Higher education as public good from a global perspective

International students and higher education around the world are definitely on my mind given the most recent Executive Order issued on March 6, 2017 by the Trump administration (“Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the U.S.”) (more information, see FAQs) and dealing with the impact of such actions at Virginia Tech.  On a national level, the news and social media are filled with stories of those impacted and in response universities create ways to communicate clearly and directly with the various constituencies. As one example, Virginia Tech created a website and specific email address to share updated information and invite correspondence and assistance on an individualized basis.

Also in response, universities as well as national educational organizations/agencies and international associations are taking a stance and issuing their statements broadly.  among those with such statements are the Council of Graduate Schools, APLU, American Council on Education, Association of American Universities, European Universities Association, and more.  These are very helpful in disseminating the important message of the value of international students and the significant upon higher education.  Arguments in support of the value and reports about the economic impact of international students are being shared including a recent one from the UK available through the University World News.

Although not always the case, higher education seems to have been quick to respond to this growing challenge to internationalization (e.g., immigration, globalization) and to express concerns about the negative impact upon higher education. There remains much work to do to reverse the course of action (beyond what might come through the legal system) but the responses described above and more to come do provide examples for how higher education is accepting the challenges and taking the opportunity for addressing the recent populist movement (e.g., post-2016 U.S. election, Brexit).  Perhaps this will be the impetus that encourages higher education to truly engage in a revolution.

In an essay published in University World News entitled “Revolutionising the global society” (March 6, 2017), Blessinger wrote that “higher education systems around the world are currently undergoing an academic revolution that is primarily the result of globalisation, democratisation and lifelong learning as a human right. As we move further into the 21st century, these factors will continue to play an important role in revolutionising the global knowledge society.”

As I wrote in a previous blog – “higher education has the responsibility to be ‘creative’ and innovative in these ‘interesting times’ and to embrace the unknown and act so we can ‘influence the outcomes’.”  With this responsibility, universities must not only understand and embrace higher education as a public good but to do so in a global context.  Earning a post-secondary degree (bachelors and graduate degrees) is often considered a private good (for individual and personal benefit) but in the United States and elsewhere it has also been viewed and must continue to be viewed as a public good; that is, the education of individuals to become well informed and productive global citizens for the betterment of society.

For the first time in the United States, the Times Higher Education (THE) World Academic Summit was held at University of California Berkeley in September 2016.  The theme and speakers were focused on “world-class universities and the public good”.  Academic thought leaders and leaders from government, policymaking and industry around the world attended to learn from each other, to  share best practices, to debate the value of higher education and the costs, and challenge ourselves to forge paths forward in “making the world a better place” (Baty, 2016).  As a participant, it was enlightening to hear from academic leaders, government officials and policy-makers about the importance of higher education around the world and its impact locally, regionally and globally.  As anticipated, the conversations transcended nations and cultural boundaries. The results are captured in a podcast available on the Times Higher Education World Academic Summit website which includes additional information about other summits and meetings around the world.

Building upon the 2016 Academic Summit’s theme of ‘world-class universities and the public good’, the theme for the 2017 Global Perspectives Program (GPP’17) was formulated – “Higher Education as Public Good – the Global Landscape.”  It seemed logically to bring the conversation of current academic leaders from the world stage to the future academic leaders participating in the diverse and international global perspectives program. The focus of GPP’17 will be to examine higher education as public good and to explore the issues and challenges from a global perspectives.  Although the topics will likely continue to evolve in response to ongoing events and actions in the U.S. and the around the world, the initial focus will focus three: (a) massification of higher education: smart solutions for open global higher education, (b) global higher education in the post truth era: importance of fact finding and critical thinking skills, and (c) communicating science in global higher education.

