HE leaders urge voters to back global engagement

An alliance of United States higher education, foreign policy, peace-building and national security leaders last week published an open letter urging America’s next president to pursue policies and practices that it said will make the United States "a more welcoming and globally engaged country".

The statement, posted online hours before the third presidential debate between two candidates, Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton, on Wednesday, does not endorse one candidate over another. But it conveys an unambiguous message, given the divergent positions the two candidates have taken on issues such as immigration, trade and foreign policy.

“Our next president must value diversity in our nation and in our world, honour our tradition as a nation of immigrants, and be willing to deliberate and collaborate," it says. "If we wish to create an ever-more secure and prosperous nation, our next president must work with the global community to create a more secure and prosperous world.”

The letter – unprecedented, like so many other aspects of the 2016 election season – was conceived of and spearheaded by NAFSA: Association of International Educators, a non-profit group with more than 10,000 members worldwide.

Signed by more than 30 people, including university presidents, scholars, former ambassadors and leaders of international non-profit organisations, the 332-word statement is "designed to be non-partisan and reflects the values of those who signed it, rather than any particular political position”, Marlene M Johnson, NAFSA executive director and CEO, told University World News. She said NAFSA reached out to allies with a draft statement.

More names have been added since the letter was posted online Wednesday afternoon, and the number is expected to grow, said NAFSA President Fanta Aw, an assistant vice-president at American University. And every person the group reached out to agreed to lend their signatures, she said.

The idea had "been in the works over the last two weeks or so", so organisers had a "short window" to gather support before posting, Aw said. "Strategically we had timing in mind, and the timing was the last debate."

Compelled to make a public statement

NAFSA's public policy staff routinely reaches out to candidates during election seasons to clarify its perspective on key issues. But Aw said the organisation felt compelled to make a public statement.

"For an association that deeply believes in the need to engage in the world, we could not, based on our values, just stand by. And part of not standing by meant that we need to reaffirm what our values are," she said. "We really feel that one cannot take these things for granted."

The NAFSA statement itself holds few, if any, surprises given the group's mission to develop globally competent individuals. It notes the importance of global engagement for solving problems such as climate change, nuclear proliferation and epidemics, which "don’t recognise national borders". It stresses the role of diplomacy in advancing US security and stability, and the importance of interconnectedness rather than isolationism.

During the debate, the candidates addressed a range of questions on global topics, including the fight against ISIS, Russia's role in hacking of the Democratic National Committee and Trump's proposal to build a wall between Mexico and the United States. (The NAFSA statement did not come up, and in other higher education news Clinton briefly mentioned her plan to make college debt-free, and tuition-free for families making less than US$125,000).

Moderator Chris Wallace introduced one question by saying, "There is almost no issue that separates the two of you more than the issue of immigration" – then quickly added, "Actually, there are a lot of issues that separate the two of you."

On a blog, "Connecting Our World", Katie O’Connell, director of advocacy and media outreach at NAFSA, posted a link to the statement, adding, "I know that I will have these values in mind as I go to the voting booth in the coming weeks."

She also wrote that she plans to vote early because she will be attending a NAFSA conference in New Orleans on Election Day, and provided a link for resources on voting via absentee ballot or overseas.

Dennis Jett, a professor of international affairs at Pennsylvania State University (a battleground state), said the invitation to sign came to him "out of the blue" from a member of NAFSA's public policy office he knew, and that it was the first time he could recall being asked for such support.

"I don't think it's been an issue before," said Jett, a former ambassador to Peru and Mozambique. "One candidate is a former secretary of state and senator from New York. I don't think the message was aimed at her. It's the other candidate who essentially seems clueless about a whole lot of things."