April 11th, 2014
I just returned from the lush campus of the University of South Florida, Tampa. That’s the entrance to their campus dining rooms and hotel, above — pretty easy on the eyes after a harsh winter here. They’ve got flowers growing everywhere. My god, they have people employed to blow leaves off the walkways. One could get used to that, as with the Cuban-inspired food.
I was attending a two-day forum on ‘global engagement in research.’ That’s putting you to sleep already, I am sure. But the topic happens to be part of the ongoing conversation we are all having about how best to internationalize our campuses—in this case, by marrying our research agendas to our international activities. You’d think these two offices or areas would be natural allies, and they are, but institutions aren’t set up for easy collaborations—quite the opposite. I traveled to Tampa with a colleague who works in the research office directly across the hall but we had more time talking together down there than we have had in years of sharing the same corridor. Partly it’s time—who has it, anyway? Away from the daily routines it’s much easier catching up—especially at the bar.
I think our group of three Memorial participants was the only Canadian contingent. Well, good for us. What blows my mind, time after time, is how US-centric these meetings can be. There were delegates from China, Chile, Japan, and so on, and yet the hosts and speakers kept referring to the ‘we’ that is the USA. When you consider that we were at a meeting about how best to internationalize our campuses, the ethnocentricity is particularly galling. As usual, when people find out from whence we hail there are the usual isn`t-it-cold questions, followed by some bad pronunciation of Newfoundland and more generalizations. Sure, everyone means well, but you would think that educated administrators and academics would know better. We did have lunch one day with someone who had gone to school in Ontario and he unhesitatingly named all the universities in that province—more than most Canadians could probably do. Impressive, but rare.
The forum itself was okay—no earth-shattering discoveries but a huge value of meetings like this is finding validation. You get to understand and appreciate what you are doing at your own shop and realize you are already ahead of things and dealing with the challenges everyone talks about. As with so many of these meetings, it’s often not so much what people say but how they say it. A good speaker can turn even the most banal topic into an engaging address. Probably the strongest speaker we heard from was the last one, Dr. Kathie Olsen, a former chief researcher at NASA and founder and managing director of something called Science Works, a firm for setting people up in science-related employment. She was lively and smart and used power point slides expertly. It was also refreshing hearing from such a witty woman. Olsen echoed many for the discussion points we had heard for a couple of days but she did so by drawing on her deep knowledge in the world of science research. I would love to have heard more from her about what it was like as a chief officer at NASA. I bet she has some good stories.
No one at the forum needed to be convinced that we should all be broadening our horizons; it was more about the how to do so. Evidence revealed that research directors know less about what international office directors do than the other way around. No surprise there. If a campus lacks senior leadership in this area then there`s no hope. That probably applies to a lot of things, if not everything.
A major take-away: you need to take risks to play with others. No point in partnering with other countries if you are hung up on strict culture-bound regulatory frameworks. Finding common ground is a patience-taxing exercise but the only way to move towards a handshake. Diplomats know that. Time for academics to learn that, too.