After attending the 2016 Summit, realizing the post-2016 election impact on higher education, reading extensively from the Chronicle of Higher Education, InsideHIgherEd, World University News and more, it became apparent rather quickly that higher education needs to be engaged in and assume leadership for the dialogue around the roles and responsibilities of higher education and the public good especially in the global context.  This was reinforced by the questions, comments and concerns raised by the students in my current GRAD 5104 Preparing the Future Professoriate class (Virginia Tech) and in discussions with colleagues and students in the Transferable Skills course offered spring 2017 through the University of Basel.  Even though the students who enrolled in the class came from the University of Basel, University of Zurich, and University of Strasbourg in France, they also came many countries including Sudan, China, Korea, Germany, Switzerland, France, United States, India and more. Their perspective on higher education shaped by their lived experiences created wonderful opportunities for learning and sharing across nations and cultures and the beginnings of the conversation about global higher education as a public good. Those enrolled in this course also included many who will also participate in the 2017 Global Perspectives Program from the University of Basel and the University of Zurich and will join with the GPP’17 group from Virginia Tech.  The conversation has begun and will only get better and richer.

Post-2016 election challenge and opportunity for higher education

Fifty years ago, Robert F. Kennedy introduced the phrase that “one may live in interesting times”.  He stated that “like it or not, we live in interesting times. They are times of danger and uncertainty; but they are also the most creative of any time in the history…” (speech given in Cape Town, June 1966).  It appears to me that today, we are also living in ‘interesting times’.  For most, uncertainty and danger for many are clearly perceived for 2017 and beyond. There is so much that is unknown at the moment that it becomes unsettling. But perhaps these post-2016 election times might also challenge us, the words of RFK to be “creative”. That is, to ponder, reflect and act.

In her book entitled Hope in the Dark, Rebecca Solnit (2015 reissue of 2004 book) writes  about ‘hope’ but not as optimism per se but rather that “hope locates itself in the premises that we d9781608465767-f_mediumon’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognize uncertainty, you recognize that you may be able to influence the outcomes.” (from her Facebook page in November 2016).    “Optimists think it will all be fine without our involvement; pessimists take the opposite position; both excuse themselves from acting. Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists. It’s the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things you can know beforehand.”   As she proposes, recognizing uncertainty allows us to recognize that we might be “able to influence the outcomes”.  Thus, it appears that now is the time to take action.

Although a rather simplistic statement, the 2016 elections revealed so much more about the current state of U.S. society and higher education’s connection (or lack thereof) to that reality for many. Higher education has been often accused of being elitist and out of touch with society and I would argue that sometimes we have been. University towns are sometimes called a ‘blue bubble’ in an otherwise red state. A recent article from the Chronicle of Higher Education highlighted the phenomena of “blue bubbles”  and provided some perspective on why universities are sometimes isolated from the surrounding communities. And this is where change must begin.

From the perspective of higher education, I would argue (along with many others) that higher education has not only a role to play but a responsibility to get involved and even to assume a leadership role.  As educational institutions, colleges and universities must continue to educate our students as well as our faculty, staff and administrators about social justice, equity and civil discourse.  We must be intentional about engaging with the dialogue around difference, encouraging all to speak up and speak out and to do so by understanding difference and through listening and hearing the voices of others.  It is also important that we focus our attention to communicate with clarity and to enhance our skills and ability to determine the accuracy of information and seek truth.  Articles about programs, strategies and workshops as well as analyses, opinion pieces and reflections are found frequently in publications including the Chronicle of Higher Education, InsideHigherEd, and Times Higher Education to name only a few.

Let me offer a few examples.

In the days following the 2016 election, an increase in hate motivated campus-climate incidents occurred and was reported by the Chronicle of Higher Education.  The data were compiled by Southern Poverty Law Center which issued a report including historical context and detailed information about type and location of the hate-related incidents.  I believe that in part these data provided the impetus for the call for higher education to respond and a focus on citizenship was one such response. Although there are many others, recent articles suggest how colleges can teach students to be good citizens and urge colleges and universities not to retreat but rather to teach citizenship.  Examples of programs and initiatives for understanding difference, increasing awareness of micro-aggressions and implicit bias and sustaining affirming campus-climate environment appear regularly in the higher education news and social media.

