The Importance of an Institutional Internationalization Policy

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. 

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! 


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Liz Reisberg

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