About 200 university presidents, split almost equally between American colleges and institutions abroad, are gathered in Washington this week for an invitation-only summit on the role of higher education in furthering social and economic development on a global scale. The U.S. Departments of Education and State hosted the summit, which extends through a series of roundtable discussions on specific regions scheduled for today.
In star-studded opening and closing plenary addresses Wednesday -- the day’s activities were otherwise closed to the press -- five cabinet secretaries and several other top government officials traded largely in abstractions, describing the interrelations of international development and diplomacy, and avowing the value of partnerships in development work.
“The idea is to leverage every possible opportunity to expand opportunity," said Education Secretary Margaret Spellings.
But, lofty words aside, speakers likewise stressed a desire for concrete outcomes -- specifically, that each participant leave the summit with plans in place for two new partnerships, challenged Henrietta Fore, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development and director of United States Foreign Assistance.
Though a show of hands toward day's end suggested that only a minority of participants had met Fore's charge, she, undaunted, unveiled the fruits of her own day's work. For the first of her two partnerships, a collaboration with the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges, Fore announced that U.S. AID will provide $1 million for the association's Africa-U.S. Education Initiative. The money will go toward funding 20 grants of $50,000 each to support long-term collaborations between African and U.S. universities, especially in the areas of agriculture, health care, science and technology, education, business, engineering and economics.
Fore and the director of the National Science Foundation, Arden L. Bement Jr., also announced that they had signed a memorandum of understanding to combine the resources of their two granting agencies, one of which is largely externally focused (U.S. AID) and one of which is largely internally focused within the United States (NSF). “We are committed to strengthening the application of science and technology to development,” said Fore.
Meanwhile, the participating presidents stressed the need to follow up with future conferences, create a centralized portal or inventory describing partnerships as they develop, and assess progress toward the day's stated goals.
The proof, they suggested, will be in what happens next.
"It was a good opportunity to get to know people," Javaid R. Leghari, president of Pakistan's Shaheed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto Institute of Science and Technology, said of the conference. "Excellent networking."
"I should hope we will see the tangible results in six to nine months. If it's real."
In breakout sessions Wednesday (closed to the press), university leaders covered such topics as open-source course materials, video conferencing technologies, connections between academe and small business development, public health infrastructure, women and leadership, sustainability and the construction of new universities from scratch (in which, for instance, David J. Skorton, Cornell University’s president, talked about the institution’s young medical school in Qatar.)
In an interview, Skorton said he was particularly heartened to see the summit's truly international dimensions, “how widely attended this is from around the world."
“We have to listen to our partner colleges about what they need, not tell them what they need,” he stressed.
Jack Bermingham, president of Highline Community College, in Washington State, seconded Skorton’s observation about the breadth of involvement but said it “remains to be seen” whether the summit could signal a reinvigoration of international development efforts. “The resources have not always been there in the public sector in recent years,” he said. “The gathering this morning suggests that there’s a lot of support and a lot of capacity that could be used if the resources were available.”
At the last such government-sponsored summit of higher education leaders held in 2006, President Bush launched the $114 million National Security Language Initiative, a plan to provide an influx of funds to support the teaching of “critical” languages including Arabic, Chinese and Farsi.