A collaboration between the Center for International Higher Education, Reisberg & Associates, and Inside Higher Ed.

“The World View” is a blog published on Inside Higher Ed that addresses current issues in international higher education. This is a collaboration with the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College. We post a weekly essay from one of our bloggers who are international educators in different regions of the world. The following excerpts are from some of my recent blog posts.

The Importance of an Institutional Internationalization Policy

January 27, 2019

International engagement is unavoidably complicated—governments change, coups occur, economic tensions rise and fall, regional alliances shift, military conflicts erupt, etc. It is nearly impossible to assume that any international project will conform to the values and principles of all participants. But should this be a prerequisite for international ventures?  Do we really only want to engage with people and cultures that mirror our values? International engagement provides valuable learning and research opportunities and important potential for mutual benefit to its participants. Most universities today opt to be internationally engaged despite the complications and risks. That said, they are not always adequately prepared.

Without clear, transparent and shared objectives about the purpose of engaging internationally, institutions run the risk of campus conflict when disturbing events by partners abroad occur. The response of the Harvard and MIT communities to involvement with the Saudis following the Khashoggi murder is a case in point.

Potential problems began with a visit by the Saudi Crown Prince to MIT and Harvard last March.  Although there was some media coverage, the universities were pretty silent about the visit, to the point of being almost secretive. An article titled, “Secretive, Dubious Partnerships: Harvard Quietly Keeps Strong Saudi Connections” published in the Harvard Crimson in October 2108 reflects the distrust that a lack of transparency can provoke.  Of course, limited advance publicity could have been due to the need to ensure the security of the Crown Prince, but that doesn’t explain the silence that followed.  The secrecy surrounding the purpose and objectives of the March visit made angry demands from the campus community to justify ties to the Saudi government almost inevitable following the Khashoggi assassination.  But is the time to be questioning an international partnership AFTER a crisis has occurred?

As I have written in an earlier blog, international engagement is a tricky business and too often relegated to one or two offices—typically an Office of International Programs or an Office for International Students and Scholars—or conducted between individual faculty members or academic units. These activities generally have a focused purpose such as a research collaboration, a faculty or student exchange, or international program component, but often operate tangentially to the primary activities of the university.  Too frequently the university lacks an explicit and overarching vision that provides context and rationale to the varied and disparate international activities underway or how those activities fit with an institution’s mission and goals. For many students and faculty, why international engagement is important is probably not clear, which contributes to an uproar when something horrible is attributed to an international partner.

International engagement implies confronting contradictions and dilemmas. Should a nursing school consider sending students and faculty to Venezuela to help with the public health crisis that the government has created? Is that a humanitarian application of an institution’s knowledge and talent or does that indirectly support and mediate the assault of a corrupt, totalitarian government on its people?

Should individual professors have the freedom to provide consulting support to any government they choose? Is it acceptable for a professor to contribute to the strategic development of Mayanmar’s education system when it is likely to benefit a large percentage of that country’s children, but also help a government with an appalling record of human rights abuses?

Should universities refuse to enroll students who are funded by corrupt governments or governments that persecute targeted religious, LGBTQ, or political segments of their own population?

An institutional policy should provide guidelines and rationale to the international activities taking place on campus. It might be as general as:

The university pursues international partners in the interest of the mutually beneficial academic initiatives; the exchange of students, faculty and staff; innovative programming; and collaborative research. International engagement is viewed as an opportunity to enhance learning and deepen understanding of the complexity of the world today.  Engagement with countries that do not share our values and principles should not be interpreted as an endorsement of any practice that conflicts with our commitment to human rights and academic freedom, rather as an opportunity for acquiring perspective and insight about the world beyond our borders.

Would a statement along the lines of the above preempt campus debate about international collaborations? Of course not, but it might provide a context for discussion.

A thoughtful institutional statement should be complemented by transparency about current international projects and collaborations with a statement of objectives and benefits to the university. Information about international projects, gifts, grants, funded students, etc. should be available to the university community, so when the leader of a foreign government visits campus or an event like the Khashoggi assassination occurs, the community does not suddenly turn towards the administration in surprise to demand to know why the institution is engaged with Saudi Arabia or any other country.

Engaging internationally allows members of university communities to learn more about others as well as more about themselves. Learning about values or norms different from our own does not mean that we embrace them. Rather it provides the opportunity to develop a deeper understanding of the complexity of the world we live in and (ideally) some insight into why others see the world differently.  And perhaps, with that knowledge, we might have a better chance of working towards solutions to the problems that affect us all. That just could be an idea on which to build an institutional policy!


Ethical Quandaries for Higher Education

November 1, 2018

If universities withdraw from their international initiatives each time there is a violation of human rights or an act of violence committed by academic partner’s government, soon all international academic engagement would probably come to a screeching halt.

