Should the University of North Carolina enhance its “global brand”?

Over the past two years, the University of North Carolina has been implementing recommendations laid out by the General Administration and Board of Governors in their 2013 report, “Our Time, Our Future: the UNC Compact with North Carolina.” For example, the system has streamlined the transfer process for students going from community colleges to UNC and defined “core competencies” that all graduates should possess.

One proposal now being reviewed by the Board of Governors seeks to boost UNC’s international reach and enhance its “global brand.” It calls for $400,000 of new annual state funding to help link students, faculty, and staff with regions “critical to the state’s economic and strategic future,” namely China, India, Brazil, Mexico, and Africa. Building those relationships, the report states, would “prepare students to succeed in the global economy.”

The administration’s desire to promote more international relationships, however, has not evoked much interest (or funding) in the legislature. And the Board of Governors—which is more conservative than the one that wrote the 2013 report—may not be all that enthusiastic, either. But does it matter? International relationships appear to be thriving. 

Efforts by the UNC system to expand international partnerships and global engagement began in earnest in 2007. Then-UNC president Erskine Bowles and then-chairman of the Board of Governors, Jim Phillips, commissioned a group of 28 leaders in business, higher education, and government to figure out how the university could “respond more directly and proactively to the 21st century challenges facing North Carolina.” The UNC Tomorrow Commission report recommended, among other things, enhancing students’ critical thinking and writing skills, increasing study abroad opportunities, and “incorporating global awareness into the general education curriculum.”

In 2012, President Tom Ross and eight Board of Governors members traveled to China to consult with China’s educational and government leaders and to reach out to UNC alumni living there.

And in 2013, students, faculty, and officials across the UNC system met at the “UNC-India Summit” in Chapel Hill to discuss the growing economic influence of India and the role that the UNC system should play in terms of fostering alliances there. Board of Governors member Hari Nath played a pivotal role at that summit and for years has been a champion of UNC outreach to India. “Because India is becoming more important economically, people in the U.S. need to learn more about India. The environment is pregnant for partnership—through student and faculty exchange, research, and collaboration,” said Nath at the 2013 summit.

To help the board get a handle on how to move forward on “internationalization,” last month the General Administration’s Office of International, Community and Economic Engagement presented the board with an in-depth report on UNC’s international activity. The first such report since 2005, “Global Connections: UNC and the World” adopts many of the recommendations in “Our Time, Our Future.” Written by the office’s director, Leslie Boney, it provides a comprehensive review of the international relations of the UNC universities.

It reports that in 2012-13 roughly 6,000 students across the UNC system studied abroad, with almost fifty percent traveling to Western Europe. However, at about half of UNC schools, fewer than one percent of the student population participated in such programs. The top two foreign languages in the system are Spanish and French, and of the 9,000 international students who came to UNC schools last year, more than 50 percent came from China and India.

The report encourages more partnerships with countries outside of Western Europe. For example, the report lauds Fayetteville State University’s dual degree collaborations with several Chinese universities (through those collaborations, students can earn degrees from both FSU and one of the Chinese schools). Those collaborations, which were created prior to 2007’s UNC Tomorrow Commission, originated in part because a faculty member had colleagues and research interests at one of the Chinese universities.

Boney praises East Carolina University as a “national pioneer” for offering online “Global Understanding” courses, taken jointly by students from ECU and students around the world. ECU’s project began in 2003 after faculty members discovered that only 2 percent of ECU students had study abroad experiences.

The report also heralds system-level initiatives such as, a website designed a couple of years ago to attract international students, and the UNC Exchange Program, based at UNC-Greensboro. That program helps UNC institutions and international schools arrange and manage student exchanges (whereby UNC students study at sister schools in other countries for one semester while students at the sister schools study at UNC). There’s also the Center for International Understanding, part of UNC’s General Administration. It focuses largely on K-12 teacher training and helps to run the controversial Confucius Classrooms, which teach Chinese culture and language (some believe that such classrooms are propagandistic).

Economic development is also emphasized in the new report. The report states that in North Carolina last year, 30 percent of new investment was foreign investment, and that 200,000 North Carolinians now work for foreign-owned companies. The implication is that a failure to boost “global competency” will leave college graduates ill-prepared for the modern job market. “North Carolina exports totaled close to $30 billion in 2013. Imports totaled about $50 billion. Exports are increasing substantially, in part with UNC’s help. But the world still knows more about how to sell to us than we do to them,” the report warns.

In an e-mail, President Ross and Vice President Boney stressed the importance of engaging with geographic regions outside of Western Europe, currently the most popular region for students interested in study abroad programs, foreign language courses, and other international coursework. Ross and Boney want to promote partnerships with China, India, Brazil, and Mexico because of the huge economic influence of those countries.

“The reality is that UNC’s efforts to internationalize further will likely fail unless they are seen as part of a larger state commitment to join and succeed in the ‘coopetition’ for success in the global economy,” states Vice President Boney in the latest report. “Opportunity is open for North Carolina to [build off of its] history of bringing together business, government and education in a ‘triple helix’ of collaboration.”

Despite the urgency of the report and the enthusiasm of Ross, Boney, the General Administration, and some Board of Governors members, it’s not likely that $400,000 of recurring funding will be set aside for this proposal anytime soon.

The board’s Educational Planning, Policies and Programs Committee chairman, Craig Souza, says he’d like to convene a small group of committee members to review the latest report and consider possible future actions; however, the legislature has not appropriated money for this proposal, nor has the proposal been included in the board’s 2015-2017 budget priorities.

At the moment, it looks like “internationalization” supporters will have to view the latest reports more as statements of guiding principles than as concrete policy mandates.

But that may not prove to be damaging to UNC’s overall “global engagement.” Academics continue to foster international collaborations, foreign investment and businesses continue to come to North Carolina, and students continue to have a myriad of foreign language options, international courses, and student exchange programs to choose from. The University of North Carolina is far from isolated.