Fostering Academic Diplomacy

Mar 30 2012 - 1:57pm


Global competition among universities is on the increase, as indicated by the attention toward the publication of the 2012 Times World University Rankings. The reputations of the great American universities still go unchallenged, even if the competition now includes many universities beyond the restricted circle of traditional institutions in Western Europe, Japan, and the English-speaking countries (Canada, Australia, New Zealand). The 2007 international survey of the academic profession, a follow-up of the 1992 Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching’s international faculty survey, reveals the relative insularity of American faculty, in spite of the high global prestige of American higher education. The authors’ conclusion is that “while the American faculty remains among the most insular in the world, there is a significant—and modestly growing—segment of the academic profession in the U.S. that is integrating international perspectives into its teaching and research work and reaching out to international networks of colleagues worldwide in their research and publication.”
Traditionally, academic relations have been stronger within the U.S. or with countries with mature scientific communities (in particular within the English-speaking world). But the production and dissemination of new knowledge through research and innovation—or “knowledge production” for short—is changing rapidly, and that relative insularity does not serve the interests of a great university well. Columbia needs to become a global university. The Columbia Global Centers program is a response to the new paradigm arising from a global revolution in the world of knowledge production and transmission.
Great universities must rethink their place in the world as knowledge production has become more competitive but also more collaborative, enhancing their strategic location in international networks, facilitating cross-fertilization between their research and teaching within the growing diversity of key players in the global scene. The Global Centers program is an instrument that Columbia has designed to strengthen its competitiveness through the promotion of international collaboration across all its schools and academic programs in order to enhance Columbia’s comparative advantages in the world of knowledge production.
Knowledge production has radically changed in recent decades by becoming more collaborative. A century ago, co-authorship of scientific documents was a rarity, counting for about 10 percent of the total, while now it has become the rule—although this varies across disciplines—and the average number of co-authors tends to increase. Research collaboration enhances research impact. Citation frequency correlates with the number of co-authors, as it also does with collaboration between academy and industry and across nations: The larger the number of countries represented in a given publication, the greater its impact. A recent study by Gazni and Didegah shows that among all co-authored papers from Harvard faculty during the last decade, 31 percent involved international co-authorship and, on the average, received a larger amount of normalized mean citations than domestic collaborative publications.
A globally more balanced distribution of knowledge production has gone hand in hand with the widening of international collaborative efforts among all scientific powers. A major example comes from the European agreements responsible for strengthening cross-border academic relations that have benefited all. In Germany, for instance, research publications with international co-authorship have sharply increased and are also associated with a higher citation index. According to academic Maria Joao Rodrigues, the relatively weaker Southern European academic communities have strengthened through collaboration. A major revolution is taking place among the so-called emerging economies: China, India, South Korea, Turkey, Iran, Brazil, and many others have increased significantly their share of global scholarly production, while the U.S.—still the largest world science power—Western Europe, and Japan, are losing relative ground, according to NSF Science and Engineering Indicators.
One of the paradoxical effects of global knowledge is that, side by side with the adoption of English as the major international language of science, the proportion of total scholarly production published in other languages is rapidly growing. The academic communities speak English across national boundaries but communicate in the national or regional language or languages for teaching and research and with the professional, business, and policy communities. The success of international collaboration lies in part with the ability of partners to nurture from the original perspectives and diversity of knowledge styles brewing within local and national communities.
The Global Centers program is a tool for change within Columbia. It fosters academic relations between Columbia and the rest of the world outside the U.S. It is strategic, choosing sites where there is already an important interest among Columbia faculty, where Columbia alumni are already active, and where local sources might be keen to contribute resources to collaborative agreements. It facilitates mobility of students and faculty in all directions and agreements for research and teaching across the board. The Global Centers program envisions a future with increased horizontal interaction across centers and regions, building research and teaching programs that may or may not originate in New York.
A version of this article appeared in the March 30, 2012 issue of the Columbia Daily Spectator. You can see the original here.