For UF’s International Educators, a Chance to Lead

“I believe that it is our special responsibility at large globally oriented research universities to become champions of international engagement as the central pillar of peace,” said President Kent Fuchs at a reception honoring UF’s international educators on International Education Week.

For UF’s International Educators, a Chance to Lead

It’s so meaningful for us to celebrate International Education Week the same week that Europe held its centennial celebration of Armistice Day. Armistice Day reminds us of the horrors of war and the importance of peace.

In this era of nations turning inward to a new nationalism, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke powerfully of its dangers.

Watching and reading the news of the events, memorials and commemorations, it occurred to me that we too-rarely celebrate peace.

Tonight I would like to correct this imbalance in my own small way by celebrating all of you for furthering international education, mutual understanding and collaboration across international borders.

In the spirit of Armistice Day, I celebrate you as our University of Florida peacemakers. Thank you for your work on behalf of the education and understanding that are the pillars of peace. Thank you for your work as international educators and thank you for your work as peacemakers.

We’re gathered at a difficult time, when the U.S., Hungary, the U.K., Brazil and other countries are embracing a return to isolationism and to the most selfish forms of nationalism.

Ours’ is an era of rising antipathy not only to other nations and other peoples – and especially to immigrants – but to the humanitarian ideals that are at the heart of your professional purpose.

As President Macron said, “By saying ‘our interests first, who cares about the others,’ we erase what a nation holds dearest, what gives it life, what makes it great and what is essential: Its moral values.”

Equally troubling, this isolationism is happening at a time when our biggest challenges are global.

I’m referring to the gathering clouds of climate change. Clean water, sanitation, hunger, growing inequality in wealth. The education of women. The spread of disease that knows no borders.

In the past we have seen leaders urge us on a course of international education, collaboration and scientific openness.

One such statesman was J. William Fulbright, the U.S. Senator from Arkansas and the creator and namesake for the Fulbright Program that sends so many U.S. students and scholars overseas and that brings their counterparts to the U.S., particularly to our university.

Senator Fulbright died in 1995. I have faith that we have such leaders today, but they have yet to emerge worldwide.

Instead, we have increasing barriers to global trade, immigration and scholarly collaboration. What best describes our position on the international stage is absence of leadership rather than its presence.

My message to you is simply this: I believe universities should fill this vacuum.

In fact, I believe that it is our special responsibility at large globally oriented research universities to become champions of international engagement as the central pillar of peace.

How can we do this?

We’re neither state actors nor NGOs, nor should we try to be. Education and scholarship are our strengths, and so they must also be our solutions.

As Senator Fulbright himself said, “We must try to expand the boundaries of human wisdom, empathy and perception, and there is no way of doing that except through education." 

What does this mean in practical terms?

I think it means three things.

First, we will defend and advocate for international education, research and scientific collaboration across borders.

Some of you probably saw Tuesday’s news that new enrollment by international students in American universities fell for a second year, declining 6.6 percent for 2017-18, according to the just-released Open Doors survey. The Pew Research Foundation reports that there are now 40 percent fewer international student visas than in 2015.

Clearly we need to work hard to counter the cries of “keep out” from other quarters, and to promote universities as oases for international students. We have international students and scholars representing 140 countries at UF today, and I hope that number only grows, and that the number of our students studying abroad also grows.

As for scientific openness and collaboration, I’m a member of the National Science Board that oversees the National Science Foundation. Late last month the NSB issued a statement affirming the importance of the international free exchange of ideas. This occurs amid threats of a clampdown spurred by national security concerns, principally surrounding China.

The statement quoted former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice who said: “The key to maintaining U.S. technological preeminence is to encourage open and collaborative basic research. The linkage between the free exchange of ideas and scientific innovation is undeniable.”

The second thing universities need to do to further international engagement is recommit to working with researchers and students from all countries – even universities in nations whose politics and actions we may object to strongly.

My views differ from those of the “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions” directed at certain nations. For me, the path to positive change in those nations is through education and engagement, not obstruction.

Third, we need to even further infuse international perspectives into our curriculum and into our campus culture and encourage every student to have an international experience.

I’m very proud that, this year, thanks to the hard work of so many people here tonight, UF became one of just five universities nationwide to win a 2018 Senator Paul Simon Award for Campus Internationalization.

This achievement is not a stopping place but rather a stepping stone. We are on a quest to join the top 5 public universities. Let UF rise to the very top in our numbers of graduates who enter the Peace Corps, become Fulbrighters and undergraduates who participate in international exchange.

I have personally benefited from international education.

My PhD advisor for graduate school in electrical engineering at the University of Illinois was Jacob Abraham. Most people would assume that he is Jewish. In fact, Professor Abraham is a first-generation immigrant from India.

I remember so fondly that I first saw Professor Abraham in 1979 as he was running down the hall of the EE Building, late for the first class of the fall semester, with a collection of colored markers in one hand and a stack of text-book preprints in his other hand. A TA was galloping behind him carrying a large white board.  

I was a graduate teaching assistant for another course, and I was hoping to work with another professor for my masters and PhD. But I was so intrigued by this enthusiastic young professor running through the hall with colored markers, preprints, and a large white board, that I took his class.

It was different from any of my other electrical engineering courses.

Partly this was because of the way Dr. Abraham taught the class, using  the colored markers to illustrate transistors, switches and logic gates. But he was also the most persistently enthusiastic professor I had ever encountered.

His attitude helped give me the energy and hope to complete the very hard work of my doctorate. I have attempted to model and emulate his persistent enthusiasm as a faculty advisor and an academic leader ever since.

Once I became a faculty member, 19 of my own PhD students were international students.

My own world of computer engineering research and education was filled with colleagues from around the globe.  My global travels were to conferences, workshops and meetings hosted by these colleagues, which as a university administrator I miss.

Today, each of you serve in your own way as a Jacob Abraham to your students. You are inspiring them and changing their lives and their view of the world. The lack of leadership on the international stage represents an opportunity for you and your colleagues.

This is the opportunity to further education and scholarship as the pillars of peace, and it is the opportunity to be great University of Florida leaders and great UF peacemakers.  Thank you!