Following the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, Harvard and MIT are reexamining their relationships with Saudi Arabia. Yet, these elite institutions continue to engage with other countries (China, Russia, etc.) where there is evidence of crimes, abuse of human rights and violent assaults on individuals.

In March, Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, were poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent in England. The perpetrators of the poisoning were most likely current or former agents of the GRU, an undercover strike force for the Kremlin.  Several months later, Dawn Sturgess and Charles Rowley, British citizens, were poisoned by the same nerve agent. Ms. Sturgess died from the poisoning. They were unlikely targets of a Russian attack—more likely accidental victims of a substance being stealthily moved across borders by Russian agents. President Putin has denied any knowledge of these attacks, much as MBS has denied any knowledge of the Khashoggi murder.

This month, Scholars at Risk published their 2018 report listing 294 attacks against academics documented through August of this year—77 deaths through killing, acts of violence or disappearances; 88 imprisonments, 60 prosecutions, and more. Countries cited in the report for the most grievous abuses of human rights include Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Kenya, Nigeria, Pakistan, Turkey, and Yemen, but assaults against individuals for speech, research, or teaching extend across the globe.

According to Human Rights Watch, Turkey, our source of information about the Khashoggi murder, has cracked down on free speech and criticism of the government by dismissing thousands of academics and prosecuting (and ultimately imprisoning) hundreds of professors and students.

And there is ample evidence of rising hate crimes in the US (on campus and off), assaults on innocent individuals and targeted discrimination in the justice and immigrations systems.

We live in a complicated world where belonging to a specific ethnic or racial group, holding certain religious beliefs, openly declaring sexual orientation, or speaking out against a government, frequently puts one at risk of assassination, imprisonment, or deportation. As an individual, I find all of these assaults on humanity to be immoral and intolerable. The dilemma we all face is how to respond. Do we simply withdraw from contact with all governments committing unspeakable acts?

I support the cessation of economic investment in, and the sale of military weapons to, any country guilty of immoral acts against its citizens. I would also support the cancelation of visas for any individual involved with any act of violence against another human being for any reason. Terminating academic collaborations is another matter entirely.

Yet it is not possible for any country to withdraw entirely from our unavoidably globalized world. If we cancel academic engagement with a country, then we cede international interaction to economic, political and military interests. If there is any hope for mutual understanding, the protection of human rights, sustainable development and more evidence-based policy, I don’t think it will happen without the participation of scholars and universities.

Like so many others I am horrified by the mounting evidence that Jamal Khashoggi was murdered inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. This is yet another incident in the ever-increasing catalog of international horrors.

I should disclose the fact that I have worked as a consultant with the Ministry of Education in Saudi Arabia for more than six years. I began this collaboration knowing essentially nothing about the Kingdom. I have learned a lot. I found my Saudi colleagues to be much more progressive than I had anticipated. A very high percentage of the faculty at Saudi universities have completed graduate degrees abroad; they continue to engage with the international academic community and share the values (academic freedom, academic integrity) that all of us cherish.

I am uncomfortable with the call for scholars or universities to pull back from Saudi Arabia. We could certainly do this as a symbolic statement of our abhorrence of the Khashoggi murder. But what will it accomplish and who will be hurt?  Don’t we also risk hypocrisy? Why stop with Saudi Arabia?  If we reject this kind of violence against individuals, shouldn’t we also cancel academic relationships with Afghanistan, Bangladesh, China, India, Israel, Kenya, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Pakistan, Russia, Turkey, Venezuela, Yemen and many other countries?

Although I share the horror of the evolving story about Jamal Khashoggi’s brutal murder, I’m not convinced that retreating from academic collaborations will achieve anyone’s goals.


Has Political Correctness Run Amok?

December 6, 2015

Recent student demands to rename and retract names of courses, academic programs and research centers, to include “triggers” in course syllabi, as well as to cancel speakers deemed offensive to specific university campus constituents have already received much attention in the media. Still we feel the need to register our response as well. This is much more serious than political correctness run amok, we believe that this threatens the academic enterprise.

There are, of course, no easy answers. As modern societies continue to come to terms with the darker aspects of their history, it is not surprising that controversies appear. The problems of race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual behavior certainly deserve more attention. And universities are particularly well suited to examine these complex issues. That is only if we are capable of conceding complexity.
It is difficult to imagine that any instrumental figure from another time could withstand the judgment of later decades or (even) centuries. We are after all, in many ways, products of our time. And as we examine the life of Woodrow Wilson and others, there is much to be learned if we try to understand why the same man who achieved many important accomplishments in so many areas, committed acts that we find deplorable.
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Is the Whole Just a Collection of Parts?

