Readers speak edition

Reaction to my 'end of internationalization' story, plus new scrutiny at MIT

A ‘Goldilocks’ Solution

MIT is serving notice that it will subject its relationships with China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia to greater scrutiny.

Just weeks after the university announced it would not sever ties with the Saudis over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, it rolled out a new review policy for work in or with partners in the three countries.

Among the projects now subject to additional oversight: those funded by people or entities from China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia; those involving MIT faculty or staff members or students doing work in those countries; and collaborations with people or entities from those countries. In some cases, administrators will recommend special risk management plans, while other projects may not be allowed to proceed.

Why does this matter? For generations, MIT has had an extensive global reach, often venturing into parts of the world, like the Middle East, that can raise issues about academic freedom, research vulnerabilities, or human rights.

The university is making it clear it doesn’t intend to retreat from international engagement.

But at the same time, it is spelling out an extensive process for moving forward. While MIT’s global footprint is large, I would expect other institutions to look to it as a model for partnership review.

Another set of eyes will also be watching – those of its foreign collaborators. Already, university officials in Hong Kong are expressing “shock” over the new measures and concern that other American colleges could adopt similar enhanced vetting.

And will these measures will satisfy government officials here in the U.S., who have been increasingly concerned that American colleges’ ties, particularly with China, leave higher education vulnerable to foreign influence?

Has MIT arrived at a “Goldilocks” solution, one that can assauge competing concerns? We’ll see if anyone finds it just right.

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Reader Voices

It was an era in which U.S. higher education found ways to export its prestige, assert itself as a vehicle for soft power, and facilitate the exchange of people and ideas across borders. In last week’s Chronicle of Higher Education cover story I asked: Is international education's golden moment over?

I got many articulate, thoughtful, passionate replies. Here are a few, condensed for space:

We have long heard the dusty old rhetoric about "competing in a global economy." I did some non-scientific scouting of products in stores where I live. My quick inventory of "Made in..." tags revealed a long list of other countries. It might be a helpful reality check for locals. We often depend on the rest of the world for medicine, food, clothing, vehicles, and more. Bottom line, international education is a patriotic thing to do and support. Wave the flag at global perspectives? Why not? It seems to work in other directions.

That strategy may seem like quite a reach, but why not lean into something we know is true? Ultimately, I'm talking about even more emphasis on community and school outreach, done more vigorously and effectively. Where good models are in play already, they should be spotlighted and replicated.

– Jay Harris, international education entrepreneur

In my experience, faculty and even international partners are slightly fatigued (if not fully put to sleep) by "internationalization." The loftiness of internationalization has complicated perceiving and understanding the actual results.

That said, more empirical work and research is being conducted than ever before. NAFSA, AIEA, and several other organizations now award scholars for innovative and impactful research in the field. Many of these frameworks are robust and research-grounded. They have involved the voices and inputs of hundreds of faculty, scholars, and administrators around the globe. The knowledge part of internationalization is, in fact, booming, and in exciting directions. Faculty may be fatigued, but they also ask for better strategies for reaching and teaching international students, integrating education abroad into the curriculum, and internationalizing their classrooms – in a thoughtful way.

– Bryan McAllister-Grande, Northeastern University

As a retired community college teacher, our students are woefully underprepared for studies in English, and we have very little beyond questionable admissions testing to ensure they are. We rarely offer intensive English programs and cultural support is also lacking.

While administrators say standards should not be changed for international students, faculty know that just about every student would fail if we did not “accommodate” foreign language students.

– Leslie Butler, retired

I think we need to take into account of the broad context of the surge of middle class in the world, especially in Asia, with China and India witnessing the largest growth in middle-class population. Study abroad is part of their most valued investment to maintain and consolidate their status. I think the hunger and passion for American higher education in China, at least, runs deep, in spite of the increasingly tense U.S.-China relationship.

– Yingyi Ma, Syracuse University

Like any well trained millennial, my response to Karin’s really good article is, yes, and.

The heart of internationalization beats on. That’s the thing about soft power. It will have to come to grips with tighter purse strings and it may stutter for a moment depending on who’s in office and what’s going on in the news, but it forges on. My students, hundreds who are now alumni of the program, don’t just forget about the friendships that blossomed in the U.S. Their memories and photos don’t just disappear. Their stories don’t just lose their meaning. What they learned about themselves and others doesn’t just evaporate. They will continue to share their stories and inspire others to have similar experiences.

Internationalization is in a moment of tension. The article makes that clear. But internationalization isn’t a fruit that withers. It’s a seed. Or maybe it’s more like a stone. Sometimes it’s dull, but in a certain light, it shines bright.

– Roya Zahed, recruitment outreach and internship program manager

Thanks to so many of you for reaching out to share your perspectives and experience. I’m committed to making this a space for people who care about international education. Let’s keep up the conversation! Got a reaction to these reactions? Ideas for what else I ought to cover? Drop me an email,, or find me on Twitter @karinfischer.

Ranking Impact

It’s a new way of ranking universities – by the good they do. The Times Higher Education University Impact Ranking measures institutions worldwide by the work they do towards meeting United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, including gender equality, climate action, and sustainable cities.

The top-ranked institution is the University of Auckland, in New Zealand, followed by McMaster University and the University of British Columbia, both in Canada. The highest American college is Emory University, tied for 18th.

This list looks significantly different than other higher-education rankings – only three institutions also appear in the top 50 worldwide academic ranking, and Alex Usher notes that many of the traditional top finishers, such as most members of the Association of American Universities, didn’t even participate.

What do you think? Is this a viable alternative to metrics that reward money and research intensity? Or would you scrap all higher-ed rankings? Post your thoughts in the comments or share them on social media.

Around the Globe

University of Arizona faculty members want criminal charges dropped against students who protested an on-campus talk by two U.S. border patrol agents.

Columbia University abruptly called off a panel discussion on the rule of law in Turkey. Did the Turkish government exert pressure?

The U.S. government met its Congressionally-mandated 65,000 H-1B visa cap for fiscal year 2020 just five days after it started taking applications for the work visa. Officials have not yet said whether the maximum number of applications have been reached for those with advanced degrees.

In Australia, overseas students are now the largest source of net migration:

Meanwhile, lawmakers there are considering a measure to make academic cheating services, including writing essays or sitting for exams in a student’s place, illegal.

Countries that do a better job getting working-class students into college have a smaller “happiness gap” between rich and poor citizens.

And finally…

My friend never had much luck with girls back home, but walking the streets of Manhattan on his first days in the U.S., woman after woman smiled at him. Wow, I’m such a ladies’ man, he thought.

After the jet lag wore off and he began to make friends at college, he came to realize, that’s just what Americans do – they’re smiley.

Americans may be more expressive because this is a land that has a lot of immigrants (and international students). Researchers found people in diverse countries like the U.S. tend to smile more than in countries like China where there are relatively few nationalities in the population. If you don’t share a language, you smile to build trust and connection.

I asked my friend if he felt more welcomed by students grinning in greeting. Yeah, he said – after I got over the fact that I wasn’t going to go on a lot of dates.

’Til next week – Karin

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