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Leebron discusses Rice's internationalism at V-C Conclave in MumbaiRice University President David W. Leebron recently addressed the International Vice Chancellor’s Conclave in Mumbai, India, as part of IIT Bombay’s Golden Jubilee Celebration. In his speech, "Developing an International Strategy: From the Local to the Global," Leebron discusses Rice’s holistic institutional plan to increase the university’s international presence.  

Developing an International Strategy: From the Local to the Global

David W. Leebron
Rice University

Our world is undeniably and inevitably becoming more globalized. The graduates of our institutions, regardless of their chosen professions, are more likely to find themselves engaged in work that involves other countries and other cultures. Our faculty members seek the best collaborators for their work, often ignoring institutional and national borders. Knowledge is communicated globally and often instantaneously. Institutions of higher education are increasingly competing for both students and faculty in a global marketplace of talent. 

At the same time, the vast majority of institutions of higher education are primarily local. As a service organization, we generally cannot export our output simply by shipping it to a consumer. We are tied to expensive and extensive physical facilities that help support and shape the experience and work of all elements of our community. Because the vast majority of educational institutions are public or nonprofit, we are guided by distinctive values and commitments, often involving a special relationship with our local communities and political entities. Those communities and political entities will seek to assure that their primacy is not undermined by new internationalist goals and activities. 

Why should such enterprises seek to become more international? Primarily because they cannot fulfill their core mission, and they cannot effectively compete against other institutions of higher education, unless they adopt a more international program and outlook. Although some universities see in internationalization a stronger and more secure economic base, most do not seek such internationalization primarily for such mercantilist reasons. 

That said, however, it is useful to understand the internationalization of higher education from the traditional trade perspective. How do primarily local educational enterprises become more international? The mechanisms do include the four traditional ones usually available to service industries (and incorporated into the terms of the WTO’s General Agreement on Trade in Services): 1) having foreign consumers travel to the local provider; 2) employees traveling overseas to deliver services to foreign consumers; 3) providing services through telecommunications; and 4) establishing local facilities or operations (including branches and joint ventures) to provide services to foreign consumers. Still, the overwhelming way universities have become more international is the first of these. In fact, foreign students in the United States add each year about $14.5 billion to our economy. American universities are engaged in each of the other modalities, although they remain fairly small. The construction of facilities and delivery of services to foreign consumers overseas, however, is becoming more significant, especially as some nations (notably Qatar) open themselves up to the construction of “education cities.”

In addition, and because ultimately we do not view our role from such a mercantilist perspective, we regard as very significant aspects of internationalism that would not be regarded as international from the traditional trade view. For example, when we send students abroad to participate in programs that we administer, that is an important aspect of our internationalism even though the foreign trade aspect may be insignificant. Second, we provide all our students an international environment through the human capital that comprises our institutions (faculty, staff and students), and it is relatively unimportant to us whether our people remain foreign citizens or remit proceeds to foreign countries. 

Business firms seek to become more international primarily either to expand their market or to secure more competitive sources of supplies and labor. Universities, as economic enterprises, do the same, and there are positive examples of universities that pursue particular internationalist goals for these purposes. Yet, because we are primarily local, and because our mission is not typically defined in financial terms, the reasons for our internationalism are distinctive. Just as a business which seeks to become more international without justification based on its financial bottom line, universities which seek to become more international without justifying those efforts in terms of their fundamental mission will most likely not succeed.

Thus internationalism must be part of a more holistic institutional strategy, and be part of the processes used to secure the success of that strategy. At Rice, for example, we incorporated internationalism as an element of our “Call to Conversation,” a strategic planning process that involved all elements of our community. Our goals, defined in general terms, were set forth in our “Vision for the 2nd Century,” which explicitly called for an increased international orientation. We then sought to operationalize that general aspiration with more specific goals. Among our most fundamental challenges, as in other areas, is our comparatively small size (5,000 students) among research universities.

