unmet aspirations to evolve into a full-scale liberal arts university or, more audaciously, to become a comprehensive institution with an array of undergraduate, graduate, and professional degree programmes. In that regard, the University had invested significant resources and engaged external expertise in planning for a Faculty of Arts and Sciences and for graduate professional schools in six areas: government and public policy; architecture and human settlement; economic growth and development; law; leadership and management; and hospitality, leisure, and tourism. It had acquired sites for new campuses, including large tracts of land on the outskirts of Karachi and in Arusha, Tanzania, as well as for facilities that laid foundations for a regionally integrated health care system in Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. More generally, AKU had won international recognition as a multi-national leader in education, research, and innovation with a special mission of improving quality of life in the Global South. 

The question therefore became: How was AKU to chart its future course? How should it prioritise expansion and growth of new initiatives versus continued investment in its foundational programmes and current operations? Where could AKU best align its programmes and activities with the capacity of the wider Aga Khan Development Network [AKDN] and the societies with which it is concerned? What impact would ongoing growth have on AKU’s adherence to its core principles of Impact, Quality, Relevance, and Access [IQRA] and on AKU’s myriad stakeholders? More generally, given both those principles and the challenging contexts in which the University operates, how best might it sustain both current activities and new initiatives? 

In July 2019, the Board of Trustees convened a special session to consider these questions. AKU had twice before conducted externally guided studies to chart its future course. The first study, launched with the formal establishment of AKU and undertaken by a committee led by then Harvard University President Derek Bok, proposed specific paths of development through which AKU might pursue its mission. The “Harvard Report” (1983) served as a critical touchstone for the University in its first decade. Towards the end of that decade, the Chancellor appointed a special commission to review the early development of the University and recommend the disciplines, geographies, and required resources that would define its future direction.[2] Like the Harvard Report, the Report of the Chancellor’s Commission, The Future of the Aga Khan University: Evolution of a Vision (1994) provided a common path for AKU’s stakeholders for over a quarter century. These documents had served the institution well, but the vision and recommendations they contained were not intended to apply indefinitely. 

The Trustees agreed that expert guides could once again help AKU identify the best path forward. They proposed that the Chancellor consider the establishment of a new commission to prepare an updated roadmap for the long-term future of the University. His Highness approved this proposal in December 2019, and AKU began preparing for the launch of a second Chancellor’s Commission in early 2020. 

With the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, AKU focused on developing a robust and coordinated response across its multiple operating environments—notably including frontline health care provision for patients and communities affected by the virus; knowledge sharing and advisory services for governments, health facilities, and other partners; and path-breaking research to better understand the virus, improve testing and find innovative solutions and treatments. It had to adapt and innovate rapidly to safeguard the continuity, quality, and reach of its educational and research programmes. Preparatory work on the Chancellor’s Commission continued during this period, while the Chancellor and Trustees considered the advisability of launching the Commission during such challenging times. In early 2021, it was determined that the present circumstances underscored the necessity of this future-looking endeavour—both to learn from these unprecedented times and to ensure that short-term decisions in the present would not limit the University’s future prospects. Planning subsequently intensified for the Commission’s launch in July 2021. 

The Second Chancellor’s Commission

The Commission’s Mandate

As defined in its Terms of Reference, the mandate of the second Chancellor’s Commission was comprehensive in scope. Against the overall vision for AKU as articulated in the 1983 Harvard Report and renewed in the 1994 Chancellor’s Commission Report, the new commission’s charge was to:

  1. Examine and document the University’s progress, including its achievements, fragilities, and lessons learned between 1994 and the present time.

  2. Assess the University’s present conditions against that vision and progress and suggest changes in the conception of AKU that now may appear appropriate or necessary, considered particularly against both the fragilities and strengths that have emerged during the pandemic.

  3. Prepare a roadmap for the next 25 years of AKU’s development, including programmes or activities the University might undertake or expand.

