Reclaiming the Global in Higher Education

By Vishakha Desai

Everywhere you look, all things “global” are under attack. “Slowbalisation: The Steam Has Gone Out of Globalisation” declared a cover of The Economist early this year. Meanwhile, many political pundits have published books attributing the backlash against globalization implicit in rising right- and left-wing populism to the failure of globalism, resulting in increasing sentiments of “Us vs. Them.” 

It is undeniable that, in economic terms, global trends are spiraling downward: foreign direct investments are at a 15-year low, and cross-border bank loans are near their lowest levels for the same period. Concurrently, we hear anti-global sentiments echoed in the virulent anti-immigrant rhetoric of “America First” and Brexit. 

In American institutions of higher learning, the bloom is also off the global rose, which once flowered at breakneck speed. Among the recent developments: 

• Fewer foreign students have been coming to America recently than in the earlier years of this decade—discouraged by increasingly strict visa regulations and the exclusionary sentiments coming from the White House. 

• Disappointed by the lack of financial returns on their investments in overseas campuses, universities are moving away from these once highly touted global models. 

• A recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education pointed out a decline in the emphasis on global education in college and university mission statements and strategic plans.

Despite these changes, American colleges and universities more than ever need to build global perspectives and fluency into their educational programs. However, they must do so in new ways that acknowledge the increasing connectedness of people and societies around the globe. 

Increasing Interdependence 

Despite the increasing critiques of globalization, the world continues to be more interconnected and interdependent. Consider this: Almost three billion people in the world have access to smartphones and apps that connect them to the world. One in four people live in a place other than where they were born, and migration is bound to increase in the coming years. And as we are increasingly forced to recognize, neither climate change nor disease pays any attention to national boundaries. 

The result is that more culturally diverse people are living cheek-by-jowl, physically or virtually, and thus require greater understanding of their respective differences. It is clear that no major problem in the world can be solved by one nation. 

Preparing students to navigate the increasingly multicultural realities of the world and pursuing research that will deliver solutions to the complex grand challenges of our era are fundamental to the missions of most colleges and universities. In this light, there should be no question that institutions of higher education must firmly tie study of the global condition to their very missions. However, it is equally important to refine the thinking and practices that have stood for things global on our campuses. 

New Ways of Thinking 

During the last 15 years, when colleges and universities were jumping on the global bandwagon, what was meant by “global” was primarily transactional: institutions exported campuses and study abroad programs and imported foreign students. Although these activities were couched in mission-related terms (and undoubtedly provided value to their participants), they were fundamentally driven by the need for greater tuition revenue. 

Colleges and universities did not sufficiently recognize that the essence of the global perspective they wished their students to develop lies in the relational understanding of one’s place in the world and the attendant responsibilities: recognition that events, processes, and decisions that occur in one part of the world have repercussions in all other parts. 

To foster this kind of global perspective, we must develop new ways of thinking about connectivity and the fissures that often emerge from such interactions, as well as new methods for understanding the complex relationships between the local and the global. We have to learn to see global and local (or national) less as opposites and more in relation to each other – better understanding the local in the context of the global and vice versa. 

When fire destroys a textile factory in Bangladesh, for example, it is not just a sad occasion for a poor country far from our shores. We must also recognize that we are culpable in the tragedy through our purchases of the inexpensive clothing manufactured in those factories. 

Preparing Students for a Complex World 

Columbia University’s Committee on Global Thought—of which I am Vice Chair—is a forum founded by President Lee Bollinger in 2006 and charged with the mission of enhancing the university’s engagement with issues of global importance. It posits global “as a collaborative intellectual process of discovery intended to facilitate emergence of new concepts, methodologies, and fields of inquiry in the pursuit of knowledge necessary to understand and act in the world in which we live.” 

Over a decade, we have learnt, through scholarly collaboration across disciplines and geographies and in dialogue with our annual class of graduate students from all over the world, that this kind of work is neither simple nor easily quantifiable. While it doesn’t require traipsing around the globe, it does require the ability to work with diverse groups of people with humility and an open mind. 

If institutions of higher learning are com-mitted to preparing their students for the com-plexity of the world and the implications of its increasing interdependencies, they must treat engagement with the global not as an add-on or an isolated phenomenon but instead as central to their missions. 

In this way, global is a pentimento, a layered phenomenon that builds on an increasing number of local and international interactions—its composition at any moment the result of what we have learned from the opportunities and fissures we confront. Sending our students abroad and bringing international students to our campuses are important instrumentalities for developing the critical thinking skills, empathy, and humility that will be necessary for our graduates to navigate the globalizing world we all live in. 

Dr. Vishakha Desai, an AKA Senior Advisor, is Special Advisor for Global Affairs to the President of Columbia University and Professor of Practice at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs. She was previously President and CEO of Asia Society. 

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