Who Is Global?

At gathering of fund-raisers, university presidents consider how their institutions' missions, donors and governance are evolving.
July 11, 2011

CHICAGO -- Of the last six eight-figure gifts that Boston University has received, three of the donors were born outside the United States. Two of the donors still live outside the United States. Further, the percentage of international undergraduates has increased from 6 percent in 2000 to 15 percent in the class that will enroll this fall at BU.

Robert A. Brown, president of Boston University, cited those figures in a talk here Sunday at the Council for Advancement and Support of Education's annual gathering of fund-raising leaders. Brown led a panel of university presidents who discussed ways in which being a global university -- as just about every institution these days claims to be -- is increasingly challenging, and raises many issues that remain unresolved. All agreed, as the numbers from Boston attest, that global issues have never been more central to their institutions.

The presidents traded stories about how efforts to create branch campuses had succeeded or failed, how international alumni are similar to and different from Americans, and how governance and fund-raising may need to evolve for Western universities to best engage with students and institutions in the rest of the world. Underlying their discussion was the question of just what it means to be a global university.

Brown noted that universities once thought that meant recruiting international students (mostly for graduate programs) and maybe setting up some study abroad programs or promoting international studies. Today such definitions would seem simplistic, panelists said.

Eric Thomas, vice chancellor of the University of Bristol, in Britain, said that he has asked himself, "How can I tell if a university is a global university?" and has determined that "it can't just be links [to foreign universities], because everyone has them."

He offered a series of criteria:

  • "Global brand penetration," which he defined not as the person on the street knowing the university, but people worldwide, in "a significant number of the disciplines" that are university strengths, recognizing the university's expertise.
  • A level of "comprehensive excellence," encompassing teaching and research.
  • "Innovative" research on global topics.
  • Global "distribution of your learning," either through branch campuses or distance learning.
  • A curriculum global in focus.
  • Significant numbers of international students and faculty members.
  • Strong ties to international groups such as the World Health Organization and to international businesses.

The Branch Campus Dilemma

Notably, given the proliferation of branch campuses, Thomas did not list them as a requirement to be global. Brown asked panelists whether branch campuses are "sure roads to success or pathways to disaster." The consensus answer: Both.

France Córdova, president of Purdue University, cited experiences there and at her former institution, the University of California at Riverside. While she was chancellor at Riverside, the university rented space in Beijing and in Seoul where the university provided English and other education to prospective students who didn't quite have the skill set to succeed at Riverside without more preparation. Córdova said that the system worked. But she said the operative word in explaining why the program was a success was "rent" -- as in that the university never built or owned a campus, and thus "had an exit plan" if needed.

During her time at Purdue, she said, the university was approached by investors from Dubai about creating a campus there, and developed a detailed plan that "looked secure." Then the worldwide economy took a nosedive, "and the investors withdrew." For Purdue, the costs were minimal because the economic changes took place when the university had invested only in planning, not in actually setting up a campus. But had the change in economic fortunes took place a few years later ....

Neil Kerwin, president of American University, said that changes in economic or political environments are impossible to predict. "If we have learned nothing else of the past year" of the "Arab spring," he said, it is that countries presumed to be stable may not be. And when countries are unstable, American campuses are vulnerable, he said.

American University has not pursued branch campuses, although it was worked with educators in the United Arab Emirates and in Nigeria to establish American-style universities in those countries. Kerwin said that the university's involvement was predicated in part on pledges by both universities to seek American accreditation and to allow AU (in Washington) to move to an advisory role after a specified period of time. Kerwin said he sees more viability in "networks of scholars" across countries, with focused missions, than in branch campuses.

Bristol's Thomas pointed to another concern about branch campuses. He said that, ultimately, a university depends on its reputation at home, not just abroad. He said he has seen some evidence in Britain of universities that have "taken their eyes off the ball back home" as they have devoted time and money to building branches.

Engaging Foreign Alumni

Given that the audience here consisted of hundreds of senior officials in alumni affairs and development, several questions concerned how to engage graduates who can't be expected to show up on campus on football Saturdays. Córdova advocated a mix of new technology and old-fashioned pressing the flesh. She said Purdue coordinates gatherings so that alumni in Hong Kong are as likely as Boilermakers in Chicago to gather in a bar to watch a football game together.

But she said that a reality is that "university presidents need to spend a lot of time running around the globe," and that "direct contact is key."

Kerwin agreed, saying that alumni will reject a president for "parachuting in and parachuting out," and that contact needs to be regular.

Boston's Brown argued that, in some respects, foreign alumni need to be treated just like domestic alumni. Just as American alumni will come to events for networking -- events where they will learn something that will help their careers, events at which they can meet interesting people the same is true for foreign alumni.

The biggest difference, he said, is one that makes it easier for BU to reach more alumni when organizing events abroad. Brown said that when the university organizes a major event about the state of financial services or real estate or some other topic, and puts together a top panel, alumni from throughout East Asia will fly to another city or country to participate. In India, people will fly in from all over the country for an event.

He said that it is much easier to gather alumni from remote distances outside the United States than to "get Los Angeles alumni to come to an event in San Francisco."

Managing a Global University

Brown outlined a series of steps that Boston University has taken to be global in its organization -- and he said this was essential for building alumni ties and raising money abroad. He said that the university's board has added international members, that the university has a vice president focused on global issues, and that a special advisory board has been created of international alumni.

That board -- reporting to Brown and to the chair of the Boston University board -- meets all over the world, with several trustees, and brainstorms about the university from a global perspective. He questioned the idea that universities can change their global position without thinking about issues of management and governance.

Others on the panel also talked about creating vice president or vice provost positions. Kerwin of American University, however, said that his institution considered but then rejected the idea.

"We thought it would be better to not make it one person's job, but every person's job," he said.


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