The Trend of Academic Isolationism in the United States

There are signs that parts of the American higher education establishment would like to construct a barrier on the northern border to separate the U.S. from Canada.

November 14, 2019

In Hans de Wit’s blog “Is U.S. International Education Building a Wall?” he describes how the US international education community was notably absent from the biannual CAIE (Conference of the Americas on International Education) conference, an important inter-American conference that took place in Bogota, Colombia last month. The lack of presence only contributed to the growing isolation of the United States from its southern neighbors, creating an intellectual wall to accompany the physical one that President Trump so desires. 

There are also signs that parts of the American higher education establishment might be constructing a barrier to separate the US from Canada on the northern border. In October, the board of the prestigious Association of American Universities (AAU) approved a new policy limiting membership to US universities, thus excluding the historic affiliation of the University of Toronto and McGill University that dates back to 1926. The rationale for this was that American research universities have their own problems and that having Canadian members of the AAU is no longer relevant. 

Unsurprisingly, the presidents of these two august Canadian institutions objected. They were joined by presidents of many US institutional members who had apparently not been consulted and happily “the firing” was reversed. This fiasco received relatively little attention in US media although in our view it was a high-handed attempt to disrespect two distinguished Canadian partners, demonstrate that Trumpian xenophobia extends north as well as south, and is evident even at the top level of academic society in the United States.

A bit of background might be useful. The Association of American Universities has 62 members, all top research-intensive universities. Membership is by invitation based on the “breadth and quality of university programs of research and graduate education.” Criteria for membership are clearly elaborated on the AAU website. Since its founding in 1900, the organization has grown from 14 to 65 member institutions. Member universities represent an almost insignificant percentage of the more than 4,000 institutions of higher education in the US, but they are considered the country’s elite establishments. In many ways Canada and the US have shared a de facto “higher education space” for almost a century, enjoying the benefits of student and faculty mobility that have been achieved without near the effort required to integrate the European Higher Education Area. It was logical and appropriate that McGill and the University of Toronto should be included in the AAU as peer institutions within the “North American Higher Education Area.” Indeed, there is a strong argument for admitting other top-quality Canadian research universities such as the University of British Columbia. 

The AAU has expelled only one member—the University of Nebraska in 2011—in its history. Syracuse University resigned. In both cases, the research profile of each institution fell below what was expected of AAU members. Over the years, membership has been very stable. No one has been excluded due to geographic location!

The attempted defenestration of the two Canadian universities from the AAU is symbolic of a kind of blinkered and nationalistic thinking that has taken hold in the United States in the Trump Era. The trend under the current government is that the United States can “go it alone” with little need to engage elsewhere or respect others as peers or collaborators. That this kind of thinking could take hold in the groves of American academe, and particularly in such an important organization that represents top research universities, is particularly surprising.That AAU membership rose up to oppose the proposed expulsion is, of course, reassuring. But the fact that the board of the AAU could even consider that removing these two Canadian universities would be a good idea is reprehensible—and perhaps a sign of our unfortunate times.


Philip G. Altbach is research professor and founding director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College.  

Liz Reisberg is a consultant in international higher education and research fellow at the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College.


Share Article

Back to Top