Breaking up is hard to do edition

On Saudi ties and international student flows

Rules of (Dis)engagement

In the end, there was no split.

After several months of deliberations, MIT announced it would not sever ties with Saudi Arabia. In a letter to the MIT community, President L. Rafael Reif condemned the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the hands of Saudi security forces, but said the university would continue collaborations with Saudi academic institutions and companies.

The decision sparked criticism, both on campus and off. MIT’s action was “driven not by intellectual content but by the money,” Jonathan A. King, an emeritus professor of biology told the Chronicle. A Boston Globe columnist wrote:

“Universities will take the cash, even if it’s dirty cash.”

But like all relationships, this one is complicated. Saudi Arabia presents a special challenge because of the lack of clearly demarcated lines between the Saudi royal family and Saudi universities and funders of research like the oil giant Saudi Aramco.

The fact is, however, that as American colleges become more globally intertwined, it’s impossible to avoid geopolitics and the thorny questions they raise. Colleges have to grapple with these issues when they agree to host Confucius Institutes or accept scholarship dollars from Persian Gulf countries that treat women as second-class citizens. When Yale decided to open a liberal-arts college with the National University of Singapore, faculty in New Haven protested because of Singaporean restrictions on gay rights and civil liberties.

If anything, it’s worth asking why it’s the Saudis and the Khashoggi killing that have led to this high-profile debate about higher ed’s international engagement. After all, I’ve seen little discussion on campuses about breaking off ties with Chinese universities over the rounding up and detention of members of that country’s Muslim Uighur minority, including a number of academics.

There’s not clear precedent for how colleges and academic associations ought to act. In the apartheid era, for example, many American universities divested from companies that were from or did business in South Africa but continued faculty exchanges and joint research with their South African counterparts. More recently, a number of scholarly organizations have supported boycotts of Israeli institutions but have still tried to find ways to work with individual scholars.

Indeed, Reif cited faculty autonomy in as a key reason for not wholesale cutting ties with Saudi Arabia, noting that many of relationships MIT had were between individual researchers.

In talking with a number of faculty members in recent days, I’ve heard that reasoning echoed. Philip G. Altbach, the founding director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, told me:

“Universities shouldn’t be dictating what work faculty do and where they do it. My view is open doors are better.”

Like Altbach, many people believe geopolitical tensions and clashes of world view call for more engagement, not less. It’s that philosophy that led Yale to go to Singapore and New York University to China (or so their leaders argued). I remember talking with Leon Botstein, the president of Bard College, about why his small liberal-arts institution should be in volatile and often illiberal places like Russia, Palestine, and Central Asia:

“Education isn’t an insurance policy for democracy. But it’s hard to create democracy without it.”

In his letter, Reif made a similar engagement-as-a-good argument, pointing out a condition of MIT’s work with the all-male King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals was that the Saudis create science education opportunities for women, including a fellowship program that brings female Ph.Ds to MIT.

Still, Reif said he would establish a committee of faculty, staff members, and students to review how the university might improve its policies for reviewing its global partnerships. It’s worth noting that, for all the heat it is taking over its Saudi relations, MIT has long had a process for vetting international collaborations.

And that’s my final thought: What about all the other institutions, outside of the spotlight’s glare?

Does your college have rules of the road for global engagement? How do you balance institutional policy-setting with faculty autonomy? As an individual researcher, what principles do you follow in establishing partnerships? I want to know. Post in the comments, send me an email, or continue the conversation on Twitter. I’m @karinfischer.

The Takeaway: International Graduate Enrollments

By now, you’ve probably seen the new figures on international graduate school enrollments from the Council of Graduate Schools. First time enrollments were down one percent, for the second year in a row. But that topline number only tells you so much. Digging into the data, here’s what you need to know:

A critical finding of the CGS report is that institutions are not created equal when it comes to international recruitment. For my money, this is the most telling graphic of the entire report:

It suggests research intensive universities are better positioned to weather a slowdown in international enrollments than other doctoral or master’s institutions. That’s across the board – at R1s, enrollments in Ph.D. programs climbed 4 percent, while master’s enrollments were up 1 percent. On the other, troubling end of the scale, new master’s-degree students plummeted 15 percent at master’s level universities.

The CGS data highlights the differences based on institutional type, but the unevenness plays out in other ways. The latest Open Doors report, for example, shows international student numbers falling in the South and Midwest but increasing in New England. A snapshot survey, conducted a year ago, found colleges that accept less than 25 percent of applicants holding up much better than their less-selective peers. And an analysis I did back in 2015 revealed that just 10 percent of colleges accounted for 70 percent of the international enrollment growth over a decade.

Boom times obscured those inequities. But a slowdown – or even a drop off – could reveal real haves and have nots in international enrollments.

We can no longer count on China to make things right. It’s only a small exaggeration to say that in recent years it didn’t matter what was happening in the rest of the world because China would ensure that the overall enrollment trajectory was positive. But both applications and enrollments from China, which accounts for more than 4 in 10 international graduate students, were flat in 2018.

The answer, of course, is diversifying the recruiting pool, but the CGS report makes clear how difficult that can be. New students from Europe actually fell. While sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America were recruitment bright spots, they account for 3 percent and 6 percent respectively of international graduate enrollments.

Now for some good news: The number of new doctoral students from overseas continues to rise. That’s despite further declines in Iranian students, who have an outsized presence in Ph.D. programs. It’s a heartening sign for the academic talent pipeline, which, particularly in the sciences, relies heavily on overseas graduates.

And perhaps the obituaries for business schools were premature. Despite an 8 percent drop in applications to business programs, enrollments actually held steady. That said, the Graduate Management Admissions Council, which administers the GMAT, reports that more than half of U.S. business programs saw a drop in applications in 2018, so maybe we shouldn’t rest too easy.

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Around the Globe

Speaking of cutting ties, a number of universities are ending relationships with Huawei, the Chinese telecom company that has been the center of concerns about intellectual property theft. Stanford quietly halted joint research with Huawei in December, while the University of California at Berkeley said it would honor existing contracts but wouldn’t engage in any new collaborative work. It’s not just an American phenomenon – Oxford also will suspend future projects. But some other institutions are inking new deals.

A Chinese exchange student was sentenced to a year in prison for illegally photographing a Florida naval base. A judge didn’t buy the student’s argument that he was just a tourist.

Meanwhile, the Oregonian has compiled a list of college students from Saudi Arabia who have disappeared in at least eight states and Canada while facing criminal charges. Many have ended up back home.

Chinese students at the University of Toronto want to impeach a newly-elected student government leader because she supports a free Tibet:

The Indian government is calling on U.S. prosecutors to release student-visa holders, nearly all of whom are Indian, caught up in the University of Farmington sting.

Is China’s problem too few college dropouts?

Got some #intled news you think I should be covering? Drop me a line,

And finally…

Is it nature or is it nurture? My friend and fellow reporter Goldie Blumenstyk makes an interesting point about the recent Pew Research Center polling on American attitudes about immigration. The survey found that education was key to positive views on immigration – three-quarters of the college graduates surveyed agreed with the statement, “America's openness to people from all over the world is essential to who we are as a nation.”

But which group is even more likely to support that view? Young people. Eighty percent of Americans between 18 and 29 years old said the country is stronger when it’s open to the world.

You have to wonder if this result reflects the job colleges are doing to inculcate more cross-cultural awareness – or if today’s students are coming to campus more globally minded than perhaps they get credit for.

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