Michael McRobbie

Opening doors to the world

Note: This guest column was submitted by Michael A. McRobbie, president, Indiana University. It appeared in U.S. News & World Report on February 13, 2017.

Just weeks after our nation's inauguration of a new president, strident voices, poorly executed programs and initiatives, and confusing messages, including at the highest levels of government, could easily shut us off from the world, just when the need to understand and engage with our global partners is at its most urgent.

The executive order issued recently that temporarily halted the admission of citizens and refugees from certain countries into the U.S.—which has now been put on hold by the judiciary—raises real and serious concerns about the treatment of current and future immigrants and refugees. Here at Indiana University, where we have a long history of international engagement dating back over a century, the order is also contrary to the very core of our values as an institution dedicated to excellence and innovation, a diversity of community and ideas, respect for the dignity of others and a commitment to addressing the major issues facing our state, nation and world.

I have been an American citizen for some time, but was born and raised in Australia. I share these origins with hundreds of other faculty members at my university, over 20 percent of whom are foreign born, which underscores how American universities derive their matchless strength from the world's best talent. I am also a first-generation college graduate, something I have in common with more than 25 percent of IU students who are the first in their families to go to college. These students, many of whom come from low-income and minority backgrounds, reflect the vital role that flagship public universities play in the democratization of American higher education, the concept of the "common good" and a culture of tolerance, integrity, inclusion and understanding.

History has too often shown us that wars, major global crises and the very collapse of civilizations and cultures can result from miscalculations based on international ignorance and xenophobia. Our country's colleges and universities must play a leading role in combating this.

There are probably no American institutions more widely admired and respected internationally than its great universities, which are living descendants of the most ancient and most enduring of human institutions. One of the first, Nalanda in India, was founded in the 6th century BCE, and existed for 17 centuries; Plato's legendary Academy in Athens lasted for nine.

Universities have always been truly international, with a tradition of opening their doors to the world, attracting scholars from every country and championing greater cultural and intellectual understanding, exchange and enrichment. At the same time, colleges and universities are dynamic institutions, reflecting the society and culture of their time and shaping those of the future. Our very foundations—gathering, creating, disseminating and exchanging knowledge and ideas—mean these institutions must constantly evolve.

Indeed, the responsibility of embracing openness to the world has been handed to us. It is an inextricable part of who we are. We are guardians of centuries of knowledge and culture that we transmit from one generation to the next, a constant through political, social and economic upheaval.

It is incumbent on American universities to remain steadfast in carrying out our original missions. It is no understatement to say that we are central to the very preservation and persistence of civilization.

This is not to imply we are perfect. We, too, have had to deal with difficult questions from others, including those within our own communities about action (or inaction) on many issues, including those related to freedom of expression. Such criticism is also in keeping with our history. Despite our best intentions, we will not always get things completely right in our pursuit of intellectual growth. And we certainly will not ever please everyone. Our job, instead, is to find the common ground and collaborations that keep open the pathways of discussion and, yes, dissent that lead to discovery benefiting all humanity.

We can achieve this by placing international literacy and experience at the very top of all that comprises a premier university education; making it possible for more students to study abroad not just for a few weeks, but for extended periods and in unfamiliar regions; strengthening diversity and inclusion on our campuses; supporting and encouraging faculty from all academic disciplines to engage internationally; and recognizing that the planet our graduates will inhabit will require more, not less, knowledge about the world.

In a world struggling to reconcile the effects of globalization, university students are the next generation of leaders. It is our responsibility to educate all of these students, regardless of their countries of origin, to help prepare them for active, engaged and committed citizenship, public service, and the building of civil society around the globe.