Harvard Without Borders

As the presidential search committee combs the world for Faust's successor, some say that Harvard’s potential as a global university should weigh heavily on their minds.
By Sonia Kim

By Elena Ramos

This is part VI in a six-part series on Harvard's next president. Part I can be read here, part II can be read here, part III can be read here, part IV can be read here, and part V can be read here.

In her ten years at Harvard’s helm, University President Drew G. Faust has traveled the world. But as her tenure comes to a close, one trip stands out in her mind: her visit to Vietnam earlier this year, roughly half a century after the height of the Vietnam War.

There, Faust chatted with the country’s prime minister, paid her respects at a Vietnamese military cemetery in Ap Bac, and gave a speech to a standing-room-only crowd in Ho Chih Minh City. A Southern history scholar by trade, Faust drew parallels between the enduring scars of the Civil War in the United States and the Vietnam War there.

Apart from reflecting on Vietnam’s history, though, Faust also took stock of the role Harvard is actively playing to shape its future. Fulbright University Vietnam—one stop on Faust’s busy itinerary—grew out of a Kennedy School master’s program, and has flourished with the University’s support.

"I just thought, ‘Wow, Harvard really was instrumental in helping this nation figure out how to get on the path to prosperity and growth that it’s so dynamically on right now.’ And that was just really exciting to see,” Faust said in November.

From Botswana to Brazil, Harvard has both broadened and deepened its international commitments under Faust. And as the presidential search committee combs the world for her successor, some say that Harvard’s potential as a global university should weigh heavily on their minds.

On the one hand, Harvard has opened research centers and offices in regions around the world over the past decade, including new outposts in Tunisia, South Africa, and India. In 2015, Faust oversaw the creation of the Harvard Global Institute, which convenes students and faculty across the University to foster collaboration with international scholars. The Global Advisory Council—a continent-spanning body of alumni started by Corporation member David M. Rubenstein—has raised millions to support international initiatives in Faust’s capital campaign, a tentpole of her legacy.

University President Drew G. Faust talks with Corporation member David M. Rubenstein at an event in Washington, D.C. in April.
University President Drew G. Faust talks with Corporation member David M. Rubenstein at an event in Washington, D.C. in April. By Leah S. Yared

“This was another sort of ‘One University, One World’ strategy—and this group has been extraordinarily successful and enormously helpful,” Faust said of the Council in November.

On the other hand, though, Harvard has long been reticent to establish a satellite campus abroad—a step a number of its peer institutions have already taken. Though Faust has said Harvard seeks to be intentional in its overseas expansion effort, some wonder if the University’s global strategy is deliberate enough in comparison to its peer schools’ engagement overseas.

As Harvard searches for a leader to articulate the school’s international plans, some, like Vice Provost for International Affairs Mark C. Elliott, hope the next decade will see the University’s worldwide presence amplified.

“I am hopeful that the next president will continue to support the continued growth of the university’s global reach, as Drew Faust has done particularly these days when there are louder voices calling for walls to be built, and for free movement of talent to be curtailed which is a threat to the university’s existence,” he said.

‘Think Globally, Act Locally’

Yale has a campus in Singapore, and New York University has one in Dubai. Duke opened a campus in Kunshan, China in 2013. And at the “Education City” complex in Qatar, students can study in programs operated by Cornell, Georgetown, and Northwestern.

But unlike its peers, Faust has said, Harvard has no such plans to open any international campuses. “What we really wanted to do internationally was to have our students and faculty be part of the community and the nation in which they found themselves, rather than be a part of an artificial Harvard-imposed community in another country,” Faust said.

“Think globally, act locally,” is the University’s mantra when it comes to overseas expansion, Elliott agreed. Rather than opening up its own branch campuses in other countries, Harvard prefers to support its own smaller regional offices or partner with other local universities.

A sampling of Harvard's international offices and centers.
A sampling of Harvard's international offices and centers. By Derek K. Choi

That doesn’t mean that Harvard has been slacking on the international front, said Todd Washburn, Harvard’s senior assistant provost for international affairs. As result of Harvard’s historically decentralized structure, Washburn said, its international endeavors may not always be widely recognized.

