President's Blog

Universities around the world must reaffirm commitment to global engagement


I was invited this past July to speak at the Higher Education Sustainability Initiative event at the United Nations headquarters in New York. My message: amid rising isolationism, it is crucial that universities reaffirm their commitment to global engagement.

The most complex problems we face today (no better articulated than by the so-called Sustainable Development Goals or SDGs) are global in nature and therefore call for global solutions.

Universities like George Mason have always been committed to educating students from other parts of the world (as a former international student, I know this well) and to help American students study overseas. These international experiences help students — both those who travel and those who stay at home — develop a global outlook and work productively across cultures.

Our faculty too have a long tradition engaging in international research and collaboration with scholars in other countries. That work has led to important breakthroughs and novel solutions to some of the world’s most pressing challenges. As I wrote in the Washington Post last year, only through multidisciplinary and multicultural approaches to research will we achieve breakthroughs that address interdependent global challenges.

It is no exaggeration that global engagement by universities has never been as important as it is today. Yet political leaders in the U.S. are sending conflicting messages about our interest in such engagement and that is translating into declines of incoming students that will ultimately weaken our universities.

A National Science Foundation report says the number of international students in the U.S. fell by 2.2 percent at the undergraduate level and 5.5 percent at the graduate level between fall 2016 and 2017. Some of these students are choosing other destinations. Canada’s international student population, for example, increased by 20 percent from 2016 to 2017 and Australia’s by 14.7 percent (in my presentation, I erroneously reported a decline in post-Brexit U.K. numbers instead of a deceleration).

In this context, it is essential that universities around the world send a strong message that we are still in, that we remain committed to international collaboration, to helping students experience other national and cultural realities, to supporting global research among our faculty, to playing a proactive role in helping achieve the world’s Sustainable Development Goals.