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The Case Against Internationalization

Is internationalization becoming too popular? When ideas become too popular, then academics, despite their feisty image, are less willing to dissent. Associate deans or assistant professors have plenty of their own battles to fight, like getting their share of the budget or winning tenure. When they see the internationalization theme sweeping across campus, they resign themselves to yet another academic fad. They keep their head below the parapet, quietly focusing on their own or their departments’ interests. Being against internationalization may look like being against diversity: a highly risky personal proposition.

The nature of the discussion about internationalization often depends on which side of the Atlantic it occurs. (I’ll save the trans-Pacific differences for another day.) Europeans sometimes talk about the “end of internationalization.” In the debates I have witnessed, the theory is that internationalization has moved out of international offices to all of the other academic and administrative offices on campuses, and thus international offices can be closed down.

But the view in the United States is very different. Some international higher-education consultants avoid working for American universities altogether, in the belief that U.S. universities aren’t serious about internationalization, with miniscule budgets and no one on the senior-leadership teams who represents the global perspective. In this view, the “beginning of internationalization” would be a more appropriate topic at many U.S. institutions, where internationalization is often mentioned but frequently not practiced.

Amid all of this discussion, the opinion that internationalization may be unwise altogether is rarely voiced. So here is a devil’s-advocate view on internationalization, offered up tongue-in-cheek. In particular, here are four reasons for an institution not to internationalize:

Internationalization eats up resources, including time and money. At some point in meaningful internationalization, video conferences and phone calls don’t work anymore, and face-to-face meetings become essential. On overseas trips, academics don’t just lose the time when they are away from their jobs on the home campus. They are distracted before they go by the extra logistical details and jet-lagged when they get back. No matter how much mental or physical stamina someone has, travel takes a personal toll, which means it ultimately takes an institutional toll.

Internationalization requires long-term thinking, and that is hard to come by in academe, because of dependence on governments. While many an academic administrator has crafted a long-term strategic plan, federal and state legislatures, economic cycles, natural disasters, and any number of other unexpected events tend to turn those plans upside down. They are not always redrawn. When disasters hit and money is tight, internationalization is often the first victim.

But there are exceptions. While some international academics have a quarrel with Singapore’s policies on such matters as freedom of speech, the Singaporean government kept spending on its universities right through the global financial crisis. U.S. state legislatures tend not to have the same kind of budgets or guts.

Internationalization requires institutional commitment, not just the commitment of leaders. Many times adventurous, well-meaning, globally minded presidents sally forth and visit other presidents. Consortia are formed. Then leadership changes. Suddenly interest drops, and the institution does not return its partners’ e-mails. Broad institutional support for international adventures is often not there. Better not to sally forth at all.

Universities should focus on supporting their own countries. In short, national competitiveness should win out over efforts at universities cooperating. For instance, because the Chinese government wants to be a “superpower” in higher education, supporting its efforts is against U.S. or European interests.

To be clear, these are all views I do not necessarily hold. What I do believe is that ideas are best sharpened by opposition. While the start-up of branch campuses has sparked robust debate at some U.S. universities, most notably Duke and New York universities, at many institutions, it often seems to be missing.

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