08 Mar 2017

Learning internationalisation strategy: promoting and protecting core academic values

The previous blog post in this series stressed the critical importance of scanning the external environment for opportunities and threats to internationalisation, particularly at a time when multiculturalism is being devalued and denigrated. President Trump’s moves to institute restrictions on the travel of Muslims from a number of countries to the USA – among other policy priorities ­– is challenging universities and forcing them to make radical and rapid choices in their strategic approaches to internationalisation.

 
 
The pace of change pursued by the Trump administration has left many breathless. Though some thought the transition from campaign trail to Oval Office would mean a more moderate approach, if anything it has intensified. There has been a blizzard of executive orders: the removal of restrictions on coal waste and business regulation, actions that could dismantle Obamacare, the approval to build two previously stalled pipelines; the reinstatement of a ban on international abortion counselling; a freeze on federal agencies hiring new employees and a withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
 
These are issues primarily affecting the USA and sectors other than higher education. However, two orders directly affect not only American universities and colleges, but also the global higher education community: “the creation of a contiguous, physical wall” along the USA–Mexico border and the ‘travel ban’ which prohibits the admission to the USA of anyone arriving from six (originally seven) Muslim-majority countries and imposes a temporary halt to the admission of refugees.
 
At the time of writing, a second Executive Order has replaced the original which had been suspended following a ruling in the 9th Circuit Court. Initial responses to this second Executive Order suggest that it addresses the legal issues which led the previous version to be suspended and its delayed implementation – ports of entry into the USA will have a week to prepare – mean the chaos that engulfed the original is unlikely to be repeated.

Standing by academia’s values

The original Executive Order prompted a flurry of instructive activity amongst the higher education community. The most common was the release of statements by university leaders criticising, to varying degrees, the extent to which the ban undermined the academic community’s presumption of a free and open exchange of ideas.
 
Bard College in New York, for example, warned that the USA could not “redefine itself as a place of xenophobia, intolerance and discrimination”. Cornell University, also in New York, called the ban “chilling” and “fundamentally antithetical to Cornell University’s principles”. A more measured view was offered by Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania, which stated it “[…] has long welcomed students and visitors and hired faculty and staff members from countries around the world, without discrimination of their national origin or religion. We believe that global understanding is one of the foundations of learning for our world. We will comply with all regulations regarding immigration and citizenship while upholding the principles of freedom of religious expression and international exchange.”
 
Another common feature of the higher education community’s response to the initial Executive Order was to offer guidance and reassurance to those affected. Hampshire College in Massachusetts is a good example: “Currently we are not aware of any Hampshire students affected by the ban. Students who are concerned about their status should be in contact with the Office of Multicultural and International Student Services. Faculty and staff should direct any questions to the Dean of Faculty Office. […]We will continue to monitor the situation and will provide updates as we have more information.”

Strategic opposition

As the implications of the ban became clearer, institutions became more active in their opposition. While there was little initial appetite for measures similar to those of Apple, Airbnb, Google, Facebook and Intel, who immediately put their resources behind legal efforts to oppose the first Order, Stanford, Yale, and Harvard were amongst 17 universities that filed suit against the Trump administration, claiming that the ban threatened their ability to attract international students and academics.
 
In the light of the very recent replacement of the original Executive Order, these suits are in abeyance. It is currently unclear if those who opposed the first Executive Order will continue to oppose the second and, if they do, what will be the nature of their response.

Adapting to a new reality

If one response to the ban has been to oppose it either passively or overtly, there is yet little evidence that universities are preparing to adapt their internal management practices and systems to accommodate its impact should this opposition prove ineffective. They should – the implications for many institutions in terms of staff and student recruitment, for example, are significant. How will they manage with lower student recruitment and fees; how will they replace academic faculty; how will they manage cross-national collaborative research and teaching projects; what is the future for student exchange programmes and projects?
 
What indeed is the future of internationalisation? As the story of the Trump administration and its travel ban plays out in the coming months and years, answers to these questions, and many others, will have to emerge. The current quagmire raises the question of to what extent the higher education sector can develop strategic responses to promote and protect its stated values and the wider concept of internationalisation as a core element of what a university is today.
 
Fiona is Associate Director at the Centre for Higher Education Internationalisation (CHEI) at Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, Italy and an independent higher education consultant. Neil is an independent consultant in higher education management and strategic planning based in the UK.