Given the rhetoric of the 2016 election campaign, it has become very clear that “racism still exists and can appear” on university campuses according to racial-equity scholar Harper (2017) in a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article.  “The polarizing nature of the 2016 campaign makes improving the racial climate a more urgent matter for higher-education leaders.”  Once again,this speaks to the opportunity and the need to act and educate.

Education is critical and universities must do their part.  Universities can provide opportunity, programs, space (real and metaphorical) for dialogue, and messages that foster inclusion.   A recent example of a timely message is the address provided by Andy Morikawa (Blacksburg, Virginia) at the December 2016 Virginia Tech Graduate School Commencement.  (Note: his remarks begin at minute 35 on the recording).  Morikawa encouraged us to get involved, get engaged in civic life and community engagement, to be attentive, to listen, to have tough conversations with those who don’t share the same views and to do so regularly in community.

As we know education is a primary mission of higher education and for many universities, research is also a primary mission.  Science, discovery and the search for truth are critical and remain even more so in the post 2016 election era.  Besides ‘teaching citizenship’ and encouraging civil discourse, how do we engage our students with determining facts and uncovering ‘fake news’?  A recent article from Times Higher Education (THE) suggests that it is education not regulation.  Seargeant and Tagg (2016)  wrote that “the heightened need for critical literacy skills in tackling fake news and media manipulation highlights the central role that higher education can play for society as a whole.”  Further, Virgo (2017) writing in Times Higher education suggests that the university must accept its “role as critic and conscience of society”.

In this post-2016 election era, faculty and academic administrators have much to contemplate not only about our defined missions in research, teaching, and engagement but also as critic and conscience of society in accepting the responsibility of the university as a social institution and to do so with “intentional and ethical scholar activism“.

Higher education has the responsibility to be ‘creative’ and innovative in these ‘interesting times’ and to embrace the unknown and act so we can ‘influence the outcomes’.  Let us work individually as well as collectively.

Global Perspectives Program’16 Ecuador (GPP’16): Reflections beyond

The Global Perspectives Program in Ecuador (GPP’16) occurred during the week of Thanksgiving break in November, 2016. This was the second year for graduate students to visit Ecuador in partnership between the VT Graduate School and the University of San Francisco de Quito.  Most of us (7) were able to travel spend the week starting with a day long visit to the Mindo Cloud Forest, comprehensive visits to two universities in Quito (USFQ and the National Polytechnica School or EPN)  and to the Galapagos (USFQ-G); one was able to extend her visit to Tiputini in the rainforest of Ecuadorian Amazon.  The trip is documented through tweets via storify and will be shared in VT news story in January 2017.

As with other GPP programs, the Ecuador trip was indeed a very informative and enriching visit.  As intended, we learned about higher education in Ecuador from a public and private university perspective.  We gained knowledge and understanding about the environmental diversity of Ecuador including the cloud forest, Galapagos, Ecuadorian Amazon rainforest and life near the equator at 10,000 feet elevation.  We were introduced to the vast array of cultural diversity and rich history of Ecuador. GPP was once again a wonderful educational opportunity for professional development.  And as usual, opportunities for personal growth and development presented themselves throughout the trip.

Although this blog post was initially conceived as a posting about the Ecuador experience, the contemplation and writing are triggering reflections that extend beyond GPP16 Ecuador to the VT Graduate School global perspectives program (GPP) in general.  Yes, these trips are about learning about higher education, visiting universities and cultural sites,interacting with university personnel (administrators, faculty, staff and students), sharing local food and beverages, and more.  It is about gaining knowledge and understanding and it is also about building relations and sharing time and space.  It is about professional and personal growth and development.

Based upon my experiences in leading the Global Perspectives Programs within the umbrella of the Transformative Graduate Education (TGE) initiative,  I am convinced that it is possible to transcend and transform the typical graduate education experience in meaningful and significantly beneficial ways.  Graduate Deans can make a difference and should be engaged with the academic preparation and professional development of our graduate students as well as the personal growth and development important for life and work in the 21st century.

