Mobility and Excellence: The Role of the Fulbright Program in Higher Education

Larry Moneta, Vice-President for Student Affairs, Duke University
2009-2010 Fulbright U.S. Scholar to Croatia
Reposted with permission from Duke University

The following remarks were given by Duke Vice President for Student Affairs Larry Moneta November 7, 2017, during a conference marking the 25th anniversary of the Fulbright program in Croatia.

Good morning. I’m so very honored to be with you this morning to share my thoughts with you on the value of globalization and mobility to higher education quality and excellence. In my nearly 45 years of work at 6 major American Universities, I’ve had the privilege of working with international students and staff from across the globe. But, not until I had my own international experience living here in Zagreb under the auspices of the Fulbright program did I fully come to realize the authentic value of international exchanges and study programs.

Let me begin with several disclaimers, all intended to relieve me from any responsibility for misinformation or misconceptions I might share. I’ve spent nearly 45 years at six US universities in an assortment of roles focused on addressing students’ co-curricular needs. My work life has focused on student accommodations, health care, career support, student conduct issues, attention to race, gender, sexual orientation, religion and other individual and group identity characteristics and needs, and a host of programs, facilities and functions that are at the heart of the Student Affairs profession that is well developed in the US and beautifully emerging here in Croatia.

And while serving our international students and helping prepare our domestic students for occasional study abroad has been part of my portfolio of responsibility for many of those positions, not until recently, mostly in preparation for the delivery of this talk, have I really invested time and energy into understanding the power and importance of mobility in advancing higher education.

To be even more forthcoming, I did not have a passport until I was 45 years old, when I had the opportunity to visit a cousin who had just been elected as the Lord Mayor of Westminster in London. Other than a family drive to Canada as a youth, I’d barely traveled beyond the boundaries of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, where I’d grown up. But, both of my parents were immigrants (and Holocaust survivors) and as a first generation American, I’d always felt the pull to see the world and I’m pleased to report that since that first London trip, my wife Judy and I have managed to cover quite a bit of international territory with many more places on our bucket lists!

Let me say a bit more about the impact my Fulbright experience here in Croatia had on me professionally and personally. I sought a sabbatical from my job at Duke explicitly to expand my international horizons and perspectives. Over the previous decade, I had become increasingly aware of my own limitations when dealing with international students…limitations in cultural awareness, language and behaviors. US higher education has, for many years, struggled to welcome and integrate Americans who differ on many dimensions, dimensions including race, gender, socio-economic status, non-traditionally aged students, veterans, students representing vastly different political perspectives, students with substantially different career goals and students with no clear post-graduate goals. But, the growing presence of international students and Duke’s ambitious global intentions inspired me to want to learn more.
So, in 2006, I requested a leave from my work overseeing Duke’s student support services so that I could do what most of my students do…spend some timing living and learning in another country. Now, I wish I could tell you that Croatia was my first choice of countries to relocate to. To be honest, I hadn’t even considered applying for a Fulbright award until a colleague pressed me to do so, thinking that Fulbrights were for traditional faculty and not for administrators. Fortunately, I came across this opportunity at the University of Zagreb where the Rectorate at that time was interested in someone with an administrative background who could help consult on the potential expansion to a satellite campus. I applied…I was accepted as a Fulbrighter, and Judy and I moved to Zagreb with very little sense of what we’d be doing, how we’d navigate the city and country (especially as vegans) and with no friends, family and colleagues. My how that all has changed!

I spoke a bit yesterday about the extraordinary impact our time here in Zagreb had on us and I’ll simply say today that I am a far better teacher, scholar and administrator because of this experience. We have a wonderful array of friends here now in Croatia and Zagreb, in particular, is a second home to us. I don’t know if every Fulbrighter ends his or her formal time abroad as much in love with another country and community as we did, but for us the experience has been transformative.

In the years since our semester abroad, American higher education and Duke University, in particular, have been expanding institutional engagement across the world. Today, Duke has presence in more than 150 countries where students and faculty work, learn and serve. We have over 175 formal partnerships with international universities, NGOs, hospitals, foundations and more. Some parts of the world feature more intensive collaboration with Duke scholars. For example, Duke recently opened a full-time office in Bangalore, India, reflecting the multiple partnership we have with Indian universities, research projects and service programs.

Our most significant partnership, however, is in China, where Duke has partnered with Wuhan University and the city of Kunshan to open Duke Kunshan University, a fully licensed and recognized Chinese university co-owned by these three entities. For the past few years, Duke Kunshan University, or DKU, has featured several masters degree programs on an extraordinarily beautiful campus built explicitly for Duke Kunshan University. Recently, the three partners, with the support of the Chinese Ministry of Education, have developed plans to expand and offer a US-style liberal arts college education leading to a Bachelors degree. DKU will welcome its first undergraduate class this coming fall even as we break ground on a state-of-the-art residential college on land adjacent to the graduate campus.