“Our global activity is managed at the local level, at the school level, at the center level, at the department level, at the level of the individual faculty member or the students in some cases,” said Washburn. “But Harvard at the institutional level is not making one single big bet or big investment, so it’s sometimes hard for people to see all that the University is doing internationally.”

Under Faust, the University has established outposts in Dubai, Tunis, and Shanghai, among other cities. According to the Office of the Vice Provost for International Affairs, the school also plans to open an office affiliated with the South Asia Institute in Delhi, India later this year.

Over the last few years, Harvard has placed special emphasis on building stronger connections with Asia. The Global Institute’s first initiative, through the Harvard Center in Shanghai, dedicated $3.75 million to supporting climate change research in China. In March, Faust traveled to Southeast Asia, visiting national leaders, educators, alumni, and students in Singapore and Vietnam.

From Cambridge, too, Harvard has sought to make courses available to a global audience. While having physical presence abroad is one important pillar of global outreach, the development of HarvardX has also made high-quality courses accessible around the world online, said Martin Puchner, an English and Comparative Literature professor.

‘The World’s International University’?

Harvard enjoys worldwide name recognition—according to the World University Rankings, a survey conducted by the Times of London, it’s the planet’s most reputable school. This international prominence, some say, calls for a leader willing to step up as a global figure.

Rye M. Barcott '09, an elected director of the Harvard Alumni Association, emphasized the need for the president to undertake a dual leadership role both at home and abroad, representing higher education on the international stage.

“We shouldn’t forget that for the vast majority of the world, a college degree is still inaccessible and there’s tremendous growth overseas in education,” Barcott said. “We need to keep in mind hiring someone who has the skills to lead locally, but also globally.”

Jack O. Bovender—the chair of Duke University’s board of trustees who also led Duke’s recent presidential search—echoed this sentiment, noting that top universities have the responsibility to think in a “global sense” and “not just in a local, U.S.-only kind of way.”

University President Drew G. Faust with President of China Xi Jinping in 2015.
University President Drew G. Faust with President of China Xi Jinping in 2015. By Courtesy of Harvard Public Affairs and Communications

Harvard’s next leader will also have to deal with increasing worldwide competition for higher education as a result of globalization, Elliott said. “But,” he added, “it’s not a zero-sum game, because more and more people are seeking higher ed.”

At home, under a presidential administration whose policies threaten the ability of foreign scholars to come to the United States, Faust’s successor will have to advocate for the rights of international students—nearly ten thousand of whom currently attend Harvard.

“We face a very real risk that students and scholars from all corners of the globe may no longer see Harvard and other U.S. universities as attractive places to pursue their studies,” Faust told faculty members in March, shortly after President Donald Trump signed a second travel ban.

And, said Divinity School professor Davíd Carrasco, the next president will also have to focus on recruiting faculty who represent a globalizing world.

“Harvard wants to be the world’s international university and it’s not,” said Carrasco. “It’s still a regional university, and it’s good to be a regional university, but it has to be stronger in its own regions.”

Carrasco added that Faust’s successor will have to build upon Harvard’s local foundations by working with organizations like the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, one of the oldest cultural centers on campus.

Puchner said he thinks the next president can create more initiatives to extend the University’s global reach in the humanities, especially as “globalization is not just an economic issue, but a cultural one too.”

“I think humanities has a lot to contribute with its study of the deep DNAs of different parts of the world,” Puchner said. “I hope that in Harvard’s global strategy that will play an important role.”

Reflecting on the course of her tenure, Faust said, Harvard’s “energy” for international initiatives has only grown. And at a “Worldwide Week” event in late October, she again reiterated Harvard’s commitment to global outreach in an age where isolationist rhetoric is becoming more prominent.

“Harvard’s robust commitment to internationalism is not an incidental or dispensable accessory, but integral to all that the University does in the laboratory, classroom, and in the world,” Faust said.

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