  4. Describe the financial, technical, and human resources and systems necessary for the proposed future course.

  5. Recommend appropriate management and governance structures.

  6. Identify ways in which AKU could more effectively work with other Aga Khan Development Network agencies and institutions to achieve this renewed vision and strengthen their collective development impact.

This mandate was broader than that of the first Chancellor’s Commission, reflecting not only the significant growth of AKU over the past 25 years, but also the decision to integrate consideration of the University’s extensive health services provision into the second commission’s charge. Due to circumstances detailed below, and our analysis of current and future conditions, the Commission reframed charges 4 and 5, providing guidance on planning principles and operating precepts rather than granular recommendations on resource requirements and mobilisation or on changes to management and governance structures.

Commission Membership and Staff

In their proposal to the Chancellor of candidates for the commission, the Board of Trustees prioritised individuals who could make multi-faceted contributions beyond their direct professional experience or area of scholarly expertise; who had demonstrated insight into the future of higher education and research, especially as regards the Global South; and who shared the University’s mission, values, and commitment to its diverse constituencies.

In spring 2021, the Chancellor appointed 15 individuals, including two co-chairs, to serve on the Commission. Ten Commissioners were external to AKU; after strong initial contributions, one member withdrew due to competing commitments.[3] Five more members were AKU Trustees. Dr Carrie LaPorte, former Editor-in-Chief at Aga Khan Foundation Canada, was appointed as Secretary.[4]​ Appendix A provides brief profiles of all Commissioners.   

The authors and signatories to this report are

​Dr Lisa Anderson, Trustee and Co-chair 

​Dr David Naylor, Co-chair

​Princess Zahra Aga K​han, Trustee

​Dr Ali S. Asani

​Dr Phillip L. Clay, Trustee

​Mr Naguib Kheraj, Trustee

​Dr Mahmood Mamdani

​Dr Nergis Mavalvala

​Dr Afaf Meleis, Trustee 

​Mr Carlos Moedas

​Dr Jamil Salmi

​Dr Julia Sperling-Magro

​Professor Mary Stiasny

​Dr Anita Zaidi 

​Dr Carrie LaPorte, Secretary

Framework and Approach

The Chancellor’s Commission launched in July 2021 with a virtual meeting to orient members to the AKDN and AKU; identify the issues it would need to address; and confirm its approach to the work ahead.  The commissioners identified the following issues as critical to their mandate.

  • Three central themes arose: the global higher education landscape, including the social, economic, political, and cultural contexts in which AKU operates (currently and in future); the elements of a comprehensive university, not only focused on the liberal arts but also professional education, interdisciplinarity and inter-professionalism, and research and innovation; and the financial, technical, and intellectual resources and models that AKU will need to meet future needs and ambitions.

  • Four cross-cutting concerns were also identified: the future of health services in the Global South and within higher education institutions; partnerships within the AKDN as well as with public, private, and civil society institutions; equity, pluralism, and inclusion in a global context; and the opportunities and challenges presented by new and emerging technologies.

To advance their work, the Commissioners developed a work plan that included in-person meetings to enable them to work effectively and efficiently together; visits to AKU campuses and consultations with the University’s stakeholders; and flexibility in the Commission’s approach so that it could navigate ongoing challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. They also endorsed a proposal to divide into working groups around the three central themes to advance their thinking between plenary meetings. A second, brief plenary session was held virtually in October 2021 to confirm the overall approach to work, a provisional schedule, and working group assignments. The three working groups each met once over the following two months and identified lines of enquiry and research needs. 

Altering Course

Two major factors hindered timely progress beyond this foundational work. First, the surge of the Delta variant of SARS-CoV-2 in Europe, and the emergence and rapid spread of the Omicron variant in late 2021/ early 2022, thwarted provisional plans to convene in person or develop a practicable schedule for the coming year. 

Equally important, AKU had changed significantly since the launch of the Commission, including in its leadership at the executive and board levels. The University had a new president, a new Board Chair, several new Trustees, and a reconfigured senior management team charged with guiding AKU through both operational and academic reforms. In September 2021, the new administration launched a comprehensive operational review, which would provide an updated basis not only for their short- to medium-term planning but for the Commission’s longer-term forecasting as well. This meant that both the baseline against which the Commission would set its recommendations for AKU’s future, and the audience to whom it would address those recommendations, had changed appreciably. 