Of this extraordinary collaboration in China, Duke Provost, Sally Kornbluth said:

The DKU curriculum begins from liberal arts principles and is imbued with the hallmarks of a Duke education: interdisciplinary approaches, engagement with research questions, problem- based and team-based learning, and opportunities for students to craft individual pathways and deepen their intellectual engagement over time…it will be deeply cross-cultural in its orientation: since students from China will be studying side by side with peers and faculty from other countries in this living-learning environment, DKU will give all participants the continual experience of learning to see from multiple points of view and to work together across cultural boundaries — a crucial skill for the future.

As you can see, the power of institutional mobility is deeply embedded in the principles and design of this innovative and somewhat controversial experiment.

Back in Durham, North Carolina, Duke also features a remarkably international student body. Among our nearly 15,000 undergraduate, masters and doctoral students you will find that about 4,500, or one third of our student body is international — coming from more than 130 countries! I just love walking through our student center and overhearing so many different languages.

So, why is Duke and why are so many American colleges and universities investing so substantially and comprehensively in globalization both at home and abroad? How are these exemplars of institutional mobility contributing to quality and excellence? And, why should Croatia expand its footprint and presence far beyond its borders?

Braskamp and Engberg write in Liberal Education, a publication of the American Association of Colleges and Universities:

In today’s pluralistic and global society, where multiple worldviews and salient cultural traditions have a lasting influence on how we think, feel, and relate to others, this developmental journey is increasingly complex. We need to understand and empathize with persons who differ dramatically in terms of national origin, ethnicity, and religious or spiritual orientation as well as in terms of race, gender, and sexual orientation. Thus, each of us needs to develop a global perspective.

To reiterate a simple and oft stated concept, global problems will require global solutions. Climate change, poverty, political conflicts, and disease prevention all require interventions and solutions that will transcend nations and states. Cooperation and collaboration between many institutions will be critical to addressing these challenges and more. And no institutions are better positioned to advance essential research, learning and service than our colleges and universities.

Nicholas Dirks, former Chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley said in a publication of the World Economic Forum in 2015:

No single university can address these challenges on its own. Significant progress depends on the formation of a new, global alliance of academic and private sector partners that have the collective means to conduct the necessary multidisciplinary research; the desire to develop new ways to quickly translate discovery into beneficial goods and services; and the capability to educate, train and employ a new generation of leaders, thinkers and scientists. It will also require intellectual collaboration on a new scale.

So, how have programs such as Fulbright contributed to this challenge? Annually, nearly 2000 American recent college and university graduates receive Fulbright awards and are placed throughout the world as teachers and service providers. In addition, more than 4,000 international students are annually awarded Fulbrights as are 1,200 U.S. scholars, and 900 visiting scholars, in addition to several hundred teachers and professionals. Since 1946, more than 380,000 people have served as Fulbrighters.

The Fulbright community comprises a significant army in a collective effort to share best practices, to enhance international diplomacy and to represent collaboration at the highest quality.

My Fulbright experience was initially designed to be a semester in Croatia. I relished the opportunity to bring US higher education models and methods of student support and services and, candidly, I did not expect to find many approaches to student engagement suitable for export to my own institution. I was wrong on so many fronts.

First, what was designed to be a semester-long experience has turned into a life-long relationship with faculty, deans, administrators, public sector allies, students and an array of wonderful friends. Judy and I have been back many times since 2009 and I hope to visit often in the years ahead. True to the Fulbright mission, I have served as an avid advocate for Croatia to my American colleagues and associates and can proudly point to many people who have followed our advice to visit Croatia. We have also welcomed many Croatian educators to Duke University and to our home including your wonderful Minister of Education! Just two weeks ago a team of faculty from the University of Zagreb faculty of architecture visited the University of Georgia and Duke University and my Duke colleagues were treated to a wonderful presentation on Croatian urban planning. In exchange, the Zagreb faculty will be advising us on a significant development project planned for the near future on university land adjacent to the city of Durham. This is truly international cooperation in practice.

My more egregious misconception was in assuming that I would have little to learn from my Croatian colleagues and from Croatian higher education. As some of you may recall, I chronicled my Croatian experiences in a daily blog where I offered observations and commentary on my encounters and experiences. I reviewed all my posts in preparation for this talk and noted how, over time, my entries migrated from naïve criticism of local approaches to student support to expressions of admiration for governance tactics, for long-range ambitions and for the care and support of your students. I met extraordinary teachers, researchers and caregivers and came back to Duke University inspired and empowered.

Let me move on and talk some about the notion of quality and how mobility and exchange programs like Fulbright contribute to quality enhancement and excellence.

Paul DiMaggio and Walter Powell introduced the concept of institutional isomorphism in their classic 1983 treatise “The Iron Cage Revisited.” Oversimplified, their argument is that institutions and organizations tend to become more similar to each other by virtue of an exchange of ideas, models, methods and environments. British and German models of higher education have migrated across the globe and in the United States, colleges and universities are far more alike than different. Isomorphic influences also provide a means for influencing institutional quality. Accreditation processes in countries with highly regarded educational systems enable transference of quality across national and institutional boundaries. And 380,000 agents of change plus many more sponsored by numerous EU and other international exchange and visitor programs provide enormous influence across the full spectrum of international higher education.

