The transnational university: collaboration as tool and as outcome

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The transnational university: collaboration as tool and as outcome

July 6, 2016

Since my post in September on the future of the public research university, I have been thinking and writing about ways that the University of Arizona and our peers can position ourselves as agents of change in the world, rather than simply as points of access to knowledge and education. This is a crucial difference that will allow us to sustain our impact as the political, economic, and social landscapes around higher education continue to change. Equally important, having impact in a global context means that universities like the University of Arizona are institutions that can help reshape for the better the ways that we think about international relationships generally. We can do this by reshaping ourselves as transnational institutions that collaborate across national borders, emphasizing our awareness and commitment to the intellectual, cultural, economic, and many other bonds that we have with other universities and communities around the world.

Reshaping the public research university in these ways depends upon a certain kind of collaboration, a version of which I touched on in my recent post on student engagement. In that post, I argued that faculty expertise contributes to an immersive learning experience most effectively when we enable collaborative relationships among students, their instructors, and university partners. This model of collaboration represents an important shift in the way we now think about learning and engagement. It is equally instructive if we expand in scale to think about collaboration among universities, businesses, governments, and other global actors. If we are thinking about the modern research university as an agent of positive change, what kind of change are we attempting to bring about? How does our global mindset shift the nature of the institution itself and what academic and intellectual models does this perspective create?

Transnationalism begins close to home

International partnerships have existed in higher education for many years. For instance, as I wrote in April, 2014 and November, 2014, the University of Arizona  has a long and proud history of working with peers and partners in countries including the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Mexico, Brazil, Chile, Japan, Germany and many others. Those partnerships have been crucial to the UA’s success because they build on mutual strengths emerging from local roots, like the similar climates of Arizona and Persian Gulf region.

But local roots do not have to lead only to transnational partnerships that span the globe. For instance, the UA has a large presence in Yuma – the only place outside of Tucson and Phoenix that all three missions of our land grant university (Teaching, Research and Cooperative Extension) are carried out. Yuma’s position at the borders of Arizona, California, and the Mexican states of Sonora and Baja California means that much of the work conducted by the UA College of Agriculture and Life Sciences in that area is aimed at supporting arid land agricultural production in the region that blurs the lines between states and nations.

With the help of UA trials and research on arid lands water use, Yuma’s agricultural producers have reduced the diversion of water for irrigation by nearly 18% over the past 40 years, while increasing crop water use efficiency (nearly doubling head lettuce production per unit of water). With the southwest U.S. and northern Mexico experiencing prolonged drought and continuing climate change, these reductions and efficiencies improve the industry’s resilience. The lower Colorado River is a shared resource between several southwestern states and Mexico, and by working together to make every drop count, more food is produced with less water, collaboration that is vital for the continued strength of the agricultural economies in Arizona, California, and northwestern Mexico. UA’s Yuma Center of Excellence for Desert Agriculture—a public-private partnership between UA and the desert Ag industry—and the Yuma Agricultural Center has also made important headway into the mitigation of plant pests and diseases and much of the UA’s research and industry effort goes into assuring food safety for agricultural products.

Because of the UA’s historic partnerships with the GCC countries and other arid regions around the world, the expertise coming out of the UA’s Yuma locations has impact on arid land production around the world. This impact is crucial because 40% of the world’s food is produced in arid regions, so the solutions found here reach communities all around the globe. Equally important, the program in Yuma illustrates how we can effectively partner with one of our nation’s two closest neighbors. Mexico’s culture, landscape, history, and future is inextricably bound to Arizona and the entire U.S., and these bonds present incredible opportunities for learning and collaboration.

Thus, the UA’s collaborative programs in Yuma have had unmistakable impact, but why—in terms of the University’s fundamental mission and impact in the future—do they matter? Or, rather, how do they point to a model of sustainable positive impact as the world continues to grow both increasingly interconnected and (at least as we have seen in recent years) more prone to conflict? There are two reasons that I want to address.

Combining strengths to make the impossible, possible

The first reason the shift in perspective at the UA and our peers is important is that these partnerships have allowed us to sustain our mission and impact despite the severe financial challenges that public universities have faced over the past several years. By shifting international relationships from previous “take” models to one in which we work in an authentically collaborative fashion, the UA and our partners are able to approach projects at a scale that would be unreachable on our own. As I wrote in April, 2014, partnerships with the Giant Magellan Telescope, OSIRIS-REx mission, and CyVerse data infrastructure are all important examples of programs in which UA leadership is absolutely crucial, but not the only key to success. Leveraging the strengths of the UA and other partners, pooling resources, and sharing knowledge allow us to create impact and succeed in our mission despite the enormous scale sometimes required for scientific inquiry. 

These collaborations can also lead to new avenues of inquiry and the application of knowledge. For instance, at the reunion of UA alumni from the GCC nations held in Tucson in January 2016, we had several exciting developments, including an agreement between the Eller Executive training program and Dubai Ports World (DPW), which will teach management methods to DPW executives. Another agreement that the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences entered with Emirates Group Security, a part of the Emirates network of companies that provides security in aviation and general security settings, will promote the UA School of Government and Public Policy’s International Security Studies online MA program while the UA evaluates aviation certification of graduates in tandem with Edith Cowan University in Australia. In addition, several new potential partnerships emerged or developed with the United Arab Emirates space agency, the College of Pharmacy and the UAE Ministry of Health, and support for (and the potential to expand) the Arabic Flagship Program in the School of Middle Eastern and North African Studies. These opportunities have grown in part from the relationships that developed through the UA’s partnerships in arid lands science, language, and other areas with alumni, businesses, and government agencies over more than forty years remind us of the need for long-term partnerships in which all parties learn from one another and are open to new ways of thinking as a result.

