posted by Raúl Casado
on 08 February 2016

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My first 100 days: Impressions from American Higher Education

Prof Hans de Wit

AuthorHans de Wit, Director Center for International Higher Education, Boston College

On September 1, 2015 I started as professor and director of the Center for International Higher Education (CIHE) at the Lynch School of Education, Boston College. Although the center, the university and the city were not new to me (I was a visiting lecturer in 1995 and a Fulbright scholar in 2006 at Boston College), making a career shift from Europe to the US in many aspects is an adventure. Matters I have been writing about, the international mobility of students and scholars, became practice: visa issues, housing, taxes and other financial arrangements such as retirement funds, driving licenses and buying a car, all were more complicated than you could imagine, but at the same time, in the end they are or will be solved and that is what matters. If everything would go smoothly, you don’ t get that confrontation with and adaptation to other cultures and habits, as part of your learning experience.

What does it mean to be a professor and director of a research center at an American, Jesuit research university, like Boston College? Is there really a big difference between European and American higher education in practice? Impressions from my first 100 days.

Education Hub Boston

Boston College (BC) is part of the higher education hub of the larger Boston area, which has more universities, apparently 57, than any other metropolitan region in the world. Besides Harvard and MIT in Cambridge, there are other good research universities like Northeastern University, Boston University, Tufts University, and Boston College, plus the University of Massachusetts, the only state university, and many other smaller colleges and universities. This conglomerate of higher education is an important identity of the city, and although being competitors, there is not much animosity between them. Their specific niches make them interesting enough on their own, both for local and other American students, and certainly also for the increasing number of international students. And together, they strengthen each other even more.

BC, Diversity and Internationalization

BC had evolved from a small Jesuit institution serving the local Irish catholic population of Boston, into the current national research university it is. And although it is now more diverse in student and faculty population and has also more international students than when I came here first twenty years ago, it still is quite white and national in its composition. Diversity is a big concern and certainly now, after the racial incidents and unrest at the University of Missouri-Columbia in the fall, universities like BC have become more aware of the importance of addressing diversity in student and staff composition and on campus.

Internationalization was until recently not a key point of attention. Like other American universities, BC has seen an increase in student numbers from China, India and South Korea, and they have a policy on study abroad for the own students. But there is no active recruitment strategy and the diverse international activities and programs are isolated and fragmented.  Similar to the rest of American higher education, BC is afraid of a decrease in national student numbers on the one hand and the lack of international focus in teaching and learning of the own students on the other hand. So, like with diversity, internationalization is becoming important for the future survival of the institution. For that reason the President has – just as I arrived – appointed the retiring Dean of the School of Social Work as his special advisor to develop an international strategy for the university, and I have been asked to advise him in that endeavor.

Catholic identity and Internationalization

Like everything else at BC, this initiative has to relate to the mission of the university as a Catholic and Jesuit institution. One of the research projects I have started with a small grant from the Luksic Fund – a fund of a rich Chilean to support cooperation between BC and of the Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile – is exactly to study the relationship between identity and internationalization in Catholic universities, and BC like PUC de Chile are interesting cases.  And given that my previous position was at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milan, we included that Italian institution in our pilot study for a broader research project on this topic.

What does CIHE do?

Other research projects we are involved in with our Center are a study on international faculty mobility, a study we do together with the Higher School of Economics in Moscow; and a global study on doctoral education, also with the Higher School of Economics as well as with four other partner research centers around the world, who operate as the Global Centers of International Higher Education Studies (GC-IHES).

Our Center is involved in several projects for the World Bank, for instance in a study on the role of International Advisory Councils in universities around the world, and cooperates with the American Council on Education (ACE) in the publication of several briefs and reports on global engagement.

Our flagship publication is four times a year ‘International Higher Education’ , which provides an overview and analysis of higher education in the world and is available through our partners in Chinese, Russian, Spanish, Portuguese and soon also Vietnamese. And we partner in two regional spin-offs, ‘Higher Education in Russia and Beyond’ (HERB), and as of 2016 ‘ Higher Education in Singapore and Beyond’  (HESB). In addition, we publish several books and reports, only this spring already four books and four reports.

Working in a small team

We do so with a small team. Asked by my European friends about the size of our Center they have the impression that like everything else in the US it must be big in staff and space.  And so they are shocked to learn that besides my fulltime position as professor and director, the Center has a halftime Associate Director, a half time administrative assistant, and two graduate assistants, who combine their doctoral studies with work at the center.

