|The Global University|
EVENT REPORT - May 13, 2009
At the Gülen Institute Luncheon forum, David Leebron, President of Rice University, discussed his recent efforts to foster an internationalist perspective among the students at Rice. Arguing that universities have unique obligations to both local and international communities, Leebron drew from his own experience as a scholar and an administrator to suggest how these two obligations might be reconciled. Despite immense investments in the local community of Houston, Rice University sees itself as an institution with a role to play in the wider world. According to Leebron, this international awareness has to inform how Rice University operates: in terms of both the problems it chooses to address and the people it chooses to educate. Leebron suggested that the challenge facing modern universities is that of striking a productive balance between their necessarily local assets and this distinctively global mission.
Most universities, Leebron noted, are either state institutions or private, non-profit institutions. That is to say, among the institutions of the globalized world, universities are uniquely affiliated to a national or international organization, whether governmental or religious, and these affiliations come with a set of expectations and loyalties. On the other hand, universities are uniquely local compared to any other kind of industry. Leebron pointed to their enormous investment in physical assets and the fact that students pay large tuitions for access to their specific physical space. Unlike sports franchises that can always threaten to move cities, Leebron suggested that universities must maintain especially good relationships with their neighbors, since there is little chance of them moving anywhere. Most private enterprises can move locations easily, but even private universities are inextricably bound to their local communities.
Leebron emphasized that the modern mission of universities is not confined to their obligation to local communities. International engagement is vital for the education of students, especially considering the international character of the modern world. But Leebron also highlighted the role that universities can play as spaces open for inquiry and dialogue in the international arena. He mentioned his own participation in a delegation of university presidents to Iran. When asked whether such a trip was appropriate for an American educator, Leebron cited the important role that universities have long played in bringing people together across the world. Often, universities are able to communicate even when governments may be hostile to each other. Leebron suggested that universities can lay the groundwork for understanding in this way. Then when countries are ready communicate, information and shared knowledge is available for the beginning of a diplomatic relationship.
Leebron also referenced the function of universities in the reopening of the United States’ relationship with the People’s Republic of China. Because of the international dialogue maintained by universities, this diplomatic relationship was possible. Also, Leebron reminded those gathered that universities played a key role in fostering dialogue between the mainland of China and Taiwan. During the period of tension, universities in the United States were one of the few places where people from Taiwan and people from the mainland could come together and talk to each other.
How does the awareness of this international responsibility affect local decisions? Leebron outlined Rice’s new plans to expand the student population in order to bring the international environment to the Houston campus in a way that doesn’t upset their obligations to local students. In his explanation of this program, Leebron referred to the insight that his studies in international trade and international investment have provided him. He has found both fields to provide valuable tools for the analysis of the university’s role in a global age.
The history of international investment reveals three different modes of engagement with the international community. Leebron noted that as corporations first began to expand internationally, they adhered to a “transnational” model. Based in a home country, these companies went abroad to secure resources and labor for the ultimate benefit this home country. Leebron referred to this as the form of economic colonialism dominant in the nineteenth century, which led to a good deal of exploitation and resentment. The second stage of corporate development could be called the “multinational” model. In the mid-nineteenth century, the ideal for companies such as Ford or GM was to extend their operations around the world and become good citizens within these new communities. Leebron gave examples of enterprises in South America or Turkey which were owned by an American company but expected to be involved in and supportive of the local communtiy. Today, corporations have moved well beyond such "multinationalism." Leebron referenced CitiGroup as an example of a truly global corporation with no local ties whatsoever. He joked that such global corporations do not have to be good citizens anywhere but are loyal only to their shareholders, wherever they may reside. The identity of such global corporations is not tied to any particular country.
Leebron then asked where universities fit in this schema. Universities encourage people to think about the problems of the world with a global perspective. Researchers are almost as interested in solving a problem in India as they are in solving a problem in the United States. Leebron gave the example of Rice’s nanoscience program working to remove arsenic from water. This is not a particularly relevant research question in Houston, but it is hugely important in India. Leebron pointed out that this kind of global perspective meets with little criticism because universities are expected to play an international role.
Given these expectations, and the obligations that uniquely situate universities in local contexts, Leebron asked how universities can best become global in today’s environment. He cited the mechanisms for international trade first defined by the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, suggesting that they might provide useful precedents for universities planning to globalize. The first applicable scenario of global trade is that of foreign consumers traveling to local providers. Leebron found this to be the most practical model for Rice, as he elaborated later. The second scenario involves sending employees oversees to deliver services locally. The third is providing services through telecom, an option that some institutions have taken up via distance learning courses. And finally, such internationalization can be effected by the establishment of foreign branches, such as the Education City in Qatar. These are the primary ways that businesses and universities are both becoming international, and Leebron noted that universities are involved in all of them. But according to him, the most important method, especially for Rice, is the first: bringing foreign students to the US. Because universities are so tied to their local identities, to their campus and environment that it provides, this option allows for the most productive balance of local and international responsibilities.
Leebron emphasized that the decision to “internationalize” Rice is not solely economic; it is a question of defining the university’s mission. The decision to reach out to international students is not primarily about “selling our services abroad.” Instead, Leebron claimed that it is essential to provide all students, especially local students, with some degree of exposure to international culture. At Rice, Leebron made internationalizing the student body a priority by expanding the number of students admitted and offering some new international scholarships. His hope is that students who come to Rice will be able to have an international experience even if they never have the opportunity to travel outside of Houston. Several years ago, less than 3% of undergraduates were foreign students, but this year’s applicant pool forecasts that 13% of Rice undergraduates will be foreign students in the next academic year.
Leebron returned to the idea that universities can facilitate international dialogue and provide the space for cultural understanding. He concluded that an educator’s ultimate obligation is to have faith in people. If universities continue to bring people together, expand their horizons, and make them familiar with problems that other people face around the world, then they can build better citizens for the future. And not just global citizens, but better local citizens too.