The experiences provided through the Global Perspectives programs for the past 12 years have allowed me to witness the development of strong connections between and among participants during each trip. (Note: the participants come from a variety of disciplines and usually do not know each other prior to the trip). Each GPP group tends to develop a special connection and bond which continues to evolve (visibly) across the days of the trip and exists well beyond.  And I am thankful for the opportunities to enhance my knowledge and learn something new every time.

This was the case for GPP’16 Ecuador.  We enjoyed our unique experience and shared some very special moments. As we came together from our different academic worlds and lived experiences, we spent time together, really listening and hearing each other, sharing stories and views and feeling “safe” enough to be brave in asking questions and engaging with difficult dialogues and challenging topics. Although not particularly articulated as outcomes, honesty and authenticity were anticipated and were realized.  The conversations were real.  There’s something to be said about getting away from our daily (and typical) environments to sitting on a large balcony with a view of the ocean to stimulate conversation and communication. It is important to note that communication and connection occur not just as a result of conversation but occur in other ways. We were comfortable with silence as important in sharing time and space and connection. This become evident during our Ecuador experience. The connections were and are real.

Given the strength of our connection, we were able to engage in authentic discussions of serious topics which continued throughout the trip.  At one point, I was asked to describe the “whys” of the decision-making process for the GPP experiences. The question led me to reflect upon the intentionality of the process and the principles by which the experience evolves. There is reasoned and reasonable intentionality behind the logistics, sequence, the visits, expectations and anticipated outcomes. As a result of the question and conversation that followed, I have continued to examine the underlying philosophical underpinnings and the principles for the program. This is the easy part for these can be described. The more challenging part of the answer rests in the process of decision-making which unfolds organically, and mostly goes unnoticed, throughout the trip and lies at the essence of the GPP experience. It is this essence and genuineness that creates the long-lasting connections among the GPP participants.

Shortly after our return from GPP16 Ecuador, the Fall semester came to a close with graduate commencement ceremonies. This year like previous years, there were several graduates who have participated in the Global Perspectives Program (GPP) and are now not only VT alumni but also GPP alumni.  As each one crossed the stage to receive their degree, we shared a moment in which the special connection of the GPP experience was present and very real.

VT-shaped individual: graduate student focus

Shortly after his arrival at VT, President Timothy Sands established an initiative entitled Beyond Boundaries and challenged the university to envision the future for Virginia Tech informed by four concepts: VT-shaped discovery, communities of discovery, nexus of discovery, and continuous innovation.  The key messages associated with Beyond Boundaries include the following (adapted from www.beyondboundaries.vt.edu):

  • purpose driven and person centered approach
  • disciplinary depth and interdisciplinary capacities
  • flexible curricular design and research addressing complex needs of communities and society
  • land grant mission of outreach and application of knowledge with commitment to service through “Ut Prosim”
  • inclusive and diverse communities

Screen Shot 2016-08-13 at 12.14.01 PMIn keeping to the conceptual framework and key messages, the VT shaped student was born. As shown in the figure, the “T” represents the disciplinary depth (3) as well as transdisciplinary knowledge (1).  The “V” represents the informal communal learning (2) and the guided experiential learning (4).  The graphic lends itself nicely to the VT symbol that has come to represent Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

While much of the internal conversation has already focused on the undergraduate student, the concept applies to graduate (and professional) students. Specifically, “the challenges of the future require the capacity to work in interdisciplinary teams, engage in critical and creative thinking, collaborate with diverse people, communicate effectively, and conduct oneself with a deep sense of ethics.”  And indeed these “requirements” are key elements of the Graduate School’s initiative entitled Transformative Graduate Education (TGE) developed in 2003.

Screen Shot 2016-08-13 at 9.41.07 AM

As is shown in the figure and articulated on the website, the transformative graduate education (TGE) initiative “pushes the boundaries of traditional disciplinary academic education and provides the philosophical underpinnings for a truly innovative graduate education experience.”  TGE is framed by four cornerstones (pillars): knowledge, scholarly inquiry, leadership, and social responsibility.  Our efforts and activities are grounded within the fundamental principles of interdisciplinarity, inclusion and diversity, ethics, innovation (technology) and global perspectives.

