Op-Ed in ‘The Daily Princetonian’ on Princeton’s Internationalization Strategy

A quick update here from Oxford, having just sent off a friend who was visiting me for a long weekend, before sitting down to write a final installment on Feroz Khan’s Eating Grass: Mark Jia, another Princetonian Rhodes Scholar and I, penned an op-ed for The Daily Princetonian (the University’s student newspaper) on Princeton and internationalization that came out this Monday. Check it out here, or read below.

“In the Service of All Nations”: Princeton and Internationalization

A presidential search committee has convened to select President Tilghman’s successor. Princeton has much to be proud of following her tenure: the country’s most generous financial aid program; new arts and science neighborhoods; and four-year colleges. Efforts at internationalization proceed apace, too. Tilghman has signed strategic partnerships with German, Japanese and Brazilian universities. The University boasts new international programs, from the gap-year initiative to the incipient Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Iran and Persian Gulf Studies.

Still, some may ask: Why stop at a center devoted to the Persian Gulf when one could have a whole campus there? What is Princeton’s international strategy? The new president must face these questions as he or she articulates what it means for a university in suburban New Jersey to declare itself “in the service of all nations.”

As two recent graduates with experience at universities abroad, we believe that Princeton must embrace a more assertive international strategy. We have seen how Chinese universities train outward-thinking diplomats in Beijing while they lure Central Asian students inward to Urumqi. We have seen Oxford reinvent itself as a place where British students bump heads not just with former colonials but also with students from places whose names make Aberystwyth seem positively pronounceable. The historical moment and our competition demand that the new president articulate such a vision for Princeton. In the meantime, three principles should frame discussion of Princeton’s internationalization strategy.

First, internationalization must encompass every aspect of University governance. Buoyed by the Aspire fundraising campaign, the Office of Admission should seek to enroll the most promising international students in the world, adhering to the same admissions criteria — geographical, socioeconomic and intellectual diversity — it applies when selecting American students. Internationalizing the curriculum may demand redesigning distribution requirements, freshman seminars or the Writing Seminar program. For Wilson School concentrators, a geography requirement could help future policy-makers to locate and then deal with the “Uzbekibekistans” of the world. The new president might consult students and faculty about how structural elements of the Princeton experience — JPs, fall break, reading period, the late semester start — could be reformed to integrate more international experiences — study abroad, international seminars and labs, language study — early and often into students’ education.

Second, while we support Princeton’s current approach of faculty-led internationalization, whereby individual professors’ interests and networks determine the scope and depth of engagement, the University must build ties with crucial areas of the world where links are not yet as strong. This is no mean task: Established scholars with regional initiatives at other universities cannot merely transfer their institutional infrastructure to Princeton. The pressure on assistant professors to publish, rather than indulge in junkets abroad, remains strong. Still, by hiring the best young scholars and “nudging” them in key directions, it may be possible to extend Princeton’s international reach at the same time that the University continues to find, fund and foster the best scholars in the world.

Concretely, departments might adopt more liberal policies on sabbaticals, preceptorships or the tempo of the tenure clock for young academics who venture in new directions. Investing in the young scholar of urbanization who feels empowered to follow up her award-winning first book on, say, Miami, with a more ambitious comparative project on Sao Paulo — rather than a “safe” book on Houston — could reap dividends as Princeton seeks to develop talent. Peer review and the usual assessments will still matter, but policies that link international research or outreach with goodies for young professors could reshape our faculty in powerful ways.

Third, Princeton must remain an American liberal university. While the idea of creating a Princeton on which the sun never sets will have its proponents, it bears underscoring that the current faculty-led approach in many ways allows Princeton to be simultaneously more flexible and principled than its competitors. We should be skeptics toward operations abroad that could embed autocracies’ restrictions on freedom of speech, assembly or due process into Princeton-branded or -run institutions. The corollary here is resisting the temptation that the American liberal arts curriculum per se represents a panacea. Just as our president and deans should never take the reigning authoritarianism of the day as the fixed, immutable “national heritage” of this or that host country, they should not ignore indigenous liberal traditions, such as they are, in such countries as a basis for international dialogue.

Current students, who have been up to their knees in slush and their ears in final exams, may find it easy to forget that our patch of New Jersey mud could embody a specific tradition not just of scholarship but of values and liberal education. But it does. Preserving it matters. The sooner that the search committee can find a president who remembers that fact while also finding a way for Princeton and its partners to thrive from a dialogue of genuinely indigenous ideas, the brighter the future will be for all of our century’s emerging powers, the United States included.

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