Why We Urgently Need to Retool International Affairs Education

Events in the news provide constant evidence that we can't ignore different societies’ diversity and heterogeneity in our academic programs, argues Carla Koppell.

August 20, 2019
 
 
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Debates around diversity have flared following President Trump’s tweets focused on congresswomen of color. His doubts about the value of inclusion are not only an anathema in the United States -- a nation of immigrants founded with a motto of unity (e pluribus unum) -- they also run counter to research that clearly shows diversity benefits societies. Yet as fundamental as diversity is to America, most colleges and universities rarely teach about it, formally or informally, leaving people uninformed and intolerant opinions unchecked.

Recently, close to 200 academic leaders from public and private universities, including Columbia University, Georgetown University and Princeton University, set out to rectify that. They are calling for an update of graduate education so that it properly frames diversity and produces a new generation of leaders who value inclusion.

The abilities to navigate diverse spaces and ideas and to foster inclusion are imperative yet undertaught professional skills for international affairs practitioners. Although often overlooked, countries and communities have always featured a rich mix of people: men and women, people of different ages and ability statuses, families with different levels of education and wealth, as well as people of different races, ethnicities, sexual orientations and religions. But an awareness of diversity and inclusion is increasingly important today. Contact among different groups within societies has grown. Worldwide, the number of migrants and refugees is larger than ever. Modern communications platforms connect people across the globe instantaneously and constantly.

To date, higher education has not adequately taught students the potential benefits of diversity or the necessity of inclusion. For example, a study by New America found that only half of the 36 graduate programs within the Association of Professional Schools of International Affairs offered courses focused on gender issues in 2017. Yet gender dynamics have immense implications for prosperity and security. For example, research finds that peace talks are far more likely to result in an accord when they involve women and civil society groups alongside male representatives of governments and militaries. How can policy makers be effective if they do not have the knowledge and tools to fully engage women?

Other aspects of diversity -- ethnicity, religion, class -- are even less frequently discussed in the classroom, despite their implications for societal well-being. Our newspapers and digital news feeds provide constant evidence that ignoring societies’ heterogeneity precipitates fragmentation and grievance. And studies have shown that social inequality and marginalization are stimulating people’s propensities to violence and extremism. Conversely, when effectively managed, diversity can be an incredible source of strength. For instance, migrants already sustain the economies of many countries and communities where birth rates have declined.

The University Leadership Council on Diversity and Inclusion in International Affairs, an initiative I facilitate, is composed of academic leaders from 17 universities and is striving to spark a transformation in global affairs education. We have come together and spent the past year discussing how to ensure that attention to diversity and the promotion of inclusion are central to international affairs education. Last month, we released a series of recommendations to update global affairs education and better prepare graduates to navigate today’s increasingly heterogeneous world. Those recommendations are now open to sign on, and, to date, a diverse group of over 25 deans and nearly 200 scholars has already supported our call to action. We are united in our conviction that the next generation of policy makers must be better equipped to understand and leverage diversity. As Merit Janow, dean of Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, puts it, “The study of international and public affairs can flourish in an intellectual environment that recognizes the importance of diverse, inclusive and global perspectives.”

Janow and others have concluded that creating the right academic ecosystem requires a diverse faculty and student body to increase the range of subjects being taught and to broaden the perspectives represented. It also necessitates creating a culture of inclusion to facilitate open discourse. And it means broadening course content and the mix of scholars to whom students are exposed. Often, it will require helping the campus community address unconscious and implicit biases.

Students cannot know what they do not learn. Unless we begin to systematically teach why diversity matters and how to foster equity and inclusion, misassumptions will continue to prevail.

A Matter of Core Competence

Some institutions have already begun to develop and offer courses that emphasize diversity and inclusion. At the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University, for example, coursework on Managing Workplace Diversity in Public and Nonprofit Organizations is appealing broadly to students. The Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University has successfully offered courses on Diversity and Inclusion in Conflict Resolution and Development, as well as Women, Peace and Security. The University of Washington’s Jackson School of International Studies has offered a course focused on disability studies theory and global practice.

Other institutions are going even further. Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs have created concentrations or certificates focused on gender policy and gender analysis.

Unfortunately, however, such courses are rare, and certificates and concentrations even rarer. At most institutions, such content is almost never a required topic of study that is fully integrated into the core curriculum. Many of the classes that focus on diversity are electives, so the majority of students are still not exposed to these critical ideas and skills.

Clear ways to change the situation have emerged. First, leadership is essential. University presidents and deans see progress when they make explicit commitments to advance their institution’s focus on diversity and inclusion -- and when they support those statements with their time and with financial resources. Designating responsible individuals and creating action plans are crucial. Regularly benchmarking and monitoring progress is also a key to driving change. And intentional course development is also important, particularly as part of required classwork.

The University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs is among the growing group of schools and programs that have put in place strategies and plans. It first created a five-year Equity and Inclusion Strategy in 2012. More recently, the school began annually updating the plan and implementation strategy, so that it can review, revise and track progress more regularly to increase accountability. The Humphrey School and an increasing number of other schools -- like the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington, the Woodrow Wilson School of Public Policy and International Affairs at Princeton University, and Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government -- are also including questions that relate to diversity, equity and inclusion issues in course evaluations.

Students are proving to be among the greatest allies for progress. They are choosing to attend colleges and universities that offer relevant course work. And once they’re on campus, they are working with administrators to organize workshops, feature diverse speakers, shape new courses and create and lead committees to help their institutions adapt and evolve. Students are part of diversity and inclusion committees at the Fletcher School, Humphrey School, Walsh School and elsewhere.

As Reuben Brigety, dean of the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University, has said, "Understanding diversity in the workplace is a matter of core competence for foreign affairs professionals. It is vital that they are able to work effectively together with people from various ethnic, religious and ideological backgrounds. The best way to provide such preparation for the workplace is to aspire to diversity in our institutions of higher learning."

Despite Trump’s rhetoric, diversity is not a weakness: it is a strength. It is the obligation of higher education to recognize the evidence behind this and impart it to the next generation.

Bio

Carla Koppell is a distinguished fellow at the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security. She was formerly chief strategy officer for the U.S. Agency for International Development and a vice president at the United States Institute for Peace. She leads the University Leadership Council on Diversity and Inclusion in International Affairs.

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