Leader of the pack or following the crowd?

Brown's internationalization effort

By
Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Though new at Brown, a focus on internationalization is far from unique. Many colleges and universities – both in America and abroad – have undertaken similar initiatives in recent years.

“It’s absolutely the flavor of the month, probably the flavor of the decade,” said Philip Altbach, director of Boston College’s Center for International Higher Education. “Lots of campuses are trying to internationalize themselves in many different ways.”

These efforts include initiatives both on campus and overseas, from setting up satellite campuses in foreign countries – which President Ruth Simmons said Brown will not do – to offering more courses in nontraditional languages, something Brown has already done.

Other schools have set up committees similar to Brown’s and have appointed administrators whose focus is international, though often in less senior positions than vice president, Altbach said.

“Having a vice-presidential position gives it significant visibility,” he said. “It means that Brown is taking it seriously.”

By revving up international programs, “Brown is in tune with the rest of the country,” agreed Madeleine Green, vice president for international initiatives at the American Council on Education.

In fact, Altbach said, Brown’s international aspirations are hardly ground-breaking.

“Brown, like Harvard and Yale, are a little bit late to the game,” Altbach said. “A lot of other schools have been internationally involved and proactive for a long time.”

“The Ivy League generally speaking has not been in a leadership position on all this stuff,” he added.

Seeing results

It remains unclear where Brown may ultimately have the most tangible success in this effort, as both Green and Altbach said internationalization has meant different things for different colleges and universities.

One area of national focus is study abroad.

“There’s good news and bad news there,” Green said. “The good news is we’re at an all-time high, the bad news is that’s still a tiny fraction of students in U.S. higher education and most of them are going for short-term programs.”

Altbach agreed there is a need to increase not only the number of students going abroad, but also the amount of time they devote to overseas programs.

“I talk about it as not the junior year abroad, but the junior two weeks abroad,” he said. “That’s a joke, but it’s true to some extent.”

Study abroad is an area where Brown presently excels. For the 2004-05 academic year, the Institute of International Education ranked Brown No. 19 among U.S. universities, with 37.8 percent of undergraduates earning credit abroad that year. Among Ivy League schools, only Dartmouth ranked higher.

Still, there is room for improvement, said Kendall Brostuen, director of international programs and associate dean of the College. Brown would like to “get students thinking about going to less traditional destinations,” he said, noting that over 60 percent of Brown students who study overseas do so in Europe.

On campus, Green said, the question facing schools is, “Can you ensure that students who don’t study abroad are still literate internationally?”

Altbach said promoting foreign language study – which he said has declined in the United States in the last 10 years – has been a key component of internationalization efforts. Study of important languages such as Chinese, Arabic, Hindi and Japanese is “pitifully low” in the United States, he added.

“Internationalization of the curriculum has been a major strategy,” Green said. This often entails offering more courses and concentrations with international bents, and it can also involve approaches outside of the classroom, such as bringing more foreign speakers to campus.

Enrolling more international students is another way U.S. colleges and universities are seeking to internationalize, Green said, adding that the numbers of foreign students studying in the United States dropped off because of heightened security efforts following Sept. 11, 2001.

A long-term process

At the same time, the attacks provided a major impetus for the current wave of internationalization efforts, Green said.

“In the short term, September 11 has really intensified the whole national awareness and dialogue about internationalization,” Green said. But, she noted, “there have been international efforts on campuses … since the aftermath of World War II.”

According to both Green and Altbach, schools have seen significant results within a few years of formal internationalization efforts, but the overall focus is generally long-term.

Bringing more international students to campus and building on existing foreign programs “is not rocket science,” Altbach said, and can be done quickly. Raising foreign language enrollments and building significant new academic collaborations overseas can take longer, he said.

“You have to take the long view,” Green said. “The impact is first of all long-term and second of all is cumulative.”

As a result, she added, a university looking to internationalize needs to establish and monitor quantifiable measures of progress, such as raising international student enrollment or attendance at foreign speakers’ lectures.

Either way, she said, internationalization is a process that will continue far beyond the current wave of activity.

“The world has changed. If an institution wants to provide a high-quality education, it has to think of itself as internationally focused,” Green said. “This isn’t going to go away.”