Responding to ‘A question (about universities, global challenges, and an organizational-ethical dilemma)’

Editors’ note: as noted last week, Nigel Thrift contributed ‘A question (about universities, global challenges, and an organizational-ethical dilemma)’. Peter N. Stearns (pictured to the left), Provost, George Mason University, has kindly helped us launch a series of formal responses, more of which will be posted through to the end of 2010. We should add that some comments are also coming in via the Comments section below Professor Thrift’s entry.

As noted on his biography page, Peter N. Stearns became Provost and Professor of History at George Mason University on January 1, 2000. He has taught previously at Harvard, the University of Chicago, Rutgers, and Carnegie Mellon; he was educated at Harvard University. Dr. Stearns has authored or edited over 100 books. He has published widely in modern social history, including the history of emotions, and in world history. As Provost at George Mason, Dr. Stearns has worked to expand research capacities, to add or enhance centers of strength such as the arts, biomedical research and education, and public health, and to increase the global activities and educational goals of the University.

Kris Olds & Susan Robertson

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Nigel Thrift’s recent posting on ‘A question‘, about whether universities adequately geared to help respond to urgent contemporary problems, prompted several responses. Despite all the information available, or perhaps because of it, I do not feel fully equipped concerning the urgent scope of the problems he cites — which is not to dispute the problems, simply the threat-to-the-planet angle. But even aside from questions here, my first basic reaction was a sense of uncertainty about how one might proceed to effect the kinds of changes in university relations he is pleading for. I do think that the larger processes of globalization, even environmental threat aside, in principle call for fuller changes in university relations than we have thus far achieved, but I am not optimistic about rapid response.

A recent effort to discuss international educational links before one of our national academies reminded me of several obvious limitations. Where my plea was for adjustments in our ability to respond to opportunities for international collaborations, the academy seemed most interested in guarding against security threats from foreigners engaged with Americans in scientific research. Nigel Thrift properly notes his concern about national selfishness in constraining universities; in the United States it’s often even worse, with states battling each other to make sure university efforts don’t spill beyond these boundaries, lest precious state funding be dissipated on out-of-state Americans. The challenge of funding is very real. Public institutions in the U.S. are being severely cut back (a trend that began before the current crisis), and this plus the regional parochialism makes it impossible to do much internationally that costs money. We have all sorts of initiatives, but they are largely (a bit of administrative investment aside) fiscally neutral; yet it’s hard to imagine a more ambitious global scope that would not entail substantial investment.

Finally, on the doubts side, I have been recurrently impressed at the difficulty of even bilateral cooperation between two universities internationally. On the U.S. side, our accreditation system can be a serious constraint, which we really need to work on but which is not easy to bring under control. This aside, simply getting two institutions with a shared goal to cut through mutual differences in procedures and approval processes entails an immense amount of work. We’ve been struggling, for example, on a partnership with the University of Malta in the conflict resolution area, despite immediate agreement on the purposes involved; we’re nearing a limited agreement, but the process has taken lots of people over two years to effect.

All this said, the idea of a cooperative web of contacts to help deal jointly with pressing problems has immense appeal — so long as it went beyond the pious agreement and rhetoric stage, which is what Nigel Thrift suggests. Extending some research partnerships, for example in the area of global environmental change and data sharing, might be one basis for beginning, as is already suggested.

I wonder also about the potential for some imaginative degree programs, at both undergraduate and graduate levels, under a “global problems” heading. Here, universities might agree that each could develop one year of a program, emphasizing both local strengths in scholarship and local vantagepoints on the problem itself (including for example regional political factors in dealing with the environmental crisis). It would be further agreed that students could move freely among three or four institutions, taking a year in each place, for degree completion, with a local advisor assigned for each year and a multiply-joint degree resulting. The only constraint would be the need to select universities in quite different regions — and of course, costs factors that we would have to help work on as best we could. I could see programs in this area not only on the environment and sustainability, but global poverty and development issues, globalization and resistance and identity issues, food and water, war and violence — the list could be considerable, and intriguingly interdisciplinary as well as international.

An approach of this sort would not only attract venturesome students and give them real experience relevant to careers on global hot topics, going well beyond current study abroad opportunities to real international and intercultural mixtures.  It would also require the kinds of discussions among educators that could encourage other collaborative ideas, better utilization of teaching technologies for international purposes, and so on. I would hope, finally, that any such collaboratives would carefully encourage partnerships among better-funded universities (whatever our current woes) and universities in developing areas where additional faculty and student contacts would be an immense boon.

The goal is a set of teaching connections that would be institutional counterparts to the kinds of research links that, as Nigel Thrift notes, have already been formed among individuals. The capacity to blend institutional requirements, on the basis of year-long chunks rather than laborious negotiations about detailed credit equivalencies, would be a further plus.

The challenge of thinking in more than abstract terms about the issues Professor Thrift has set out is considerable. A new kind of educational initiative, by a potentially wide set of university collaborators using the heart of their enterprise — teaching — as the centerpiece, might move us forward a bit toward concrete opportunities for discussion.

Peter N. Stearns

Collapsing branch campuses: time for some collective action?

The process of denationalization, which Saskia Sassen amongst others has been attempting to analyze, is clearly not a seamless process, even when implemented by well-resourced institutions and knowledgeable people. While Sassen’s main concern is with the denationalizing impulse within nation-states (e.g., ministries), denationalization is also associated with pushes beyond the national scale by institutions in other sectors, including higher education.