November 16, 2015

Increasingly, US institutions are granting credit towards degree for other types of “pre” or “extra” learning in lieu of campus-based, campus-designed curricula. This includes awarding credit for an growing array of experiences—knowledge acquired through life experience, coursework completed online, study completed in pathway programs, and job-oriented training provided in boot camps.
In theory this makes sense. After all, why make someone endure (and pay for) a class when they already possess the knowledge being covered? Why not offer students different kinds of learning opportunities? Does it make a difference where and how knowledge and skills were acquired? A degree should simply represent that the holder possess a certain body and level of knowledge and a set of competencies.

It’s “outsourcing” that makes me particularly uneasy. Pathway programs were one of the earlier forms of “outsourcing” part of the degree program, where universities partner with (often) for-profit corporations who provide transitional programs to international students with part of the program offering “guaranteed” university credit. Boot camps seem to be the latest twist in the tradition of validating work done elsewhere. Boot camps are programs designed and provided by unaccredited, non-academic institutions, for the purpose of developing employment-oriented skills. Several colleges already outsource part of their degree program to pathway program providers; others are experimenting with “outsourcing” sections of their curriculum to boot camp providers. As universities incorporate more and more work completed elsewhere, and now with a growing trend to validate study provided by third-party partners outside of the academy, the degree begins to look like a patchwork quilt of study.
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Culture, Politics and Star Trek

June 30, 2015

While New York University and Fort Hays State University in Kansas were pacifying fears in the US Congress about limits placed on academic freedom for their campuses in China, Stockholm University joined the University of Chicago and Penn State and closed the Confucius Institute on its campus. Experience teaches us repeatedly that locating abroad or hosting international institutions on our campus, unavoidably forces us to confront thorny dilemmas. With a commitment to (at least) the idea of the internationalization of higher education surging throughout the world, it’s time for a more substantial and open discussion about the cultural and ethical challenges we face as we try to combine our social and educational values with those of others.
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Rankings and Quality

April 21, 2015

At the recent INQAAHE (International Network of Quality Assurance Agencies in Higher Education) bi-annual conference in Chicago, there were more than a few disparaging references to the rankings. The conference brought together representatives of national quality assurance agencies from all over the world. For individuals who dedicate their working hours (and most likely endless additional hours of reflection and research) to the quest of defining, evaluating and pursuing “quality” for higher education, the rankings are an unwelcome distraction indeed.

While New York University and Fort Hays State University in Kansas were pacifying fears in the US Congress about limits placed on academic freedom for their campuses in China, Stockholm UniI suspect that the frustration of the attendees at the INQAAHE conference is that the rankings too often become a surrogate for quality. No matter how many articles appear in the media or in academic journals explaining the rankings— their flaws, their limitations, etc.—stakeholders outside of the academy will continue to reference them to conclude which universities are “the best”. This is all the more frustrating for those of us familiar with the criteria that shape the results of rankings as they are often not relevant to the needs of the individuals and organizations that use them.
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The Gold Rush

March 17, 2015

In Elizabeth Redden’s recent article, The Branch Campus Boom(s), she offers historic perspective on the development of international branch campuses. Quoting Dr. Anna Kosmützky (University of Kassel, Germany) extensively, the article implies that this phenomenon is here to stay although, perhaps, not necessarily a viable long-term strategy for all comers.

As Dr. Kosmützky notes, for many universities the entry costs are minimal, as cash outlays are typically covered by the host government. The venture is attractive to all concerned as it provides the host country with the prestige of foreign degrees awarded on national soil and builds the international profile of the international university. So, a win-win. But is it? Several issues still dog this dimension of internationalization.
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Glass Houses

February 17, 2015

In the global competition that determines which country commits the most and worst human rights violations, there are only losers. If universities anywhere are going to engage in international endeavors and partnerships, then the members of those academic communities will have to decide whether and how to confront policies and practices of host governments that they may find distasteful.

While New York University and Fort Hays State University in Kansas were pacifying fears in the US Congress about limits placed on academic freedom for their campuses in China, Stockholm UniFlogging someone for opinions expressed in a blog—as recently happened in Saudi Arabia—is indeed horrific. Yet amidst the international outrage few people seem to realize that there were many Saudis who were just as appalled as the rest of us. In the same vein, I’d like to think that people outside the United States appreciate that there are many US citizens outraged by the atrocities committed by our government at Abu Ghraib or by the lack of due process afforded prisoners at Guantanamo confined there for more than a decade. The question, as posed in a recent article by Elizabeth Redden, is when should abuses of human rights by governments become barriers to university engagement. If we all limit ourselves only to countries that share our democratic values and practices, there would be very little collaboration indeed. What then?
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