Beyond the myriad of courses and programs offered, let me Screen Shot 2016-08-13 at 10.51.00 AMhighlight a few examples of the ways in which the TGE initiatives contributes to the preparation of the VT-shaped graduate student as described above.

To address the “deep sense of ethics”, all graduate students must demonstrate understanding of academic integrity and satisfy an scholarly integrity and ethics requirement officially recorded on their graduate plan of study.  For more information, see ethical pursuits in academe and ethics requirement.

In order to help graduate students “communicate effectively”, the Graduate School offers a variety of approaches:  two graduate courses – Communication Science (2 cr) and Citizen Scholar Engagement (3 cr) and recognition as a Citizen Scholar.  In addition, the Graduate School also offers a course entitled Inclusion and Diversity in a Global Society (3 cr) and actively promotes an affirming and welcoming graduate community and the Office of Recruitment and Diversity Initiatives (ORDI).

The “T” educated individual stresses both disciplinary depth and interdisciplinary breadth and the VT Graduate School has actively engaged in developing initiatives and opportunities to foster interdisciplinary programs and interdisciplinary thinking.  Among these are the Interdisciplinary Graduate Education Programs (IGEPs), the development of the individualized interdisciplinary PhD program (iPhD) and support for the Interdisciplinary Honor Society (IDR) established by VT graduate students.  These are fine opportunities but it is time to extend beyond boundaries even more.

For many years, I have advocated for interdisciplinary thinking and proposed the “pi” metaphor for interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary graduate education.  Picture5In this graphic, disciplinary depth in more than one academic area is stressed and strong connections across the disciplines are emphasized depicting transdisciplinarity.  I would argue that expanding beyond the “T” to the Pi (π)-educated can be seen as a valuable approach in the preparation of graduate students to become the adaptive innovators needed for the 21st century workforce.

By adopting this philosophical approach in alignment with the VT Beyond Boundaries initiative, the goal of a VT-shaped graduate student can be realized not only through the opportunities to become Pi (π)-educated but also for graduate students to gain valuable knowledge, skills and abilities through the programs offered via the Graduate School’s Transformative Graduate Education (TGE) initiative.

 

Responding to tragic events

Recent world and national tragic events have prompted me to reflect on the responsibility of the Graduate School to reach out to those impacted by such events.  And the importance of doing so for the individuals as well as for the broader graduate community.

Graduate Schools tend to be places in which graduate students from many walks of life, social identities, nationalities, and cultural perspectives exist within the university.  A very diverse community which Graduate Deans should build to be more “inclusive” especially to counter the existing university culture of academic silos and lonely journeys through Graduate School.  An inclusive community which can be characterized by understanding and caring.

Although valuable throughout the graduate education journey, an understanding and caring community is especially important in times of tragic events, political uprising and natural disasters. When these happen, the experience and impact of these events vary depending upon the particular connection of the individuals to the event(s).  Not everyone responds in the same way or with the same emotions but the responses are real and deserved to be acknowledged.

Recent events within the past few months have definitely impacted the graduate community (and more) at Virginia Tech and beyond. Tragic events in Paris and Nice, Baton Rouge (2), Orlando, Minnesota and Dallas are but a few examples that have impacted the lives of VT graduate students and the communities with which they identify (e.g., black, gay, Hispanic, international, law enforcement and more).  Reaching out to individuals from these communities directly (e.g., email), statements of support and information sharing via social media, in-person gatherings, and dialogue sessions are strategies that we have used here under our GLC Cares program.

In addition to understanding the individual impact, it is very important to recognize the value of the “learning” (teachable) moments for others in the graduate community.  Even though the tragic events might be acknowledged within the university community, active engagement with the underlying issues (e.g., racism, terrorism) and impact upon individuals are often not.  As Graduate Deans, I believe that we should to take the opportunity to create a space to encourage meaningful and relevant dialogue about the issues and events to enhance our knowledge and understanding of the world.  In doing so, we can engage as global citizens in a world that so desperately needs greater cultural  understanding and the willingness to communicate.

It seems a simple thing to do to reach out and engage with graduate students.  It is and it’s so important.