Higher-Ed Superpower

By David Ignatius
Friday, March 9, 2007

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- When people think about American power in the world, they usually list the country's forbidding arsenal of bombers, aircraft carriers and troops. Yet America's greatest strategic asset these days might not be its guns but its universities.

Higher education is arguably the last area in which the United States dominates the world. We're discovering the limits of military power in Iraq, the pressures of economic competition from China and India, the vulnerability of our financial markets to sudden changes abroad. But in this globalized world, American universities remain the gold standard. And thanks to aggressive university presidents, they are widening their lead.

America's great universities are in fact becoming global. They are the brand names for excellence -- drawing in the brightest students and faculty and giving them unparalleled opportunities. This is where the openness and freewheeling diversity of American life provide us a huge advantage over tighter, more homogeneous cultures. We give people the freedom to think and create -- and prosper from those activities -- in ways that no other country can match.

This "education power" may be the best long-term hope for dealing with U.S. troubles abroad. Global polls show that after the Iraq debacle, the rest of the world mistrusts America and its values. But there is one striking exception to this anti-Americanism, and that is education. American-style universities, colleges and schools are sprouting up around the world.

I got to thinking about American education during a visit to the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, where I listened to two prominent Iranian-born scholars, Vali Nasr and Ray Takeyh, try to explain what's happening in Tehran. From its founding in 1978, the Kennedy School has seen itself as a resource for the world. The new U.N. secretary general, Ban Ki Moon, was a student here in the 1980s. When he arrived, he announced that his nickname was "JFK," which stood for "Just from Korea."

Graham Allison, the school's founding dean, says, "I can't go to any country and not find some Kennedy School graduates in the cabinet." This academic year, Harvard has 3,821 foreign students from 131 countries in its various schools, with 403 from China, 269 from South Korea and 193 from India.

America's other great universities are pursuing a similar vision of internationalization. Yale's president, Rick Levin, has more than quadrupled the percentage of foreign undergraduates since he took charge in 1993, and he has created an extensive exchange program with China's top university. Levin also has tapped Yale's professional schools to create special programs that, for example, help Japanese officials study demographic trends, instruct officials from the United Arab Emirates in management and teach Chinese officials about the rule of law. And by 2008, he wants every graduating Yale senior to have spent some time overseas in a university-approved program.

"If we do one thing to change the political direction of America, it will be to create leaders with an understanding that we have an interdependent planet," says Levin.

Columbia has embarked on its own effort to create a global university. It has 4,634 foreign students, or 18.6 percent of its total enrollment, the second-highest number in the country after the University of Southern California. Columbia's president, Lee Bollinger, is drafting an outreach plan to create research centers in Jordan, Tanzania, India, China, France and Latin America. The first such Columbia center, in Jordan, will work with the Jordanian government on reforming the country's educational system, creating what could be a model for the Muslim world.

It's a two-way opportunity, says Bollinger. "Everybody is recognizing that we do not have enough expertise about the world. At the same time, we really are the shining light in higher education," with a system that encourages creativity and free thinking.

What worries these university presidents is that at a time when the world's best and brightest are still hungry for an American education, U.S. immigration regulations are making it too hard for students to come here. That's shooting ourselves in the foot.

Pentagon generals are always bragging about their "smart bombs," which sometimes go wide of the target. American education is a smart bomb that actually works. When we think about the foreign outreach efforts by these university presidents and dozens of others, we should recognize that they are a national security asset -- making the world safer, as well as wiser.

davidignatius@washpost.com


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