Only experienced international educators need apply

When a dean of the library needs to be hired, most universities seek an experienced librarian who is steeped in the management and operational details of libraries.

Institutions seeking a chief financial officer select among those who have proven credentials in the financial management of organisations and experience with achieving financial viability.

Even for department chair appointments, institutions will seek those who are trained in the discipline, who have taught and published widely and who can represent the interests of the department based on their knowledge and experience.

Yet, for the position of ‘Senior International Officer’ (SIO), institutional decisions suggest that some presidents and provosts seem to think that practically anyone can do the job.

Here in the United States, the SIO position is a senior administrative role reporting to the provost, and sometimes to the president. It provides institutional leadership on all aspects of comprehensive internationalisation.

Whether advancing international research partnerships, leading curriculum internationalisation efforts or increasing student and scholar mobility, the SIO role is broad and touches all aspects of the academy.

Increasingly, some US institutional leaders have begun to understand, as the American Council on Education has explained, that it requires a comprehensive and strategic approach to integrate policies, programmes, initiatives and individuals to make institutions more internationally oriented and globally connected.

This is no easy agenda to manage, and institutions that are serious about internationalisation seek the services of experienced international educators who understand higher education administration specifically in terms of comprehensive internationalisation.

A narrowly defined role?

Yet this does not happen as often as it should due to the relative newness of the international education profession in the US and the fact that the SIO role is still not widely institutionalised on many college and university campuses.

We recognise that international education is still often defined in narrow terms and conflated with international student enrolment or education abroad programming.

In fact, international education has emerged in recent years as a distinct profession with its own standards of professional practice, code of ethics and professional associations such as NAFSA: Association of International Educators and the Association of International Education Administrators.

Beyond administrative practice, a robust field of sophisticated research and scholarship has similarly emerged with specific journals and hundreds of scholarly papers and books published annually.

Indeed, there is a growing cohort of professional and highly educated international education administrators, many with degrees in international education, who have the knowledge, skill and experiences to transform institutions into global campuses.

Despite these developments, evident over decades, a common misunderstanding of internationalisation is often manifested when a decision is made to hire a senior international officer.

Some believe that a former ambassador, bringing extensive international ties, is exactly who is needed in this role. Others think that a scholar with hundreds of publications, possibly in a field like international relations or modern languages, would be ideal for the job.

Others believe that an immigrant faculty member, having been born outside the US, knows so much more about the world and therefore must be perfect as SIO.

It is also tempting to appoint a currently tenured member of the faculty, potentially as a promotion, as a retention effort or simply as a means to save on cost.

None of these attributes, by themselves, translates into an experienced international officer, and indeed, the many examples of failure when such individuals have been appointed to serve as SIO confirms this reality.

The post-COVID landscape

More problematic, however, is that such decisions often mean that institutions lose momentum in fostering global commitments and building out the intellectual and pedagogical infrastructure required to innovatively respond to the pressing global challenges of the 21st century.

The multiple and ongoing catastrophes of 2020 are as compelling as ever a reason for colleges and universities to care deeply about institutional transformation with respect to internationalisation.

Experienced SIOs are scholar-practitioners who recognise the critical importance of articulating a compelling rationale for comprehensive internationalisation that tightly aligns with the mission and strategic plan of the institution.

Experienced international educators understand the importance of establishing a common strategic framework for advancing international education, and in doing so, ensuring that resources are consistently leveraged to achieve strategic goals.

They know how to support faculty in securing international teaching and research experiences and developing internationalised curricula so that all students can develop a nuanced understanding of the international dimensions of their chosen disciplines.

Experienced SIOs have the intercultural competency necessary to broker relationships across borders and create incentives that help to facilitate a research agenda that intentionally aims to find answers to the grand challenges confronting humanity, all of which are global in scope.

They do more than just help to recruit the best and the brightest international students to our campuses but understand how to effectively leverage high-impact educational practices to support the international and intercultural learning of all students.

Experienced international educators are at the very centre of stewarding strategic international partnerships and aligning institutional strengths with international opportunities.

In this unique administrative role, experienced international educators are able to help drive the institutional ethos of a campus to a more global orientation, one that is desperately needed in the academy.

As the COVID-19 pandemic accelerates changes in higher education and creates an environment of considerable uncertainty, US college and university leaders must recognise that, just like other leadership positions, depth of experience is required for the pivot and innovation necessary to respond to this uncertainty.

It is no longer hypothetical as to whether we are at the beginning of a new era for higher education. Globalisation is challenging us to re-examine well-established practices, reframe our priorities and pursue emerging opportunities.

This requires significant expertise, a broad global network, mutually beneficial collaboration, out-of-the-box thinking and the know-how of experienced leaders who can transform challenges into opportunities that broaden the scope and re-emphasise the value of international education.

In the role of the senior international officer lies the opportunity to position colleges and universities to be at the forefront of a new era of discovery, innovation and global collaboration.

Indeed, the time has come to not just welcome, but actively seek professional international educators who have the skills, knowledge, attributes and experience to provide leadership that can help navigate this uncertain future. Too much is at stake to decide otherwise.

Dr Harvey Charles is an experienced senior international officer and currently serves as professor of international education at the University at Albany, SUNY, United States. Dr Anthony Ogden, an experienced senior international officer, is founder of Gateway International Group, an organisation seeking to accelerate international learning and engagement by assisting institutions and organisations around the world to succeed in a new era of higher education.