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Building a globally-focused faculty

As higher education systems and institutions seek to internationalise, there can be no denying the centrality of faculty to these efforts. The drivers of teaching and research, faculty are the lynch-pin of the academic enterprise. Their commitment and engagement are critical to the success of any campus-wide initiative – internationalisation included.

The problem is that at most institutions there are a lot of initiatives competing for faculty time and attention. Faculty members have to prioritise which efforts to join, and how to do so – by adjusting their syllabi or research agendas, taking on additional administrative responsibilities, or serving more broadly as a 'champion' of the cause among colleagues.

For an individual professor, personal preferences certainly come into play in the prioritisation process, as some initiatives will resonate more than others. But institutional policies – and the messages they send about what is most valued on campus – are key factors as well.

Focus on research

For an article I wrote in 2012, I interviewed a Chinese language instructor at a small liberal arts college in the US. He said he would love to take student groups to China for short-term study abroad trips, but had not done so, and was not planning to any time soon. Despite working at an institution that touts its teaching focus, he explained, research and publication output were the primary considerations in the tenure and promotion process.

With the decision point looming in a few years, he felt that planning and executing a study abroad programme would take too much time away from his research. Thus he chose to stay on campus – and his students missed out on a prime opportunity for global learning.

In the US the up-or-out nature of the tenure process means that for junior faculty, what is rewarded and what is not plays a significant role in determining how faculty spend their time.

When it comes to internationalisation, while 64% of institutions participating in the American Council on Education, or ACE, 2011 Mapping Internationalization on US Campuses survey reported that internationalisation had accelerated on their campuses in recent years, only 8% specified international work or experience as a consideration in faculty promotion and tenure decisions. This percentage was unchanged since the previous iteration of the survey in 2006.

In a recent study for ACE, Internationalizing the Tenure Code: Policies to promote a globally focused faculty, I explored the tenure policy issue in more depth, with an analysis of 91 tenure and promotion policies that do include internationally-focused criteria. The report provides examples of such criteria in the areas of teaching, research and service, as well as faculty reputation and explicit contributions to institutional internationalisation.

While the analysis raised questions about the depth and impact of the specific activities entailed (Does presenting at a conference abroad build faculty relationships with colleagues in other countries or lead to a long-term international research agenda? Maybe, maybe not), the policies send a message that internationally-focused endeavours should be valued in tenure and promotion decisions.

While not typically requiring international work, they give faculty licence to bring this work to the top of the list of competing priorities, should they want to do so.

Supporting internationalisation of the tenure code

As the report notes, internationalising the tenure code is not the right move for every institution – or at least, it may not be the right move at a particular time. Given the high stakes, any proposed changes to tenure and promotion policies tend to be highly charged, and not easy to execute.

Internationalisation needs to be firmly embedded in the culture of the institution – to the extent that many faculty have already incorporated a global focus into their work – before it is appropriate to tackle tenure code changes.

Availability of resources and support is crucial as well. If faculty are encouraged or expected to internationalise course content, for example, are there workshops and other training opportunities that focus on this? Is there technical support available to help them link virtually to classrooms in other countries?

In some cases, it makes more sense for institutions to focus first on other faculty policies and programmes to build momentum for internationalisation. In the Mapping Internationalization on US Campuses survey, 68% of institutions indicated that they give preference to candidates with international background or experience when hiring faculty in fields that are not explicitly international – up from 32% in 2006.

Other incentives

Many institutions encourage engagement in internationalisation through grant programmes and other funding opportunities (I wrote about these in ACE’s online feature, Internationalization in Action). Some focus on senior faculty, who have already passed the tenure hurdle and may feel freer to experiment in their work.

And certainly, with only about 25% of US higher education instructors tenured or on the tenure track, creating avenues to engage non-tenure-track faculty in internationalisation is important as well.

All of these steps contribute to a culture that values global engagement and may allow for changes to tenure and promotion policies down the road.

Internationalisation is not a linear process – there are multiple starting points, and typically steps forward, backward and sideways along the way. But engaging faculty at the beginning of their careers – through multiple policies and programmes that incentivise and reward internationally-focused work – means that global perspectives are embedded into the foundation of their teaching and research right from the start.

It sets a tone for their careers and allows institutions to build a globally-oriented faculty from the ground up – an increasingly important task for any higher education institution in the 21st century.

Robin Matross Helms works on global higher education research initiatives at the American Council on Education’s Center for Internationalisation and Global Engagement, including the International Briefs for Higher Education Leaders series. Her previous experience includes international programme management for the Institute of International Education, EF Education and CET Academic Programs, and faculty development programme management at the University of Minnesota.
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