In 2015, Schindler, Puls-Elvidge, Welzant and Crawford published a synthesis of the American body of literature on higher education quality in the Higher Learning Research Journal. According to them, the literature revealed four broad conceptualizations of quality. They are: quality as purposeful, exceptional, transformative, and accountable. Let me say a word about each concept and see if they might be useful to today’s theme.

  • Purposeful quality was described as one where “Institutional products and services conform to a stated mission/vision or a set of specifications, requirements, or standards, including those defined by accrediting and/or regulatory bodies.”
  • Exceptional quality exists when “Institutional products and services achieve distinction and exclusivity through the fulfillment of high standards.”
  • Transformative quality is evident when “Institutional products and services effect positive change in student learning.”
  • Accountable quality is reflected when “Institutions are accountable to stakeholders for the optimal use of resources and the delivery of accurate educational products and services with zero defect.”

This framework offers a useful lens in support of higher education exchanges and other forms of mobility. In the United States, The Council for Higher Education Accreditation serves as a consortium of all accrediting organizations and sets the bar for national standards of quality. Within this body, an International Quality Group provides a global forum for sharing of standards. Purposeful quality, then, is promoted through an exchange of principles and practices at the macro level and reinforced through every individual exchange of ideas and processes.

Albeit controversial, domestic and international rankings address exceptional quality and provide one limited but highly visible approach to identifying and celebrating arguably objective standards of excellence. But excellence is also recognized and transmitted through numerous forms of recognition from the Nobel prize to a myriad of disciplinary, topical and timely recognition efforts. I’m still holding out for a MacArthur genius award!

One way transformative quality is promoted is through international professional associations that address various forms of student learning. For example, in my own profession of Student Affairs, NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education is the preeminent student services association that convenes members from throughout the world, hosts many international exchange programs and features research and practice publications focused on the international student experience. Many other comparable associations exist for the many ways students learn both formally and informally.

And finally, we have accountable quality. Here comparisons become far more difficult. I’m not sure that any college or university can claim success meeting expectations of zero defects, but we are all accountable to governments, fiduciary and strategic boards and, in some cases, share holders. Duke University is governed by a 36-member Board of Trustees. As a private, American University, we are certified by the State of North Carolina, accredited by a federally empowered body which ensures compliance with broad educational standards, but are under far greater scrutiny by the distinguished members of our board which includes experts and leaders from business, education, faith communities, sports organizations, and more. Boards and institutional management comprised of exceptional people also ensure all four forms of institutional quality.

But, as I noted above, accountability can and should also reflect commitment to the public or common good. Recently, in an edition of World University News, Tian, Wu and Liu write:

This new era, which is marked by globalisation and internationalisation, new information technologies, environmental concerns and dramatic policy changes such as Brexit, brings both opportunities and challenges for higher education institutions around the world. 
 In addition to providing opportunities for self-development, world-class universities, the world’s leading or elite universities, need to position themselves in the forefront of seeking conceptual and practical solutions to the pressing challenges of our time for the benefit of all mankind.

A week later, Paul Benneworth added:

Without effective governance and accountability solutions, universities will drift towards providing solutions for powerful people’s problems, ignoring the billions of problem-owners that lack the wherewithal to cajole or coerce universities to address their problems.

The message is that accountability as a measure of quality cannot simply focus on introspective analysis of curricular design, localized and insular research agendas or student completion and achievement rates. World-class institutions, and, frankly, all institutions of higher education have an obligation, in my opinion, to address global challenges and make meaningful contributions to improving living and working conditions for all. Such efforts and achievements will rarely be successful in isolation and the more that we endorse and enable international cross-pollination of creative ideas and engagements, the more likely we are to find effective and meaningful solutions to the world’s vexing and, frankly, dangerous problems.
When I obtained my Fulbright grant, took leave from my job as a Duke Vice President and moved to Zagreb, Croatia, did I have any clue that I was serving as an ambassador for quality?

When the two University of Zagreb students I met in Durham who were both on Fulbright and other exchange programs spent a year at Duke University, did they know they were advocates for quality? When a team of Croatian faculty and administrators visited us, did they know? It may not have been apparent, but each and every encounter offers an exchange of ideas, and forum for sharing and a platform to compare and contrast each other’s educational and managerial approaches. Mobility enables quality!

What I learned on my Fulbright and what I continue to learn with each visit here and in the US has well served my students. I have greater clarity on resilience and on perseverance. I have come to appreciate the value of conviction over convenience. And I have learned that classroom teaching coupled with meaningful experiences yields optimal learning.

These lessons were reinforced for me through my connections with my Croatian colleagues and I thank the Fulbright program for enabling this to happen. I had no idea what to expect when I began my Fulbright journey and now I can’t imagine what my life would have been without it.

Let me close by thanking everyone who contributed to these wonderful sessions in celebration of 25 years of Fulbright programs in Croatia. May the next 25 years be even more fulfilling, engaging and productive!