Your College is Cute. Be Our Partner?

Applying the art of close interpersonal relationships to international university partnerships -- just another day at NAFSA.
May 30, 2008

Barry R. Tonge must find gatherings of international educators to be, at times, amusing affairs.

“I get amused when I hear people talking about partnerships and how many partnerships they have," said Tonge, the University of Alberta's director for education abroad. "I don’t give a,” he paused and smiled, “fill-in-the blank.”

What matters, Tonge said Thursday at the NAFSA: Association of International Educators Conference in Washington, D.C., is how universities use the partnerships they have. “The first role of partnerships is to achieve goals. They’re simply in themselves a tool.”

As universities add variations of the verb “internationalize” to their strategic plans, they too often pursue potential international partner institutions not so strategically but, instead, more so as an enamored suitor would, panelists suggested during a session focused on making smarter matches. Which is not to say that the rules of romance don't have a role to play here, but that the foundation of a new relationship, exciting and passionate as it may be, should be based on reason, not only emotion, appearances and attraction.

In a survey of European international officers, researchers found that a partner’s ranking or reputation is a leading reason behind formal agreements, successful and failed endeavors alike -- but, perhaps instructively, reputation tends to play an especially prominent role in partnerships that end up failing, said Uwe M. Brandenburg, of the German-based Centre for Higher Education Development. “Good reputation, that is nothing else than attraction,” Brandenburg said. “That is somewhat disastrous, isn’t it?”

Instead, Brandenburg argued, drawing from theories of rational choice, university officials should know the preferences of stake holders at a potential partner university -- and, to keep this metaphor going, their trigger points: points of pleasure and points of pain.

Communication, he continued, is also a critical factor in whether partnerships flourish or wither.

“I sign agreements as a recognition we’ve got something happening, not an expectation,” added Alberta’s Tonge, who advocated for forming partnerships with focused outcomes for each partner in mind, and to prioritize partnerships based on their size and scope. For core partners, a visiting receptionist might get picked up at the airport, he said. For more minor ones, perhaps the president will take a cab to campus.

At Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, the institution has different types of agreements: project-based agreements with built-in sunset clauses, study abroad exchange agreements and, on a broader scale, comprehensive institutional agreements. “Our comprehensive institutional agreements are those that we work at,” said Nico Joste, director of international education at Nelson Mandela.

Joste spoke from a somewhat unique vantage point. After South Africa’s education system opened to the world in 1994, it opened too to “so-called academic tourists.… The first thing presidents and vice chancellors said was, ‘Let’s sign an agreement,' ” Joste said. “Hundreds of agreements were signed and very little happened.”

Now, Nelson Mandela hosts each of its core partners for a week once every two years for what Joste called a “family meeting” -- and the university develops new partnerships by tapping into this family network. Joste said he knew of four new partnerships that came out of the last family gathering at the institution.

Ultimately, the best partnerships, Joste said, end up evolving into an intense level of entanglement that can’t easily be undone. “Some partnerships you just can’t break. It’s like you’ve been married for 30 years and to divorce would be unprofitable.”

“It really helps,” added Brandenburg at the close of session, “to consider university partnerships the same way you consider partnerships between human beings.”


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