A university working and thinking transnationally to create impact on a global scale

The second reason that the impact on the UA matters is that we are at a distinct—if not unique—moment in global history. As I told the UA’s graduates in May, we are faced with extraordinary challenges as a species: displacement of huge numbers of people in regions torn by conflict and natural forces, global climate change, energy security, pandemic disease, and many other pressing issues. However, this is also a moment of incredible potential if we work collaboratively to harness the amazing changes in human knowledge, technology, and innovation that will allow us to address these challenges. This confluence of challenge and capability is the ultimate horizon for the work of the UA and our peers, and understanding it from a global perspective is absolutely crucial if we are to make this a moment of positive transformation in the history of the human race.

This means not just working collaboratively across borders, but recognizing that different insights on a problem will come from different perspectives and backgrounds. This means that transnational collaboration is a tool (it helps us get things done) but also a philosophy (it helps us to see the world differently). To demonstrate the relevance of this approach, I want to return to the UA’s home region of the U.S. – Mexico borderlands and examine two programs that espouse this philosophy and are using it to understand and better address intractable problems.  

My first example is the Center for Border & Global Journalism. Part of the UA School of Journalism, the Center takes advantage of the UA’s location in a border region to pursue key insights into border life and culture, illuminating the transnational status of many communities and histories of border regions like ours and imagining potential futures for a transnational understanding of human community. Co-directed by William Schmidt, former deputy managing editor at the New York Times, and Mort Rosenblum, who has worked as an international journalist and author for over 50 years and who recently received the Museum of Contemporary Art Tucson’s Local Genius Award, the Center for Border & Global Journalism views education, reporting, and public engagement as something that exists at a global level. For faculty in the Center, journalism is a profession that transcends national boundaries and connects us all as individual parts of a much larger world while also attending to the particular local details of an event or story. With this in mind, the Center for Border & Global Journalism provides engagement opportunities for its students through an extensive network of study abroad programs that build on the UA journalism faculty’s extensive international reporting experience, including a recent partnership the School of Journalism has established with Afghanistan University to develop a journalism program at Nangarhar University.  The Center partners with other programs at the UA, including the School of Middle Eastern and North African Studies, the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, the Center for Latin American Studies, and the Institute of the Environment, and it works to develop and build on relationships with governmental and nongovernmental global institutions such as the U.S. State Department, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, the Overseas Press Club, the International Center for Journalism, and many others.

The program’s emphasis on journalists working abroad provides an excellent way for talking about the transnational realities of knowledge production and public engagement. In particular, Professor Celeste Gonzalez de Bustamante and Professor Jeannine E. Relly’s work on protecting journalists in other countries shows the importance of transnational community and engagement and also the responsibilities that attend such engagement. Dr. Bustamante makes it clear that “all border stories are transnational,” and that as members of a border region, we exist in a space that is always separated and connected simultaneously. The border is something that keeps us apart, but it is also our means of communication and our point of access to one another, the convergence of two nations in one shared region, and connected through the communities, cultures, and climates that define it.  

To understand the complexity of such a region takes much work and dedication, but it also takes vision and a commitment to transnational collaboration and partnership. As Dr. Bustamante rightly tells us, “some stories along the border are simply too big and too expensive for one individual to tackle,” and by collaborating across borders, here in the Sonoran Desert and across the world, researchers are able tap into a productive network of people who are all working to face and solve some of the most important issues troubling our world today. While this work is important, Dr. Bustamante argues that journalists should also “recognize that what they report helps to shape public perceptions about places and people.” Thus, while we engage in transnational partnership, we should be wary of what she calls the “dangerous border” stereotypes that would keep us from engaging in meaningful work, stereotypes that Dr. Bustamante says are growing. So, while we must remain committed to the security and safety of our faculty, students, and staff as they travel abroad to take part in immersive research opportunities, we must also be sure not to fall prey to popular misconceptions about regions of the world so inextricably linked to our own region and our own future. If we do give into such stereotypes, we risk missing out on potentials for groundbreaking cross-border collaborations, innovation, and mutual growth.  

My final example takes up this specific challenge as well to encourage the development of partnerships between U.S. and Mexican universities that recognize our rich shared culture, history, and future. This exciting new program launched in just the last month, as the UA has partnered with the APLU to create the Mexico Academic Mobility Assessment Committee. The work of the Committee will be to take an active role in discussing and breaking down misconceptions of travel and academic partnership with Mexico. The Committee will provide information about security, best practices, and the state of collaboration on academic issues, in order to facilitate a transformational international experience for students and faculty. The importance of this work is clear when we remember that Mexico is regularly one of the top three economic trading partners for the U.S., yet is ranked outside of the top 10 in rates of academic exchange. Such an important economic ally should be an equally important academic ally, the Committee is focused on turning the tide of disinformation which constrains so many of us from some of the most rewarding collaborations the world might offer.

Thus, when I say that we are at an important moment in our history, I do not mean to be hyperbolic. The work university researchers and their partners do has both immediate, instrumental outcomes and the potential to reshape the nature of transnational collaboration as well. Transnational partnerships and a transnational mindset that recognizes the bonds between communities around the world, as well as the differences—or diversity of thought, perspective, and potential—among them bring great benefit to the University by not only expanding the reach of our impact, but also expanding the UA community’s engagement with the lives, experiences, and traditions of people from people of many different homes and backgrounds. Thus, the UA’s contributions to other regions and parts of the world are also an entry point for other partnerships that impact the UA itself, making it more resilient as an institution, but also helping to bring new and diverse points of view and experiences into the UA community that enable greater creativity in both research and teaching. In this increasingly complex world, this redefinition of international collaboration and transnational partnership is one of our most important obligations as globally engaged universities and it is one that will help ensure our resilience and impact well into the future.