Doug Cohen: Look before you leap when expanding globally

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Doug Cohen

Unlike a number of GW students, I never went abroad or even took a foreign language in college.

Admittedly, this might make me seem out of step with the growing global focus of colleges and universities today. Schools across the country are pushing to make themselves relevant overseas by building international campuses and creating global programs.

In the same vein, Columbian College of Arts and Sciences Dean Peg Barratt has planned for a cross-continental degree program, in which students would spend two years in Foggy Bottom, one at Sciences Po in France and another at Renmin University in China. And over the course of the next month, administrators will meet to discuss the specifics of the program.

While the initiative has potential, there is a lot of pressure to compete with top tier universities that are building campuses abroad. GW shouldn’t do this for the wrong reasons.

In weighing this initiative, administrators must consider whether this program can meet academic standards and long-term institutional goals.

From my vantage point as a student, sometimes it is hard to tell whether or not global programs actually add value or are just superficial attempts to market the University. The latter is dangerous.

And it could mean the University spends a lot of time, resources and energy on what could end up being a venture with little academic value.

As Richard Edelstein of the University of California Berkeley explained to me, schools should create international programs that make most sense for them and serve the specific mission and goals of the University. The problem is that many programs become reactive based on what other schools are doing.

It is great to say we are giving students a global education, but we have to define what that means.

Study abroad is often criticized for being more like a vacation, a watered-down version of college with easier classes and fewer responsibilities.

Does taking wine tasting courses at Sciences Po count as a global education? If GW is spending time and resources on a specific degree program, it must ensure that the time won’t amount to just a glorified European vacation.

One step GW should consider is setting a higher bar for admissions to this program. In doing so, the program would be marketed toward top students who demonstrate a strong desire to immerse themselves in a foreign culture.

And while there are faculty committees discussing the program, administrators should actively solicit opinions from all faculty to ensure the development of a strong curriculum. This should be an all-inclusive process.

Look no further than New York University to see what could happen when faculty are excluded from the decision-making process. For all of NYU President John Sexton’s efforts to expand globally, he received a vote of no confidence last month, due in part to his lack of communication with faculty.

The global degree program should also push forward several aspects of the 10-year strategic plan, calling for students to conduct research or perform service in other countries.

Top administrators should aim to be highly skeptical of this global degree program as they weigh costs and benefits over the next month.

Doug Cohen, a senior majoring in political science, is a Hatchet senior columnist.

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