Risks and Rewards of International Expansion

Panelists discuss opportunities and pitfalls of partnerships and other endeavors abroad at TIAA-CREF conference.
November 7, 2008

NEW YORK CITY -- The moderator of a panel discussion on “Cost-Benefit Issues for International Education: What Price? What Gain?” tried valiantly Thursday to counter the conventional wisdom in higher education leadership circles these days.

During a conference on "Higher Education in a Global Society" sponsored by the TIAA-CREF Institute, the research arm of a company that manages many college employees' retirement funds, he asked college presidents to consider risks as well as rewards. James McGill, senior vice president for finance and administration at Johns Hopkins University, even offered up his own example of a high-profile partnership that went awry. In describing the dissolution of a Johns Hopkins medical education program in Singapore, McGill cited a mismatch of expectations. “They had a certain level of expectation and in particular they wanted the name professors from Johns Hopkins…they wanted them in situ in Singapore.”

Meanwhile, Hopkins thought it best to “send the up and coming young faculty who are going to be the stars of the future," McGill said.

“There's an opportunity to become very cynical,” Andrew A. Sorensen, a professor and former president of the University of South Carolina, said in response. He described the signing of memorandums of understandings, “these photo opportunities to which presidents are particularly susceptible in which there’s an exchanging of pens.” Many times they end up being just that: photo opportunities, with a partnership of substance never materializing, Sorensen said. Other times, potential partnerships, if ever realized, could be undesirable. Sorensen referenced a group of Ukrainian scientists who recently paid a visit, advocating for an exchange of researchers across countries. Fair enough. “Oh, and by the way, of course you will pay for 100 percent of expenses in both countries," Sorensen said, in relating the scientists' expectations.

“We really need to make crystal-clear precisely what the expectations are. And when you do that, that will reduce dramatically the number of signed, photo-op documents,” said Sorensen.

Cynicism aside, the emphasis Thursday was clearly on opportunity. Asked whether he would consider collaborating with Saudi Arabia, for instance (where the planned King Abdullah University of Science and Technology is attracting significant interest internationally), Mark S. Wrighton, chancellor of Washington University in St. Louis, said that for him, “The question in all these is, 'Will there be significant and rewarding opportunities for students and faculty of our university in establishing the relationship?' ”

Then there's a matter of money. "We have institutions that are replicating themselves or parts of themselves in other parts of the word,” Graham Spanier, president of Pennsylvania State University, said in another session Thursday. “I haven’t met any presidents yet who claim they’re making money on the deal, though at first it looks very lucrative… I also haven’t found any presidents yet who publicly admit to losing money.”

In the question and answer section of the program, Ronald G. Ehrenberg, director of the Cornell University Higher Education Research Institute, mentioned Cornell’s medical school in Qatar, which was built with significant financial support from the Qatar Foundation.

“We’re fortunate enough to have a foreign medical college which is not losing money,” Ehrenberg said.

Also on Thursday, panelists talked about recruiting more undergraduate international students and building up study abroad, with many speakers stressing the need for flexible, short-term study abroad options to open access to the largest possible number of American students. Eileen Wilson-Oyelaran, president of Kalamazoo College, sounded a note of caution, however. “One of the costs that we have to be very sensitive to is the possible danger of short-term experiences, where our students begin to make hypotheses about the places that they are living and studying in but do not have sufficient time to test them," she said.

Thursday’s pre-dinner program concluded with a short speech from Roger W. Ferguson, Jr., president and CEO of TIAA-CREF, who, among other things, addressed various ways in which the financial crisis is affecting universities. He temporarily sidestepped a question of whether it’s a good or bad thing that shrinking retirement accounts would forestall faculty retirements.

“To avoid answering your question may be the most diplomatic thing I can do,” he said to his audience. “You chuckle. Let me give some sense of the nuance.

“I think it’s very much case by case frankly. I think you can look around your campus and see faculty who have effectively retired at the age of 45.... I think you also know of faculty who are 80 who are still teaching and writing articles and riding their bikes to class and enjoying the company of 20-year-olds,” Ferguson said.

“Obviously the big challenge is going to be young scholars finding a place.”


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