For AKU, the pandemic was in many ways a stark illustration of the challenges that the University would face in the next quarter century, even as the changes in governance and administrative personnel reinforced the urgency and importance of drawing on the advice of a body such as the Commission.  

After deliberation and consultation, in April 2022 the Co-Chairs proposed an alternate path forward for the Commission: they would solicit the independent views of each Commissioner on how AKU might best evolve and position itself over the next two decades, given changes in, inter alia, higher education, demographics, climatic conditions, the global political and economic order, and the specific contexts within which the University operates now or may operate in future. The Co-Chairs and Secretary accordingly undertook interviews with individual Commissioners. Several Commissioners also contributed essays and commentaries, from which this report has substantively drawn. To support the Commission’s work, AKU shared a range of publications and internal planning documents. AKU also facilitated interviews and consultations between individual Commissioners and University’s executive officers, faculty, and subject matter specialists. 

An in-person meeting set for March 2023 in Karachi, Pakistan was deferred due to potential civil unrest. Finally, in May 2023 a meeting in Lisbon, Portugal was convened to discuss the key themes that had emerged from the Commissioners’ collective and individual contributions, and to seek input from the University’s leadership on the intersection of the identified themes and ideas with AKU’s near-term situation.

Aligning with AKU Planning Processes

As the Chancellor’s Commission continued on its altered course, AKU’s new leadership had been charged with expeditiously guiding the institution through both operational and academic reforms. In October 2022, the Report of the University Review Task Force documented the findings of the above-noted comprehensive operational review, and the Administration began a process intended to produce a five-year operating plan for 2023-27. 

The resulting draft document, AKU Onwards, was completed in early May 2023. While it contained tactical details suited to a short-term work plan, many elements were sufficiently ambitious that, in themselves, they could occupy the institution well into the next decade. More relevant from the Commission’s perspective, the “Onwards” plan also highlighted longer-term issues that overlapped the horizon of the Chancellor’s Commission.  

The alignment of the draft plan with the Commission’s emerging conclusions was striking and encouraging. In part, this was a function of independent and simultaneous observation of institutional challenges and global trends. However, the overlap also reflected the fortuitous intersection of personnel and material, underscoring the value of having current Trustees on this and any future Commissions. To bring these two parallel processes together and accelerate AKU’s ability to draw on the Commission’s unique vantage point to inform the University’s immediate priorities as well as longer-term strategies, the Commission shifted gears yet again in the weeks leading up to the Lisbon gatherings. 

The Co-chairs prepared and circulated two draft documents that synthesised the Commissioners’ insights.  In brief, one focused on contexts and trends, while the other honed in on long-term guidance for AKU. At its meetings in Lisbon, the Commission reviewed the synthesis documents, identifying key messages, outstanding gaps, and areas of divergence. Sessions with AKU President Sulaiman Shahabuddin and with the Board of Trustees provided opportunities for Commissioners to share their views on the intersections and differences between the University’s strategic plan and the Commission's vision of the future AKU. 

The Lisbon sessions were extremely productive and, in this post-pandemic world, a strong reminder of the enduring value of in-person gatherings to share perspectives and forge consensus among groups of any size. Those discussions, and consultations with Commissioners who could not attend the meeting, have been incorporated into this final report.

As noted above, we did not take up in detail the “financial, technical, and human resources and systems necessary for proposed future course” nor recommended “appropriate management and governance structures”. In part this reflected our inability to meet in person both together as a Commission and with University management and stakeholders as originally planned. That said, the COVID-19 pandemic was also a stark reminder of the rapid changes in the contexts in which AKU is operating. Our analyses of those changes arguably played an even larger role in steering us toward the delineation of planning principles and operating precepts that seemed more promising as a source of both timely and more durable guidance for the present and future AKU. 

