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Special Focus on Global Engagement: ACE Blue Ribbon Panel Report Envisions Global Future of Higher Education


Stephen G. Pelletier


As the first decade of the 21st century drew to a close, American higher education was inextricably part of a global milieu that was vastly more interconnected than ever before. ACE President Molly Corbett Broad recognized that, as one result of this new environment, colleges and universities in the United States were engaging with institutions abroad in new, different, and more sophisticated ways. Accordingly, she decided the time was right for ACE to take a fresh look at its own agenda for international programming. Along with John Sexton, the president of New York University and then the chair of the ACE Board of Directors, Broad engaged ACE’s trustees in discussions about the current and future state of play in global engagement by American higher education. Those conversations would spark the appointment of a blue ribbon panel of experts, who would develop a new report, titled Strength through Global Leadership and Engagement: U.S. Higher Education in the 21st Century. The report suggests new directions for global engagement, both for ACE and for individual institutions of higher learning—directions that extend and build on past success in international interconnectivity but which, importantly, suggest fresh new options for the future based on the realities of the current global landscape.

International Orientation

ACE has had a strong international orientation since its founding. The Council was created in the last century as a response to national and global pressures precipitated by World War I. Founded in 1918 as the Emergency Council on Education, ACE took the lead in coordinating a federation of national educational associations to marshal higher education’s resources to help meet wartime needs in the United States. More recently, ACE has developed a portfolio of programs, research, publications, tools, and services that have helped to enhance comprehensive internationalization on U.S. campuses and position U.S. higher education in a global context. But given that globalization continues to gain significance as a force in both higher education and in society writ large, the time was right for ACE to assess, refine, and perhaps expand its international activities. New approaches were needed to ensure that ACE was positioned to support and guide American colleges and universities in working strategically and substantively in a globalized higher education environment and highly interconnected world. Moreover, ACE’s leadership believed that the Council could become more deeply engaged with international partners.

Shaping New Strategies

To help ACE define and shape appropriate new strategies for its global activities, the ACE Board of Directors authorized President Broad to appoint a Blue Ribbon Panel on Global Engagement. To populate the panel, Broad reached out to leaders in higher education and related organizations, from both the United States and other countries, who had experience and expertise in global higher education. Interest was strong, and the panel quickly recruited 19 members. Sexton agreed to chair the panel. The panel’s charge was to assess what ACE must do to support and enhance the global engagement of U.S. higher education institutions. Specifically, Broad posed a series of questions to help guide the panel’s work:

  • What role should ACE play to both monitor and help bolster American higher education’s global position?

  • How can ACE best help institutions formulate a coherent, comprehensive, and strategic international policy that incorporates teaching, research, and service consistent with their institutional missions and core values?

  • What can ACE do to help American higher education institutions, individually and in partnership with other nations, navigate the new global marketplace and facilitate sustainable human development? 

  •  How might ACE engage multinational organizations and participate in regional and global partnerships on behalf of higher education in the United States?

Broad and the panel recognized that for ACE, the implications of these questions are indeed vast. They suggest that ACE may need to spearhead more global consortial activity, be more proactive about global policy issues, and address such topics as academic standards on a worldwide basis. To meet those challenges, among others in the international arena, President Broad asked panel members to help ACE take a fresh, strategic look at how the organization can simultaneously serve the best interests of national as well as global higher education. The panel met first on October 22, 2010. Several subsequent meetings in 2011 were punctuated by additional contact among members between meetings. The panel sought additional input from other experts in global education, such as Philip Altbach, the Monan University Professor of Educational Leadership and Higher Education at Boston College, and H. David Lambert, President and CEO of Internet2. Nine such experts made presentations to the panel. Befitting a group passionate about global engagement, the panel’s discussions were far-ranging, animated, at times even heated, and, ultimately, extremely productive.

