Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Climate for Innovation

The following guest post is from my friend and colleague Bryan McAllister-Grande who is currently at Doctoral Candidate at Harvard Graduate School of Education and an Advisor for Global Affairs at Brandeis University.

Two years ago, at NAFSA’s Annual Conference in Kansas City, a group of international educators presented a new award to Josef Mestenhauser, professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota. The “Award for Innovative Research and Scholarship in Internationalization” -- now an annual peer-reviewed process -- is meant to honor contributions to a comprehensive, learning-centered approach to internationalization, an approach that Mestenhauser helped pioneer. Professor Mestenhauser has been gracious to serve on the selection committee for this new award, which was recently given to Bruce La Brack of the University of the Pacific.

Last fall, Mestenhauser published his magnum opus, an 160-page monograph based on his lectures at Minnesota. This book covers, roughly, the entirety of his career and thought. It critically examines the whole field, offering new interpretations of “culture,” research, student learning, education abroad, and learning for international students. Yet, it has not received much attention or debate. Part of the reason must be because it is only available on and has not been marketed in the usual circles. In addition, Mestenhauser’s work has always been considered complex, given his highly philosophical style, and many practitioners are not given ample time to read and review new work in the field – especially at the theoretical level.

But these two reasons can’t fully explain the silence on this book. Other scholars who work at the theoretical level have received comparatively much deeper attention. I wonder if there are other reasons, too, that speak to the current climate for innovation in internationalization.

Mestenhauser’s book arrives at a somewhat odd time for international education. On the one hand, the field seems to be expanding at an unbelievable rate, with more and more people claiming stake to the work. On the other, academics are questioning whether internationalization is reaching an “end,” a “mid-life crisis,” or is simply an empty fad. Jane Knight argues that all the attention given to internationalization has led to some “unintended consequences” – competition, elitism, market-driven priorities, and downgraded quality. The International Association of Universities recently released a statement entitled “Rethinking Internationalization”, which asks, “Has internationalization lost sight of its central purposes?” and aims to convene a global working group.

Meanwhile, on campuses, budgets are being cut, resources are being redirected, and some faculty are questioning the attention being given to initiatives deemed ‘outside’ the central campus mission of teaching and research. At the University of Wisconsin-Madison – a noted leader in global education – a faculty group recommended to dissolve a central Division of International Studies favor of a more diffused approach. The faculty did not repudiate internationalization as a goal, but they did question the motives and the process.

International education has no chance of dying out in today’s global world – but have we lost a sense of purpose and common goals?

When a group feels threatened (even somewhat unconsciously), the tendency is to retreat into familiar, stable, and comfortable positions. True innovation is at risk. Even the recent trend in higher education toward online education and open courseware, while seemingly innovative, seems like a retreat to a comfortable and marketable position. Similarly, I wonder how much “space” there is for international educators to innovate in this climate. When divisions of international studies are dissolved and internationalization is questioned, radicals and critics like Mestenhauser are more apt to be ignored, or pushed off to be tackled ‘later,’ in favor of more positive and conformist arguments.

After all, Mestenhauser does not so much criticize faculty and students and universities in general, but rather turns a mirror on the field itself. While acknowledging many improvements in theoretical rigor and practice since the founding of NAFSA, he still finds the field conceptually bereft. (He cites more publications from the 1950s and 60s than he does from the contemporary literature.) The prominence of current research on “global competence,” for instance, comes under attack for being superficial, as do singular studies on education abroad and international students. Most importantly, Mestenhauser deems the field’s understanding of “culture” to be limited and partial, if not itself culture-bound.

Of course, there is another issue: our field is overwhelmingly collegial and friendly, and we are not used to the usual academic peer review, which can be harsh and judgmental. I wonder if Mestenhauser’s particular mode of criticism is, again, out of place with a general tendency toward collaboration and sharing “best practices” versus theoretical debate. But can’t and shouldn’t we have both?

What do others think?  Do you find examples of true innovation in the field, and in what ways?  What qualifies as innovation in our field? What are the barriers to innovation, both apparent and hidden? Does innovation come from the sharing of best practices and collaboration, or also from healthy critique and debate and academic-style peer review?

NAFSA’s Review of Global Studies Literature (an online compilation of book reviews and essays of literature in the field, for which I serve as a co-editor) is also considering a forum on this general topic of ‘critiques of internationalization,’ and we would welcome diverse thoughts on Mestenhauser’s book as well as general ideas for reviewing recent critiques in a variety of topic areas. In addition, the next Call for Nominations is available for the 2013 Award for Innovative Research and Scholarship in Internationalization. Please consider nominating someone (or yourself) who has made a crucial and important contribution to the dialogue on how we approach our work.

