Few of us at colleges and universities need to be sold on the importance of international education. Hundreds of thousands of U.S. students study abroad each year, bringing back broader perspectives, enhanced language skills and new tools for effectiveness in an increasingly global workplace and society.
So it comes as an unpleasant surprise to see evidence of a decreasing commitment to international education. In a time when global perspectives and intercultural competencies are more important than ever, it's vital that we recommit our colleges and universities to international education.
The American Council on Education, in its latest assessment of international education at the nation's colleges and universities, acknowledges the effort and commitment at many of our campuses. Half of the institutions surveyed include global education in their mission statements, for instance, and a similar number have woven it into their strategic priorities. This is to be applauded, as are statistics showing a healthy increase in the number of students from abroad pursuing their higher education in the United States.
But the data show slippage, too. The ACE data mark a decline in the number of institutions requiring students to enroll in courses focused on issues and perspectives from other countries. Just 37 percent of our schools now require undergraduates to study a language other than English, in contrast with 53 percent 10 years ago.
Equally disquieting is a report from the Institute of International Education finding that only 14 percent of those earning bachelor's degrees at American institutions last year studied abroad at some point in their undergraduate career.
Making international experience a factor in hiring and tenure decisions, financial support for professors' international research and conference attendance, the percentage of colleges with general-education requirements for courses emphasizing international perspectives -- by these measures, too, there's a weakening in higher education's commitment to international education.
In light of these unwelcome trends, ACE's Patti McGill Peterson suggests, "We're going to have to think of new models, new ways to deliver learning outcomes to all students, at all types of institutions."
As someone who leads a college where international education has long been valued -- our study abroad program celebrated its 50th anniversary last year, nearly two-thirds of our undergraduates study abroad, and international affairs is a perennial leader on the most-popular majors list -- I agree, at least in part. Let's affirm the traditional approaches that have worked well for many years and find new ways of delivering international education to both deepen and spread the benefit.
Fortunately, the building blocks for potential new approaches are already available on many of our campuses. One example: Where cost is a hurdle and airfare a bar too high, students can have enriching "international" experiences in the cities and towns where our campuses are located. Immigrants and their offspring from Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Latin America and elsewhere make up a growing share of the citizenry in the Portland area, as they do in other metropolitan areas around the country. Our students do not have to travel far to learn about these people's lives. And these citizens face few geographical hurdles in coming to us -- and enriching our student populations.
Nothing compares, however, with living and learning abroad. Spend a few minutes with the students and professors who have returned from one of my school's overseas programs in Morocco, Vietnam or New Zealand, or at a reunion of alumni who studied together years ago in India or Japan and have shared close bonds ever since, and one cannot help but feel impressed and inspired. These overseas-study experiences are often truly life-changing, with lifelong effects on these travelers' careers and values.
Our students need experience at engaging other cultures, need to be good at interacting with people whose backgrounds and perspectives are different from their own, if they are to find their way in the global society they are entering. By the same token, the world needs a generation of young people to come prepared for a workplace and society that are more globally interdependent than they have ever been.
Whether we do the job by sending our students overseas, by connecting them with the "international" communities in our own backyards or by making sure they experience the world in our classrooms, we have a duty to prepare our students for the global world.
Now is no time to scale back our horizons.
Barry Glassner is president of Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Ore., and author of "The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things."
This article originally appeared in The Oregonian on March 3, 2013.