Mapping the Current Landscape

The panel first conducted a thorough analysis of the current landscape of global connections in higher education. That initial work suggested several important baseline observations. First, the panel recognized the leadership role that American higher education serves. A linchpin of the U.S. economy, American higher education has also been a central element in shaping the international status of the United States. Further, American higher education serves as the benchmark for excellence in education worldwide, and the quality of U.S. institutions attracts top talent from around the globe. Nonetheless, the preeminence of American higher education as a global force is being challenged. In general, higher education in countries abroad is getting stronger. In terms of educational attainment by its citizens, the United States is slipping somewhat compared to some other countries. The same is true in research. European Union nations, for example, now outpace the United States in the share of research papers produced. The United States also lags other countries in research and development spending as a proportion of gross domestic product. Another significant factor, of course, is the globalization of the world in general. To an unprecedented extent, the world’s nations are coming to share America’s historic commitment to higher education and research. Educational quality can now be found around the world. Accordingly, American institutions can now avail themselves of a vastly more fruitful and varied universe of peers and potential partners. Concomitantly, that means that when American institutions weigh their aspirations and relative competitive positions today, they must do so in a global context. In light of these realities, the panel articulated this fundamental proposition: “In the decades ahead, the most successful and influential institutions of all types will operate not alone but in global networks in which faculty, students, research activity, teaching models, and ideas will travel freely. These networks will be vital to the shape and function of colleges and universities regardless of how ‘local’ they may appear to be in operation.” The challenge for American higher education, the panel said, will be to ensure that “America’s institutions are a central and vital part of the flow of talent and thought that the network creates.” Arguing further that “knowledge is not a zero-sum game,” the panel suggested that the best international relationships will be entered into with a mix of collaboration and connectivity, as well as the inevitable competition.

Principles to Guide Global Engagement

In light of these new global contexts, the panel saw that a key challenge for ACE will be to create ways to help all its member institutions, large and small, to develop global engagement strategies consistent with their missions. To meet this challenge, ACE itself must embrace a strategic vision capable of succeeding in the dynamic world of globalization. Moreover, the panel found, institutions that seek to be intentional about bolstering their readiness for globalization in higher education will need to engage in deliberations that to a great extent share a common vocabulary and framework, regardless of institutional type. Toward those ends, the panel identified a powerful cluster of general issues and working guidelines that all colleges and universities should consider in their efforts to be more engaged globally—and which by extension directly influence future directions for ACE’s global activities. The panel suggested that discussions about global engagement should address six core themes:

Defining core principles and practices. Every institution that undertakes a global strategy should do so with a considered sense of the principles and practices it views as central to its mission and identity. Such nuances should be shared thoughtfully with other institutions when international partnerships are being forged.

Balancing pragmatism with idealism. In framing global strategies, however, college and university leaders must balance the needs of partners abroad against possibly overriding obligations at home. If genuine and sustainable global cooperation is the goal, then it is Important to define expectations at the outset, balancing laudable aspirations against constraining realities. Pragmatic concerns cannot be ignored, but they need not preclude efforts to contribute to development needs that are both global and particular to the countries or regions in which American institutions establish a footprint.

  • Delineating comprehensive institutional strategies. Global outreach and engagement must take place within the framework of an overarching institutional strategy for such work that aligns closely with the institution’s mission, history, and values. In those common instances when global outreach has developed ad hoc in pockets of an institution, such disparate activities should be linked in the context of a coherent and comprehensive institutional strategy.

  • Aligning local and global interests. There is valuable reciprocity between building strong relationships abroad and enhancing the quality and vitality of education at home. Colleges and universities in the United States should help local constituents and stakeholders understand the benefits of global engagement.

  • Identifying possible models of global engagement. Many models exist for global engagement. Institutions should define and seek to adopt appropriate pathways that can serve institutions no matter where they place themselves on the spectrum of global engagement.

  • Integrating technology in globalization. Information technology is now so central to global communication and collaboration that it was a particular focus of the panel’s deliberations. Three areas are in need of coordinated effort and development: national and transnational networks, institutional capacity, and classroom innovation. 