First, we aimed to increase the number of foreign students in our undergraduate student body, and began to change some of the policies (including financial aid) that had stood as barriers to doing so. Our justification was not simply that we sought to serve foreign students, but that we sought to have such students because the diversity they would bring would enhance our education for everyone. Additionally, it would help in the long run to build an international network of our graduates, which would better serve our students and graduates as they operate in a more global environment. Such a goal of increasing foreign students might have been threatening to prospective domestic students and their families in Texas and elsewhere in the United States. However, this goal was adopted as part of a larger decision to expand the student body as a whole by about 30 percent. Thus while we are seeking to increase the number of undergraduate foreign students by three fold, that increase will in fact be accompanied by an increase (albeit less in size) in our domestic student population as well.

Second, we seek to create more international opportunities for our American students through the creation of institutional relationships with selected universities around the globe. We have focused initially primarily on India, China and Latin America in building these relationships, in part because Rice has had more historic connections with Europe. Accompanying this goal is an enhancement of the international and foreign curriculum we offer on our campus. For example, we are in the process of raising $25 million to create a new Asian Studies Center. In building from the local to the international, we have also taken advantage of the international connections our local environment provides. We have, for example, built strong ties with the Indian and Chinese communities in Houston, and relied as well upon the consular representatives of those countries. (Houston has the good fortune to host the third largest number of consular representatives in the United States, after only New York and Los Angeles.)

Third, we are developing research based relationships, but recognize that these must primarily be built around faculty interests and initiatives. We have emphasized trying to create department to department relationships, rather than insisting on a top-down approach. The key to building international success is basic excellence, notably at the departmental level. Thus we have generally led with areas in which we already have a worldwide reputation, and then sought to build upon relationships in those areas. And because we are comparatively small, we have not hesitated to collaborate with other universities in building relationships. For example, Rice played a lead role in creating the Texas­–UK consortium, a research oriented collaboration between leading universities in Texas and the United Kingdom. And when we hosted a two-week seminar for two dozen university presidents and other leaders of higher education in China, we sought the involvement of two other universities as well. 

Our goal of becoming international is integrated in two ways. First, that goal is articulated as an integrated program involving teaching, research and service, and as involving both faculty and students. Second, we seek to integrate an internationalist perspective in all elements of our administration and strategy. This way the goal is not simply one of 10 strategic points, but rather becomes increasingly part of our institutional perspective and philosophy and the responsibility of all parts of our community. 

The world is a large place with an abundance of opportunities, so perhaps the most difficult aspect of implementing the strategy (after, perhaps, finding the necessary resources) is making the strategic choices. We have determined certain priorities, in part in terms of geography, and are seeking to build deeper relationships with a limited number of foreign universities. For Rice, however, one of the principle elements in the strategy is, as indicated above, to build upon faculty initiative. For that reason, we created a Faculty Travel Fund, through which the faculty can apply directly to the central administration for funds that will enable faculty travel that will lead to stronger international institutional relationships. We also enhanced support for international visitors to campus, by making it easy for faculty to invite to our campus foreign scholars who were visiting elsewhere in the United States. We encourage faculty to use the relationships they develop through their research to create larger institutional opportunities.

In short, much of our strategy is ultimately about lowering barriers to enable both faculty and students to pursue more easily international endeavors. Doing things internationally should be no more difficult than doing them domestically. This does, however, mean investing more in staff and infrastructure. For example, we created a new international liaison position in the office of the president. We are adding staff to our enrollment office who will be charged in part with international recruiting. We enhanced the staff for international undergraduate programs and internships. We are actively discussing other ways in which we may need to increase support services as our student body becomes more international.

Our experience is that if it remains clear that the mission of the university remains the same, namely to serve its faculty and students and to provide them with more choice and opportunity, the internationalist mission will be embraced. We have found equally that the vast majority of our alumni, but especially those living overseas, were pleased to see the importance that we attached to this endeavor.

We have studied the efforts of other institutions pursuing internationalist goals, and several of them have made important and creative strides. But ultimately, the goals must be closely tailored to each institution’s own culture. Processes must be used to generate support and enthusiasm among faculty, students and staff. If that is done, such goals will be quickly embraced and supported, and the energy and initiative of the community will eventually drive the success of the program.