October 22nd, 2013
So this week I am in Monterrey, Mexico, site of the annual Conference of the Americas on International Education. About 800 or so of us are here from North America, Central and South America, to do the networking, compare notes about the subject and assess our progress in the internationalization trend. It’s not just about recruitment, that’s for sure. Internationalization comprises a broad spectrum of activities involving faculty, staff, and students, and some of us are doing better at it than others.
Monterrey is large, sprawling and not particularly attractive. It is ringed by spectacular mountains but the built culture that rests in the broad valley is a concrete blight of modernity. This is a rich city, proud of its history of manufacturing, of its illustrious production of steel, but it is also a reportedly unsafe city. Visitors are strongly advised against coming here in the first place but once here one quickly learns that there are clearly areas where one really should not venture, especially at night. Extreme violence has marked the drug cartels. We saw many heavily armed police riding on the back of open trucks, an intimidating site, to be sure. Our hosts were concerned no one would actually register, but many of us did. But they would have had many more registrants if the conference had been staged in, say, Puerto Vallarta.
As always, besides tasting new foods (fried cactus, strange peppers) I have learned a few things. The Latin countries are talking a lot about collaboration but the fact is they don’t do much of it. In almost every panel one could hear Brazil or Chile and many others protesting the lack of mobility and flexibility in their institutions. Everyone seems to want to partner with Canada and the US but it’s not easy. Language is obviously an inhibitor, but so, too, are national laws that actually prevent the appointment of foreign deans, for example in Brazil, an astonishing fact of which I knew nothing. Surely such parochialism must yield to more global pressures eventually.
Everyone at the conference is committed to moving their institutions forward, towards a more integrated international profile. This might mean exchanges with partners, shared curricula and degree programs, collaborative research projects, multi-campus planning, and, always, a much more diverse student population. A recurring refrain is the importance of making this agenda central piece of a university’s strategic vision, not merely a marginal, small, one-office operation the way it is on so many campuses at the moment. Related to this is the apparent lack of senior administrative leadership. If your president and vice president don’t get the need to centralize the internationalization agenda then it simply won’t work.
We heard from those presidents who do get it, and from specialists in the field who did some dazzling power point presentations, always predicting a very uncertain future for which one must be prepared. That sounds paradoxical, and it is, but the point is that the university that neglects demographic trends, and the demanding requirements of the knowledge economy are doomed to be left behind.
Most progressive, I think, is the University of Monterrey, or UDEM, as it is known, a mid-sized ‘Catholic- inspired’ university with a strong liberal arts curriculum. Several of us enjoyed a day-long visit to the campus where we heard presentations in the morning about their newly launched international competencies program, a required component of every single student’s experience, no way to avoid it. It’s a kind of highly developed sensitivity training framework in which stunts are exposed to many different cultures and their practices. The intention is to shape open attitudes and dispel stereotypes and bad generalizations about other people, about difference. Apparently it’s already working, or so we heard. Clearly this is university determined to set the bar pretty high for the rest of us, and the leaders of the program were clearly proud of what they have achieved.
In the afternoon, after a superb lunch, we were given an extended tour of the campus, the highlight being the newly opened art-and-design building you see above. UDEM hired an avant garde Japanese architect who, we learned, isn’t really an architect at all—but someone whose sheer imagination and skill have him an international star. The picture above is his building. You really can’t get a full appreciation of its wizardry here. It’s a real tour de force, though, essentially the concrete realization of a whimsical notion. If you squint you can make out the mountains behind the building. Everywhere there are views that direct the eye to the natural landscape, meant to emphasize the integration of the structure into the land, and in deep respect for its surrounds. The interior is a marvel of open spaces and studios, light-filled work stations where students went about their business designing clothes, forging sculptural pieces, designing buildings, and so on, while we stared in admiration. It seemed so gutsy in its utopianism, a brilliant challenge to all the ugly concrete marking the rest of the city.
The building, as with the whole internationalization vision, requires some risks. That’s what I really appreciated about UDEM campus and its new competencies program. Enough people agreed on taking those risks, and the results are so self-evidently worth it—worth the long trek to get here and all the dreary unbeautiful signs of prosperity.