September 14th, 2012
I have two postcards this week, partly to make up for a couple of weeks of bloglessness and partly because my camera is bursting with pictures of Bavaria. I have been on the road, or rather up in the air, a lot. Indeed, I am writing this from Ottawa where this week I have board meetings of the Canadian Association of Graduate Schools, and having just come from Halifax and Toronto for other appointments. And all that is on top of Germany where I just spent a wonderful week with 37 other deans of graduate studies from all over the world at what was called a Global Summit. What a privileged opportunity. Being a grad dean sure has its moments, Air Canada food notwithstanding.
On Labour Day weekend we all flew from all over the world to Munich—gorgeous, lively, friendly, walkable Munich. We were then bussed to a stunning rural retreat, a mediaeval monastery, about two hours down the hair-raisingly fast autobahn. The top photo shows the interior of the church on the property, still in use by local residents after so many centuries. You can see the vaulted period arches and the old patterned tiles floor, but the blue-painted ceiling dates a little later from the Renaissance and has never required restoration, amazing as that is. The monastery, which you can see in the second postcard, is known as Kloster Seeon, well known by Bavarians as the site of young Mozart’s many performances as he traveled regularly from Munich to Salzburg. The Global Summit participants actually convened in the very room where Mozart performed, with a wall of windows overlooking the lake and the verdant countryside. We were making our own kind of music, I suppose, if that’s what you can call the exchange of ideas among a gaggle of deans. Certainty we felt inspired just being in that room for several days, embraced by so much rich history and beauty.
The theme of this year’s Summit (I attended last year’s in Hong Kong on career pathways) was “Brain Circulation.” Sounds a bit creepy, I know. After years of worrying about “brain drain” or hoping for “brain gain,” we decided to focus on another way of thinking of student and research mobility. Hence the term brain circulation. We all agreed it’s good for students to be moving from university to university, across disciplines, countries, nations, and continents. It’s good for cultural awareness, international dialogue, and a generally enhanced education. We also all agreed that our universities do not always make it easy for younger scholars to move through the world. On the contrary, we often encourage immobility! And when you add the challenges of visa restrictions and work term permits, circulation can seem daunting.
The Summit was aimed at developing a statement of principles we would take back home to our respective institutions. I will be posting these on our web site in the next few weeks, and so I won’t list them all here. But we did take care to write them with as much force as politics and local context would allow. For instance, we heard that some graduate programs already require some form of “global skills” training. To be fair, we never fully defined what we meant by “global skills” although we used the term as if we knew what we were talking about. But we didn’t produce a statement mandating all graduate programs to require such a piece in their curricula. Instead, we opted for consideration of such a possibility. We also heard that some graduate programs require international travel at some point along the way, but, again, we did not write anything quite so directive as this. We would have liked to, but it hardly seemed wise or practical, not if we wished to be taken seriously.
The point is that we moved each other to think more openly about opening our graduate programs up to a much larger sense of their connectedness to the world. We want our students to be global citizens but how to shape our programs to make this happen? My German is weak, having studied it seriously for only one semester as grad student many years ago, but being in Germany challenged me to reclaim some of that earlier learning and to want to converse with the locals. Why wouldn’t we want to build our graduate programs—across the disciplinary spectrum—to afford students the same opportunity and challenges? To push themselves to think differently, to inhabit another culture for a time, learn to appreciate their field of study through another lens?
This is definitely the way things are moving. Europe has figured a lot of this out, of course, and European students are far more mobile than North American ones. Travel is enlightening, as anyone who drives past the city limits knows. Being in Germany with so many interesting colleagues from all over the world just made the whole topic so obvious and necessary. Returning home it is easier to see that North Americans have a long way to go—in every sense of that term.