When universities reorient from the national to the global and decide to open up a branch campus, for example, they are faced with a whole host of options and questions related to values (the guiding principles), geographical imagination (scales to work at), capabilities (moving from vision to implementation and governance), level of engagement (the depth of linkage question), and mechanism for entry (ranging from franchising (yes, this term is used) through to fiercely independent campuses with replica faculty working conditions).

gmurakLast week’s higher education media journalists allocated significant attention to the collapse of George Mason University’s campus at Ras Al Khaimah (RAK) in the United Arab Emirates. Here are a few of the key articles:

Link here for the GMU announcement, and here for a pre-set Google weblog search on the topic. GMU’s Provost (Peter N. Stearns) also had this to say, in a refreshingly open and honest way:

Closing the RAK Campus

By this point many people in the Mason community will know that we have decided to close the Mason operation in Ras al-Khaimah as of the end of this semester. Negotiations with our funding partners in RAK broke down both over budget levels for the current year and over changes our partners sought in reporting structures. We concluded that the result would not allow us to sustain the academic quality to which we’re committed and indeed might affect our accreditation. The decision having been made, we are working hard to live up to the obvious responsibility we have to our students there (about 120 of them), giving them as many options as possible including facilitating their coming to our campus here to complete their work. It’s a messy and distressing process.

As negotiations began to break down, I had several days of self-castigation, wondering what I could have done better to help prevent this unfortunate result. Then this week our University Relations office, trying to get me ready for the questions that might arise at a press conference, included the stinger, “Who at Mason is most responsible for the failure of the RAK campus.” That would be me. I know of several errors in judgment I committed or was involved in, that may have had some impact on the slower-than-expected enrollment growth (which was the clearest area where what we were trying to do broke down somewhat). I certainly know of several things I would do differently in a similar undertaking in future, including making sure we were well enough funded at the outset to hire a manager at our end to oversee the project. I also believe that it is important to admit mistakes (and to be forgiven for them, as long as they don’t pile up unacceptably). I’ve never cared for a leadership situation that either pushes toward denial of error, or assumes that any error will be seized upon without mercy. But I further believe that it’s vital not just to admit, to learn from, but also to get over. So we’re working hard on cleaning up the RAK residuum but also looking to other projects, including some in the global arena, that are pushing out in really promising directions.

This is an issue we have written and spoken about before, and it is one that national associations (e.g., the American Council of Education (ACE)) are starting to pay attention to.  See these ACE reports, for example:

Yet, despite the production of these informative reports, and associated discussions in Washington DC, I can’t help but wonder why there is not more collective action to understanding the pros and cons of the branch campus development process, with guides and courses to assist. In the GMU-RAK case everyone — the host government, the university, and the students — loses. You would think, given the scale of the endeavors underway (especially in the Middle East, and Asia to a lesser degree) that at least one information-packed website would have been developed, or one short-term executive education-style course would have been set up. Yet there is nothing, nadda, zip. GlobalHigherEd probably has more information than any other open-access website (at least in English) yet it is woefully undeveloped, dependent as it is on our spare time (which is in short supply right now).

If I could create the dream resource for the administrative entrepreneurs in universities considering branch campuses, it would consist of a 2-3 year long program of periodic one week courses run by INSEAD (developer of the most successful new campus in a distant location (it is actually their second campus, versus a ‘branch campus’)) to deal with the strategy and negotiation elements, in association with regional (area studies) experts. It is worth adding that Gabriel Hawawini and Arnoud De Meyer (now at the Judge School of Business, University of Cambridge) guided the INSEAD campus into existence. I recognize that INSEAD is only a business school, but they have thought through all aspects of the development process, and have situated the issue within a broader context regarding both strategy and the political economy of development in host nations. INSEAD also has a track record in developing resilient campuses and programs abroad. INSEAD might also draw in expertise from the University of Warwick, which developed the most comprehensive planning process yet; one that led them to decide, in 2005, to not develop a Singapore-based branch campus for approximately 10,000 students.

If I could create the dream resource for the officials and politicians considering hosting branch campuses, it would consist of a 2-3 year long program of periodic one week courses jointly run by INSEAD, the OECD’s Programme on Institutional Management in Higher Education (IMHE), the International Association of Universities (IAU), and 1-2 key national associations of universities (e.g., ACE) from likely source countries. This rather heterogeneous grouping would have the capacity to deal with the range of issues host governments need to consider when devising and implementing this form of capacity building development strategy, while being distant enough from the process to critique host government’s fixation with importing ‘brand names’ above all else. My research on the development process in Singapore also generated a feeling that host governments have a challenging time understanding how universities in other parts of the world function (both formally and informally). Even senior ministerial officials with overseas degrees lack sufficient knowledge and perspective: they were, after all, only students during their time abroad.

Finally, the courses would be heavily subsidized by the governments of both source and host countries, the World Bank, and the OECD, thereby drawing in both curious and committed stakeholders. It would also result in the production of a comprehensive open access web-based portal on all aspects of the development process; a permanent resource, if you will, for governments and universities reflecting about this issue. While it is to be expected that consultancies like the Washington Advisory Group will attempt to profit from this development process, insights on the development process need to be circulated much more widely in the public sphere.

George Mason University’s campus in Ras al Khaymah has collapsed. Similar collapses have happened in Malaysia, South Africa, Singapore, and several other countries. How many more messy failures like this do we need? Why can’t we deal with this issue in a collective way, one sensitive to the viewpoints of all parties associated with this complicated development process, yet one that recognizes that capabilities to ‘reach out’ in new ways need to be systematically enhanced.

Kris Olds