Bryan McAllister-Grande
Doctoral Candidate, Harvard Graduate School of Education and Advisor for Global
Affairs, Brandeis University


  1. Thank you for the courage to raise these questions prompted by your reading of Mestenhauser. I would only add that to criticize commonly-held tenets in international education today is considered heresy. And, this adds to the disconnect between faculty who seek these critical perspectives and those administrators who put forward concepts in higher ed such as intercultural dialoque, mutual understanding, or comprehensive internationalization without rethinking the assumptions of these ideas.

    I think that innovation will require this level of rethinking of our assumptions.

  2. I’ve personally always just found it interesting that people in general sing the praises of international education, but as soon as the question of “how do we finance it?” is raised, the general populace quiets. You can’t have free development, but it’s really a question about value. I think the majority forgets this, and it, in addition to the possibility that the venture itself has lost focus, has made things difficult, without question.

    1. I agree with your stance on the issue of value. I recently returned from Italy, and in many of these smalller, rural towns, there is not even a local high school, let alone a university. I believe that international education is vital to the development of opportunities for these resident children to participate in higher education. The vitality of education in these small towns depends on the continuance and growth of international education.

  3. Thank you for the provocative post and review of Mestenhauser's work. I've downloaded his book and look forward to digesting it. Many of your concerns and points - the need to more rigorously examine learning models, the concern with marketization - are themes we're wrestling with too. Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts here.

    1. It seems that knowledge about the importance of international education may be part of the problem. It is difficult to buy into a concept if all benefits are not understood. This may be a great topic for professional development opportunities; educating educators, and preparing them for the global shift in education.

      I am researching the state of the professional development of educators in the United States (it is very different abroad). What feedback does anyone have related to time allotted to teachers for professional development and opportunity provided by employers for substantial professional development programs. I am an adult educator, but am also interested in the differences between professional development in higher Ed versus K-12, so all comments are welcome.

  4. Bravo! We at Melibee Global are committed to changing the conversation about the "elephant in the room" in IE and this blog post is very much in line with our philosophy. Somewhere, schools/orgs lost sight of what the initial goals around int'l ed were. I liken it to what is going on with health care in this country: someone created an idea to make a business to help others around insurance and we've now created a beast that we can't manage with exorbitant fees and questionable ethics. We all have GREAT intentions, but if we are accidentally creating stereotypes by decreasing focus on program design and increasing focus on profits and % of students going abroad - then what are we REALLY teaching? Melibee is working on a free tool for educators to change the conversation about this subject...we hope to launch it (with its own website) in September and a link to this blog post will be included as an important resource to challenging the status quo. David and Bryan, I applaud you both for putting it all out there. Keep it up!

  5. Bryan - as always, you are extremely insightful. I do think we need to bring these discussions as a professional and academic base. However, I am not 100% sure I agree with you that "International education has no chance of dying out in today’s global world." Indeed, there will always be individuals interested in 'international', but I fear the same cannot be said of institutions. The existence on the periphery has not only led to marginalization of interests, but of power as well. The lack of choices, the lack of presence, and the lack of overall support define more institutions than not, and remains, as you noted, extremely problematic. Excellent blog !

  6. Bryan and David and others,

    I have just started to follow your blogs as of June, 2012.

    Perhaps, it depends on what type of field and the need for internalization that drives innovation. As a Speech-Language Pathologist and an active member of the American Speech-Hearing-Language Association (ASHA), I have read about students going over to countries to set up low tech communication devices and provide speech and language services to villages in South America,Eastern Europe,and Asia.

    As a parent of a son who participates in an international business scholars program that sends their students abroad to France, Germany, and Switzerland, I agree that "International education has no chance of dying in today's global world." As my son approaches graduation, he is investigating possible opportunities in Japan for further academic and work opportunities. This may be a possible for him because higher education in Japan is beginning to think beyond international student mobility due to "a demographic decline of 18-year-olds and a rapidly growing economy" which appears to be reshaping "Japan's rationale and approaches to international education" (Hieroshi Ota blog, April, 2012 at

    For both cases, there was a need in these countries for innovation.

    Enjoyed this blog.

  7. Thank you for your informative and provocative posting on International Innovation. I agree that International Education has not chance of dying, but believe that it is in a period of reflection and re-definition. The rapid growth of the Internet and easier access to international experiences both through the Internet and a broader acknowledgement of cultural and diversity has changed the landscape in the world we live. Understanding and defining international innovation will be a ladder approach with step-by-step changes that transform the definition of a global working group.

    Julie Gallanty