For the amount of work we do and which includes also teaching in the master program and teaching and supervision of our doctoral students, this is small. But we like small, and have the pleasure to be able to benefit from the ongoing involvement of my retired predecessor Philip Altbach, a group of Research Fellows who on a voluntary basis support us in our activities on request, and a regular presence of 2 to 4 visiting scholars. That makes CIHE a very interesting, international and vibrant place to work in.

Master in International Higher Education

In my first 100 days, one of the main projects we have started is the development of a new Master of Arts in International Higher Education, a 12 months program of 30 credits, with an onsite fall semester of four core courses, a second semester of an international and research based field experience plus two online elective courses, and a summer semester of a capstone research paper, a third elective and a closing intensive one week seminar. Students can take the last two semesters at BC or online elsewhere in the world in combination with their field experience. In their final week they return to Boston to present their capstone paper and have their graduation.

The development of this master, which will start in the fall of 2016, was a good learning experience into American higher education, quality assurance, funding mechanisms and marketing policy. It was an intense and interactive process with the different stakeholders to assure that there is a market for the program, that the courses are of good quality standard, and that the investment will pay off. An additional challenge was that our master is innovative for Boston College with the combination of onsite, online and international elements. The fact that we have been able in a relatively short period to get approval makes us proud but also illustrates the possibilities in American higher education to get things done without too much of procedures, as long as a you have a quality proposal, that fits the accreditation of the school and its programs.

Selection of Master and Doctoral students

Another learning experience, in particular in January, has been the selection of new master and doctoral students for our higher education program. Over the fall, students approach the faculty to know about the options, and like my colleagues I spent quite some time meeting – mostly by skype – prospective students from all over the US and international. Such personal contact is important, not only for the student to get informed and to establish a personal link but also for the department to motivate them to apply and in case of an offer to accept BC above other offers.

While we were in the middle of the selection process, a labor intensive operation where two professors get a list of applications to read and to make a recommendation to the faculty meeting – an interesting book was published, Inside Graduate Admissions: Merit, Diversity and Faculty Gatekeeping, by Julie R. Posselt, an assistant professor of higher education at the University of Michigan, who obtained permission from 6 highly ranked departments at three research universities to watch their reviews of candidates, and she interviewed faculty members at four others. A review by Scott Jaschik on Inside Higher Education, January 6, is worth reading.

Going through the process myself at our department several of the observations apply to us. For instance, her observation in the words of Scott Jaschik: “ those whose programs were not at the very top of the rankings frequently talked about not wanting to offer a spot to someone they believed would go to a higher-ranked program. They didn’t want their department to be the graduate equivalent of what high school students applying to college term a safety school. In this sense many of these departments turned down superior candidates, some of whom might have enrolled.” This is something we discuss as well. It is part of the complicated decision making process to try to balance the number of assistantships you have and the chance that the students you give an offer to will not come. If you calculate that wrong, you might either end up having too few or too many students.

Posselt also observes a too strong focus on GRE scores, in particular because of the many applications. Looking at the scores is an easy first selection mechanism. In that context she also notes a trend for affirmative action towards applicants not coming from China and East Asia. These are issues we also struggle with, as there are increasingly more applicants and in particular from these countries, also with high scores, and you do not want a concentration, but diversity.  And diversity is another political aspect that departments struggle with in their selection process.

The discussions are very interesting and taken seriously, but my impression is that in the end quality is the defining factor above any political aspect.

That applies also to the master and doctoral exams. Students in our department have to do their master or doctoral comprehensive review, which implies that they have to write in a weekend two essays, each between 2.200 and 3.200 words, based on a list of research questions from the faculty, related to the courses they have taken over the year. Originally I was skeptical about this process, as it seemed to me rather difficult for students to be able to write two quality papers in such a short timeframe. But I must say that after having been involved in them both as assigner and reviewer (each essay has to be reviewed by two members of the faculty), I am impressed by the quality and the review process.

Not everything is perfect, but…

These first impressions might give the idea that everything is perfect in my new job. Of course not, there are the same kind of political, procedural and financial concerns as you will find at a European university. There is only more of a solution focused than problem accumulating decision-making process and that keeps you motivated. The combination of the always friendly and positive mentality that is so characteristic of America, works, certainly in higher education.