Tying internationalization to institutional mission creates long-term, sustainable partnerships.

In 2010, in the midst of a wave of overseas branch-campus building by U.S. universities, a colleague and I published a piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education wherein we made a case for an alternative approach. We argued that for many schools, particularly public institutions, overseas partnerships—sometimes scoffed at as a lesser form of global engagement—might prove a more desirable way to internationalize. That is to say, partnership arrangements, under the right conditions, can provide many of the benefits of the go-it-alone branch-campus approach, with fewer downside risks. 

Moreover, partnering also lessens the possibility that internationalization by a U.S. institutuion might be viewed abroad as self-aggrandizing behavior, and helps assure key constituencies at home that internationalization doesn’t represent a diminution, if not abdication, of traditional responsibilities and loyalties, or the delocalizing of a university.

I’ve since been asked many questions about how to operationalize the approach. Here, I discuss some of the specific, on-the-ground practices that have led UNC-Chapel Hill not merely to continue down the partnership path, but to follow it even more faithfully.  

Connecting Mission with Operationalization

The decision to partner with an institution abroad is often closely related to an institution’s mission, history, and values. To be sure, the partnering approach, rather than creating a branch campus, reduces costs related to governmental approvals, legal fees, start-up charges, and bricks-and-mortar expenditures. But the deciding factors in most cases grow more out of an institution’s sense of itself and its place in the world, and whether two institutions can be a good match, despite their differences.

Let’s start with mission and history. Almost every school has a mission statement, but far fewer have missions. UNC-Chapel Hill is one school that does. Our mission is related to our mission statement, of course, but runs deeper than that. 

At the end of the day, we seriously believe that we work at an institution that belongs to the people of the state of North Carolina and that all of us at the university need to demonstrate good stewardship of UNC-Chapel Hill. With our mission statement guiding every internationalization effort, our actions are closely tied to the foundation of our institution, which creates a perception that internationalization is not a “nice to have,” but integral to the university’s purpose. 

How do we do so? Parts of our mission statement are suggestive in this regard, particularly phrases such as “with generous support from North Carolina’s citizens…” we strive to “enhance access to learning and to foster the success and prosperity of each rising generation,” and the sentence: “We also extend knowledge-based services and other resources of the University to the citizens of North Carolina and their institutions to enhance the quality of life for all people in the State.”  

This commitment has become ingrained in the culture of the campus, and in every move we keep in mind the people of North Carolina. How will internationalization play in Wilson or Wilkesboro, in other words?

How We Develop Sustainable Partnerships

Our mission influences both the value orientation we bring to UNC-Chapel Hill’s internationalization and the processes and protocols we follow. While we are committed to extending our presence globally, we are equally committed to doing so without establishing satellite campuses that compete with local institutions. That is to say, we partner. Our strongest partnerships have developed over the course of many years, with synergies often first identified not via top-down administrative mandate, but bottom-up, building from a faculty-to-faculty collaboration or student-exchange program.  We didn’t do anything because a senior administrator believed our school “must” be in country X.  

In our approach, which builds long-term sustainability, initial interactions allowed faculty and staff the time to assess mutual goals, shared research interests, and respective institutional values.  After considerable time and effort, both UNC and its prospective partners get to know each other better.  In some cases, core connections are such as to create a foundation for linkages both to deepen and to extend at multiple levels across disciplines, departments, and schools.  Then, the partnerships gain further momentum as they mature into fully realized university-level bilateral relationships and receiving sustained institutional support.

This approach boosts sustainability for internationalization at UNC and others with similar strategies. As the financial effects of COVID-19 grip higher education institutions across the United States, long-term partnerships with universities overseas are less likely to be on the budgetary chopping block than stand-alone satellite campuses. In addition with  most  American students unable to study abroad right now, satellite campuses are  often hurting, while the firmly- rooted local institutions with which we partner face fewer COVID-related impediments.

Regular Review and Assessment

One manifestation of the  type of sustained institutional support mentioned above  is inclusion of a particular international institution—and key figures at UNC who are central to relationships with that institution—in a group called the Partnership Roundtable. This group is vital to our approach and is comprised of liaisons for many of our leading partnerships. Some liaisons are faculty members and others are administrators in  international education; in either case, liaisons have deep knowledge of, and ties to the partner institution they represent.  The roundtable, chaired by the chief international officer, meets regularly to examine both individual partnerships and our partnering strategy more generally. 

Members give updates on the status of individual partnerships, and, in so doing, they often get both good advice and broader perspectives regarding particular bilateral relationships.  Such close examination helps us to keep on top of partnerships—revealing when one partnership needs an infusion of resources, when another is facing challenges and needs repairs, when there is a transition in key personnel at a school, or when circumstances or interest in the partnership has significantly changed on campus. 

In addition, the roundtable group vets potential new partnerships and makes decisions regarding if and how to move forward. Similarly, we sometimes spend time analyzing our entire portfolio of partnerships in case rebalancing or diversification might be needed.  We also discuss issues of general importance to all members of the group—questions of academic freedom, ethics, and human rights, for example—at roundtable meetings.  Everyone realizes that there are varying definitions of such concepts around the world and that cultural contexts differ, often considerably. That said, we are always looking closely at our partnering relationships to ensure that, considered in toto, they remain consistent with our own school’s history, mission, and values. 

Such concerns have sometimes meant that we have turned down international overtures of one kind or another, denials that have opportunity costs when measured solely in monetary terms. But strict moral scrutiny has also meant that we have seldom had to backtrack on strategy, pull out of a relationship or country, or face the types of accusations of human-rights abuses that some U.S. institutions have while implementing their global strategy. 

The roundtable, not surprisingly, has proven particularly valuable during the COVID-19 crisis. With student, faculty, and staff mobility severely impeded, recent roundtable meetings have been devoted in large part to sharing new information regarding best practices in dealing with the crisis and devising new strategies for sustaining and nurturing partnerships—whether via webinars, online conferences involving partner institutions, or COIL (Collaborative Online International Learning). Our ability to tap into the expertise and resources available at trusted partner institutions around the world has reduced the sense of isolation during this time and helped us to sustain our globalizing momentum 

Find the Strategy That Fits

Partnering is the internationalizing strategy that is appropriate for UNC—and perhaps for other institutions as well. It fits us well and feels right, in part because it’s also how we conduct our work at home. It is not as glitzy or exciting as opening up a new, stand-alone satellite campus halfway around the world, but we can live with that. Moreover, our approach, which is relational rather than transactional, gives us hope, even confidence that UNC and our partners will be able to work together quickly to ramp up our international programs once COVID is history.