Foiling the “wind of madness”

“No one is better able than you to protect international engagement and its benefits to students …” President Kent Fuchs told Florida international educators gathered for the Florida Association of International Educators annual conference at UF. “No one is better positioned to act as a counterweight to irrational nationalism and isolationism. You are the windbreak to the ‘wind of madness.’”

Foiling the “wind of madness”

It’s a delight to join you! I’m told we have international education leaders with us from 25 universities across our state.  I warmly welcome all of you to the University of Florida.  A shout-out also to UF’s international educators who are here today, including those from the International Center and our host, the English Language Institute.

In light of your focus on international education, I thought it may be important for you to know that I addressed the United Nations last month.

I don’t mean the United Nations in New York!  I’m speaking of GatorMUN, the annual conference of all the Model UN high school clubs in Florida, and which was held here in January.

More than 800 students from more than 50 high schools came to UF for GatorMUN. It was inspiring to see so many young women and men dedicating their weekends to international thinking and practice.

Early this month, the Secretary General of the real United Nations, Antonio Guterres sounded the alarm about the increase in armed conflicts, growth in nationalism and faltering of Democratic institutions globally.

He had a profound way of describing these trends, calling them “a wind of madness that is sweeping the globe.”

Many of us have felt this wind of madness in higher education, whether in the form of falling applications from students from abroad, increased skepticism of international research collaborations, or the expression of irrational fears on campus during the current coronavirus outbreak.

My message today is that YOU are the windbreak to the wind of madness.

No one is better able than you to protect international engagement and its benefits to students and to our universities and those we serve around the world.  No one is better positioned to act as a counterweight to irrational nationalism and isolationism.  You are the windbreak.

But you are also MORE than the windbreak.  Having spent my career as a faculty member and academic leader, I think of the many ways that international education, thanks to professionals like you, has benefited me personally.

My PhD advisor for graduate school in electrical engineering was Jacob Abraham, a first-generation immigrant from India.

I remember so fondly that I first saw Professor Abraham in 1979. 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 hoping to work with another professor for my master’s 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.

Professor Abraham taught joyfully, using his markers to illustrate transistors, switches and logic gates. He was the most persistently enthusiastic professor I had ever encountered.

I have attempted to model and emulate his joy and persistent enthusiasm as a faculty advisor and an academic leader ever since.

Nineteen of my own PhD students were international students.  My world of computer engineering research and education was filled with colleagues from around the globe.  My one and only sabbatical, three decades ago, was at Tsinghua University in Beijing.

Whether you work in study abroad, ESL, international student services, international recruitment, admissions or some other facet of international education, each of you serves in your own way as a Jacob Abraham.

The growing vacuum of national leadership on behalf of international collaboration makes your role more important than ever.  That’s particularly true of your mentorship of the next generation.

So, I’d like to close with an ask:

When you need inspiration for your work in these challenging times, I ask that you think of those students in Model UN and all their young peers around the world.

As I myself experienced at GatorMUN, young people are so excited to engage and collaborate globally.  They are so eager to work on a sustainable, prosperous and peaceful future for all of our planet.  As international educators at the college level, you have the uniquely wonderful ability to bring these dreams to fruition.  To be a windbreak, as the Secretary General said, to the wind of madness.

I wish for you inspiring and productive discussions and engagement that give you energy, inspiration and strength your important work.

With that, I’d like to invite Dr. Parra back to the stage to introduce our keynote speaker.  Thank you.