AKU Board of Trustees Dinner in Lisbon

Speech by Mr Firoz Rasul, Aga Khan University president

His Highness the Aga Khan, Chancellor ​of the Aga Khan University
Mr Carlos Moedas, European Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation
Dr Haile Debas, Chairman pro tem of the Board of Trustees
Mr Nazim Ahmad, Diplomatic Representative of the Ismaili Imamat
Trustees and Distinguished Guest​s​

Good evening.

Thank you all very much for joining us tonight. It is truly an honour to have you join us this evening. Due to unavoidable circumstances, His Excellency Marcelo de Sousa conveyed his regrets for not being able to join us today.

We feel especially fortunate to have Commissioner Moedas with us this evening, and we are very much looking forward to his remarks. Thank you, Commissioner for taking the time to be with us this evening.

Tonight, I would like to take a few minutes to reflect on the values that unite all of us in this room.

But first, I realise some of you may not be well acquainted with the Aga Khan University – even those who are familiar with our Founder and Chancellor, His Highness the Aga Khan, or with the work of the Aga Khan Foundation in Portugal and Mozambique. So I will offer a very brief introduction to Aga Khan University or AKU as we call ourselves.

AKU was founded in 1983 as Pakistan's first private university. Beginning in 2000, we expanded to Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, followed by Afghanistan and the United Kingdom. We have awarded over 15,000 degrees and diplomas and two-thirds of our graduates are women. We treat over two million patients per year in our hospitals and many of those who live in poverty.

At the heart of our work is the conviction that an outstanding university, based in the developing world, can improve quality of life for countless people. But to do so, we believe it must do two things simultaneously: it must strive to achieve international standards of excellence, and must address the problems that confront the societies in which we operate.

So that is what we try to do. And there is evidence that we have been successful on both fronts. Our alumni can be found at the world's best hospitals and universities, as well as in remote schools and clinics in Asia and Africa. The health research of our faculty is internationally renowned, and has helped us save thousands of lives in disadvantaged communities.

Our Chancellor, His Highness the Aga Khan and the members of the Board of Trustees set the strategic direction and guide the University to realise the ambitious vision set out by our Founder. We are extremely fortunate to have such distinguished board members. It includes seven university presidents, chancellors, rectors and deans; five chairmen and CEOs; and one chief justice. Together they represent 10 countries on four continents. Their wisdom provides us with an assurance of our success. The board meets three to four times a year, and this is the first time we have had the pleasure of convening in Lisbon. Our agenda at this meeting covers everything from AKU's plans to develop into a liberal arts university to the application of data science and artificial intelligence to health care and the humanities.

But to return to my theme – ultimately, what brings us all together in this room, tonight, is the values that we share.

We all value pluralism. We see humanity's diversity not as a threat but as an opportunity for learning, exchange and growth. We share the sense that every culture contributes something essential to humanity's self-understanding – a sense that the great writer Miguel Torga captured as well as anyone when he wrote and I quote: "The universal is the local without walls."

The welcome this country has shown to the Ismailis who left Mozambique in the 1970s is one unforgettable example of this spirit of pluralism. So is the government's gracious invitation to establish the seat of the Ismaili Imamat here. I know that Portuguese hospitality left a lasting impression to over 40,000 Ismailis who celebrated His Highness's Diamond Jubilee here in July last year. And two weeks ago, we saw the cosmopolitan ethic in action again at the Aga Khan Music Awards again here in Lisbon.

And we value this partnership. The Aga Khan University, the Aga Khan Development Network and the Ismaili Imamat are proud to have as our partners the Portuguese Republic; the Ministry of Science, Technology and Higher Education; the Ministry of Health, the Catholic University of Portugal; Nova University of Lisbon; and in the future, through our discussions, the Gulbenkian Foundation and Champalimaud Foundation.

I am pleased to say that many of these partnerships are beginning to bear fruit.

AKU and Catholica are working together to create an online database of 37,000 documents held at the Overseas Historical Archive in Lisbon – documents that cover Portuguese activity in the Indian Ocean region from the 16th to the 19th century. It is an exciting project that will enable scholars worldwide to deepen our understanding of centuries of cross-cultural interaction and the contribution that Portugal has made to the world.

In June, the Aga Khan University and NOVA will co-host an international symposium on the ethics of stem cell research and regenerative medicine. This is a high priority area for AKU, which has established one of the few centres in the developing world devoted to pursuing cutting edge research in stem cell sciences.

And meanwhile, the Knowledge for Development Initiative between the AKDN and the Portuguese Science Foundation has made possible numerous promising research projects in Portuguese-speaking Africa. The goals of these projects range from  developing crops that can cope with climate change to understanding rising levels of drug-resistant HIV, malaria and tuberculosis.

As His Highness the Aga Khan said in his speech to the Parliament of Portugal last year, all of this is evidence of the advancing momentum in the relationship between Portugal and the Ismaili Imamat.

Last, but perhaps most importantly, like the legendary Portuguese explorers of the Age of Discovery, we are all participants in the greatest and most exciting human quest: the quest for knowledge.

In the 10th century, that quest led our Chancellor's ancestors to found Al-Azhar University in Cairo. A thousand years later, it led to the establishment of the institutions represented here, including the youngest of them, the Champalimaud Foundation. And tonight, it has brought each of us to this room from Asia, Africa, Europe and North America.

With values such as these in common, I am certain that we can help to increase understanding; reduce prejudice, poverty and disease; and expand access to opportunity. Let us all set sail together, and chart a course towards the better world we all wish to see.

Thank you very much.​