Organisation of this Report

While encompassing the diverse knowledge, insights, and expertise of its members, these “Reflections on the Future of the Aga Khan University” offer a shared view and vision for the institution. Hence, while substantial material has been drawn from the written submissions of several Commissioners, it was agreed that there would be no attribution to individual authors.  

The next section of this report offers the Commission’s analysis of changes in the world at large over the three decades since the report of the first Chancellor’s Commission. It addresses the vulnerabilities and opportunities of AKU’s operating contexts in South/ Central Asia and East Africa, as well as in the Global South more broadly.

Section 3 focuses on changes in higher education, including those occurring in response to powerful global forces, different trends in different geographies, and also ways and places where universities have been more reluctant to modify traditional policies and practices. 

The next two sections are focused specifically on AKU and offer guidance for its trajectory in the challenging years ahead. Section 4 considers the mission, values, and ethos of the institution against its current realities and anticipated operating environments. It also proposes a set of strategic planning principles with elaboration on how they might be applied to charting AKU’s future. Section 5 emphasises operating principles that should inform AKU’s administrative plans and work. Much of the section is devoted to examples of current and future application of themes such as interdisciplinarity, digital transformation, networks/partnerships, and knowledge translation—almost all with multiple examples. Last, we also examine new priorities for AKU, with particular reference to what might be termed population and planetary health.    

Given their continuity with the Founder’s vision and AKU’s trajectory, our reflections on the mission, values, and ethos might be viewed as affirmation of enduring compass points. Other guidance is offered with due humility given our assessment of the trends and issues affecting AKU’s operating environments. It should be seen as provisional navigational guidance for uncharted terrain, crafted with a clear understanding that future Trustees and Administrations may need to change course as the shape of the future world around AKU becomes clearer. And it is in the same spirit that the Commissioners have respectfully side-stepped elements of our mandate that would have seen us opining in implausible detail on governance or on administrative, academic, and operational matters.  

A concluding section recapitulates the Commission’s key points of guidance and connects them to AKU’s current strategic planning process. Appendices A and B contain, respectively, brief profiles of the Commissioners and a list of materials and individuals consulted by the Commission in its work.


As implied above, this Chancellor’s Commission has reaffirmed the foresight of the Founder’s vision and the enduring relevance of AKU’s mission. We applaud the remarkable progress and impact that AKU has made in a comparatively short time and in often challenging environments. Those successes—and the strong foundations on which they are based—reflect the compounding effects of excellent values, clarity of mission, visionary governance, nimble and clear-sighted administration, generous support from wide-ranging sources, meaningful partnerships, and above all, the commitment and achievements of AKU’s faculty, staff, students, and alumni.  

The Commissioners also wish to acknowledge the succession of volunteers who, over the course of four decades, have dedicated untold hours to AKU’s advancement. We are grateful to be part of that tradition, and deeply appreciative of the assistance the Commission has received from so many talented individuals working for or volunteering with AKU. We remain confident that, despite a future that appears to be even more volatile, complex, and unsettled than AKU has experienced to date, this remarkable and resilient institution will continue not only to thrive but also to shape a better world in the decades ahead.


[1] Government of Pakistan. The Aga Khan University Order 1983. President's Order #3. March 16, 1983. As amended by The Aga Khan University (Amendment) Order, 2002. https://www.aku.edu/about/charters/Pages/pakistan.aspx

[2] The Chancellor convened a separate Medical Centre Committee (1991-1993) to provide guidance on the future development and financing of AKU's health sciences education and research programmes and its health care service delivery. The first Commission drew upon the work of that Committee to inform its recommendations. 

[3] Professor Emerita Dame Alison Fettes Richard participated in the Commission's early discussions, but other commitments prevented her contribution to the final report. Her insights and expertise helped shape the direction of the Commission's guidance; we are grateful for her support.

[4] While AKU's administration, faculty and staff were very responsive to information requests of all types, amidst the constant disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic no formal secretariat was established. ​