Panel Recommendations for ACE

Building on the guidance provided by those principles, the panel developed five broad recommendations for how ACE might play the most meaningful and substantial role in helping colleges and universities enrich and strengthen their own global engagement. Specifically, the panel recommended that ACE:

  1. Lead on Critical Global Higher Education Issues As the major coordinating body for all of the nation’s higher education institutions, ACE is uniquely and powerfully positioned to exert true leadership in higher education. In that context, ACE should play a major and substantive leadership role in addressing global higher education issues. Initiatives should include:
    • Framing a core set of values and principles to guide international engagement efforts focused on standards of quality and ethical guidelines.
    • Convening higher education leaders from the U.S. and abroad for discussions on global higher education issues.
    • Encouraging global cooperation within higher education to help address major issues that challenge humankind through research and development activities.
  2. Assume a Broader Advocacy Role In its role as the unifying voice for higher education, ACE should expand its advocacy portfolio with regard to global engagement. New work should include:
    • Addressing national and international issues that affect the global engagement of higher education, especially barriers to institutional collaboration.
    • Helping institutions to articulate the benefits of international engagement to diverse institutional and community stakeholders.
  3. Conduct, Gather, and Disseminate Research and Analysis As a trusted and valuable source of practical resources that help colleges and universities achieve their strategic goals, ACE should serve as a hub of data, information, and analysis on global trends and international higher education. Efforts in this direction include:
    • Compiling and communicating best practice models as well as lessons learned.
    • Monitoring global developments and establishing communication lines to relevant higher education associations and systems worldwide.
    • Providing up-to-date profiles of key countries in terms of the climate for higher education partnerships.
    • Creating a global leadership network on best practices and innovation.
  4. Provide Constituent Services in the Global Arena Building on its strong portfolio and tradition of serving colleges and universities, ACE should offer customized services and guidance for institutions interested in expanding or clarifying its international efforts. Such efforts could include:
    • Offering consulting services tailored to the needs of different kinds of institutions as they seek to create stronger international ties.
    • Developing learning communities that convene groups of colleges and universities with similar agendas for internationalization.
    • Organizing workshops and webinars that showcase the experiences of particular institutions in their efforts to internationalize.
    • Helping member institutions establish relationships with institutions abroad.
  5. Deepen International Ties and Outreach As the umbrella organization for American higher education, ACE is widely recognized by institutions of higher learning around the world. ACE should capitalize on its well-deserved global reputation to reach out actively to internationalize its programs and services. Efforts should include:
    • Developing formal agreements and collaborations with other higher education organizations in the world. Reinvigorating the “international associates” category of membership to catalyze more active international engagement in ACE.
    • Expanding existing ACE leadership development programs to include placements for U.S. participants at institutions abroad and more engagement by international higher education leaders.
    • Helping countries and regions expand their higher education leadership capacity through collaborative programming.
    • Promoting international partnerships focused on technology, in such areas as enhancing networking, building institutional technological capacity, and improving the use of technology in the classroom. President Board has indicated that ACE will now begin to incorporate the panel’s findings into the Council’s work in the international arena. Moreover, she anticipates that ACE will use guidance from the report to determine how to best raise awareness about new strategies for global engagement broadly across the community of higher education.

Refocus, Realign, Redouble

Inherent in the global interconnectivity that is the reality of our era is abundant promise and opportunity, not just for colleges and universities in the United States but indeed for institutions of higher learning around the world. As reflected in the panel’s discussions, now is the right time for leaders in higher education, and the institutions they serve, to do all they can to capitalize on those opportunities.

As the preeminent organization in U.S. higher education, the American Council on Education is extraordinarily well positioned to help colleges and universities reap optimal benefits from deep engagement in our global world. Indeed, doing so is of vital importance to ACE’s mission. To achieve such goals, however, ACE must refocus, realign, and perhaps redouble its international efforts in ways that reflect the new global realities. The panel report maps a pathway for that important work.

Fulfilling the promise of the report may prove challenging. But panel members strongly believed that meeting the report’s goals should be nothing short of an imperative, both for ACE and for its member colleges and universities. Doing so, the panel observed, would strongly bolster the work of all institutions of higher learning to collaborate and cooperate toward common goals that capitalize fully on the rich possibilities of global engagement—goals that, ultimately, will help build a better world for all.

The full text of the report Strength through Global Leadership and Engagement: U.S. Higher Education in the 21st Century can be accessed online here.