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Vanderbilt University steps-up pace in pursuit of international agenda
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Susan Wente PhD

VANDERBILT University's International Strategy Working Group (ISWG) has released a draft portion of its "plan to strengthen Vanderbilt's international research, scholarship, and creative expression while raising the global profile of Vanderbilt as a research institution."

The draft clearly signals that a preponderance of faculty and administrators thus far engaged by the ISWG believe VU must be more proactive with respect to crossborder research, recruitment and reputation if the institution is to secure and sustain leadership standing globally.

Operating under a charge from Provost Susan Wente PhD, who is also vice chancellor for Academic Affairs, the ISWG said it plans to issue a full set of recommendations on international strategy and tactics this Fall.

In a statement VU published May 19, Wente said, in part, "Expanding Vanderbilt's international presence and growing its global reach is essential not only to the success of the university as a higher education leader, but also in fulfilling Vanderbilt's critical missions of fostering the creation of knowledge and improving the human condition at this propitious moment in history."

The draft document makes clear that the ISWG proposals are aimed at enriching the VU "intellectual community by better integrating a globally diverse set of ideas, creative practices, and research methodologies in the work that we do. They will enrich our work in the humanities and arts. Together they will enhance our ability to address substantial global problems -- whether social, political, economic, medical or technological -- by providing our faculty with more of tools necessary to do internationally relevant work and by helping ensure that the new knowledge generated is accessible to a global audience."

Administrative units are challenged, as well, with administrators advised to "actively promote a culture of global engagement and of international aspiration..."

There was no direct reference in the draft to VU Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos' action earlier this year to join peer institutions in filing a legal brief arguing against lifting a stay on the Trump Administration's attempt to limit immigration and admittance of refugees.

Within the draft issued last week, neither "Nashville" nor "Tennessee" nor any governments, consulates or international businesses or executives with ties here are mentioned as potential leverage for the VU internationalization campaign.

Geography does get a nod, however, when the authors note that "...as a national university located in the South, we have an historic opportunity to provide intellectual diversity and engagement that can serve as [a] model for our region, nation, and world."

The ISWG asserts that VU is likely to realize the greatest gains by executing the following strategic initiatives "in lockstep":

Establishing a global-engagement institute commissioned to lead the internationalization push. The institute should have a director, as well as funding to make strategic investments in international research and scholarship; to host and convene events; and, to make "seed grants and to rapidly invest in strategic, time-sensitive opportunities..." Thematic and geographic "communities of interest" would also influence prioritization of support for faculty proposals. The ISWG also said it sees the institute as serving as an "incubator" of innovation and as a partner with the VU vice provost for research, a post now held by Padma Raghavan PhD. Other goals include developing international grants opportunities, particularly in China, Europe and other nations and regions in which VU has academic relationships in-place, and with institutions where VU has ties, such as CERN in Switzerland and the World Health Organization.

Launching a "targeted" Global Fellows program to serve as host for more international visitors and graduate students.

Fostering international research efforts university-wide by introducing related metrics in performance assessments of key academic officials and Administration units; encouraging consideration of "academic and strategic upsides" in allocating support; and, by remedying "administrative processes that are especially cumbersome for international work." Neglecting such impediments risks VU being perceived as "provincial" by external observers, while hampering "innovative global work" within the university, according to the draft.

Mounting a "comprehensive, university-wide international and media outreach strategy," drawing upon Media, Development and Alumni Relations units.

The provisional document stressed, in part, "Vanderbilt must have a robust and dynamic global profile in order to keep pace with our national competitors."

Much of the Media outreach effort in response to this finding would fall into the bailiwick of Steve Ertel, who became VU vice chancellor for communications earlier this year.

The ISWG said they'd like more exposure for VU research in such prominent media as The Financial Times, The Economist, LeMonde, Der Spiegel and others.

VU is also eager to raise its standing in international rankings of universities, thus the ISWG also suggested that VU consider retaining an outside advisor to accelerate improvement "in the short-term."

There is no hint in the draft as to whether that potential advisor might be a major PR firm, a specialist in institutional reputation management or some other species. Among worrisome rankings cited by the ISWG were those of QS, which tagged VU at 203 globally. London-based QS also offers reputational consulting services.

The ISWG asserts that VU tends to rank higher nationally and internationally on ratings that place more weight on such factors as frequency of publications, scholarly citations and international awards.

In the 2017 U.S. News & World Report domestic National University Rankings, VU tied for 15th alongside Cornell, Rice, and Notre Dame.

Meanwhile, in the current USNWR Global university rankings, VU is 63rd, while rankings of "comparable and exemplary" peers cited by ISWG are Washington University (26), Duke University (19), University of Pennsylvania (17), Johns Hopkins University (11) and Princeton University (8).

A number of of Vanderbilt's graduate and professional degree programs fared well again this year in that separate USNWR rating.

Previously announced members of the ISWG are:

  • Ted Fischer, co-chair, professor of anthropology and Medicine, Health and Society, College of Arts and Science;
  • Ingrid Wuerth, co-chair, Helen Strong Curry Professor of International Law, Law School;
  • Joy Calico, professor of musicology, Blair School of Music;
  • Roger Colbran, interim chair and professor of molecular physiology and biophysics, School of Medicine
  • Xiu Cravens, associate dean for international affairs, Peabody College;
  • Steven Goodbred, professor of Earth and environmental sciences, College of Arts and Science;
  • Carolyn Heinrich, professor of public policy and education, Peabody College;
  • Debra Jeter, professor of accounting, Owen Graduate School of Management
  • David Kosson, Cornelius Vanderbilt Professor of Engineering, School of Engineering;
  • Jose Medina, professor of philosophy, College of Arts and Science;
  • Moses Ochonu, professor of history, College of Arts and Science;
  • Leong Seow, Distinguished Professor of Hebrew Bible and Vanderbilt, Buffington, Cupples Professor of Divinity, Divinity School; and
  • Muktar Aliyu, associate professor of health policy, School of Medicine.

The ISWG's draft, dated May 16, 2017, is here.

The ISWG said that in working to allow each VU faculty member at least two opportunities to have input into its work, they obtained 571 faculty survey responses, and held town hall meetings and faculty brainstorming luncheons, among numerous other efforts to canvass the faculty and department and program heads.

The group's work has been undertaken as part of the implementation phase of the process that in mid-2014 produced VU's current Academic Strategic Plan. VNC

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