Universities and the world

Many universities have significant international relationships with educational institutions in other countries. In some instances these are intended to support students who are interested in study abroad; in other instances they establish the foundation of faculty-to-faculty research collaboration; and in yet other cases they involve the coordination of specific academic programs for the benefit of students at both institutions.

Why do these relationships make sense from the point of view of the fundamental mission of an American university? How do international programs further the teaching and research goals of the domestic institution? What advantages do they create for students and faculty?

There are several factors that seem particularly convincing to me.

First, the exchange of students is undoubtedly of great value.  It is a commonplace that our students will face an increasingly global environment in their careers. Accountants will perhaps spend professional time in Malaysia or Mexico; engineers will work on projects in Nigeria or India; and when university students gain advanced degrees in law or medicine, they too are likely to find that they will need to be able to work productively in an international setting. So it is plainly a good thing for undergraduate students to gain familiarity with other cultures and confidence in their ability to navigate relationships outside the United States. Many of these advantages also accrue when foreign students come to study on the domestic campus.

Another important aspect of globalization is the fact that the extension of knowledge is occurring on every continent. Medical research, agricultural research, engineering research, and research in the social sciences and humanities are no longer wholly rooted in one’s own university or domestic consortium; instead, there are important developments taking place internationally which it is important for cutting-edge researchers in the United States to confront. So research collaborations are fruitful on both sides — both for the US-based academic researcher and the researcher in China, Brazil, or France. The transfer of knowledge and innovation is not one-directional; instead, scientific research in the United States can benefit from exposure to current research developments in universities throughout the world.

Another benefit of international collaborations among universities is more diffuse but not less important. This is the fact that country-to-country relations are likely to be improved when young leaders in those countries have had the opportunity to gain knowledge and affection for the traditions and strengths of the other country.  There are thousands of Saudi, Chinese, and African students currently studying in the United States, and it is undoubtable that they will take their positive experiences and their better understanding of the people of the United States home with them when they return.

The point is sometimes made that there are important forms of competition between countries which make the free exchange of advanced research findings problematic. This is plainly true in the area of military technology, and it is also true that it is difficult to draw the line between innovations that have military applications and those that don’t. But there is specific Federal legislation that prescribes limits on the export of specified technical knowledge.

Outside the military sphere critics of international collaboration sometimes make the point that scientific and technical expertise is a major factor in the economic competition that exists in the global marketplace. These critics make the argument that we give up our future economic edge by sharing scientific and technical research too fully. We don’t have to look only to the economic competition that exists between the US and China to make this case — there are many good examples of technologies that were developed in US universities but commercialized by European companies.

These concerns are not wildly wrong. But I continue to believe that the greatest benefits will flow from a relatively free system of international scientific and technical cooperation. The synergies resulting from cross-country collaboration around specific research projects in medicine, engineering, energy, and computer technology are likely to be large and a source of advantage for all nations.

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