How to lead international HE in a volatile, uncertain world

Rhodes University's Director of Internationalisation, Orla Quinlan.
Rhodes University's Director of Internationalisation, Orla Quinlan.

By Orla Quinlan and Dr Darla Deardorff


The Global Leadership Summit held on 22 August in Durban, South Africa, brought together leaders of international education from numerous countries around the world to discuss the most pressing issues currently facing international higher education in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world.

Hosted and organised by the International Education Association of South Africa (IEASA) in partnership with the Association of International Education Administrators (AIEA), which works with senior leaders in international education, the Global Leadership Summit was the inaugural joint activity of these two professional associations.

Following a welcome from Dr Lavern Samuels, IEASA president, and Dr Jeet Joshee, AIEA president, the summit opened with a global keynote from Ramu Damodaran, deputy permanent observer of the intergovernmental University for Peace to the United Nations.

Perspectives on urgent climate action were shared by Dr Savo Heleta and Dr Samia Chasi, who challenged international educators to relook at the current extensive travel footprint, along with other harmful environmental practices, and to consider how leaders urgently need to approach internationalisation in a more sustainable way, particularly through sustainable partnerships and decolonised curricula.

A golden era of leadership

Keynote speaker Thandeka Gqubele-Mbeki, a journalist and author, shared her experience of working as a journalist with a South African broadcasting company and discussed the impact of unjust decisions that resulted in subsequent protests by journalists. It was ultimately a personal story about choices to be made and the price of ethical leadership in corrupt contexts.

She asked how leaders can give voice to the silenced and address the inequities between the haves and the have-nots. Gqubele-Mbeki spoke about the “golden era of African leadership”, referring to the post-colonial leaders who focused on the common good rather than personal greed. She challenged leaders to return to what it means to be human, to be vehemently anti-materialist, to reclaim the prominence of Africa, and to remake higher education institutions in an African likeness.

Considering the implications for universities, she suggested that “universities are often an extension tool of the governing elites. As such, we need to imagine what a post-colonial African university might look like.”

She spoke of the need “to excavate indigenous African epistemologies” as part of that reimagining project. Furthering mutual understanding and tolerance becomes key in African universities of the future, she said.

Throughout the summit, the need for leaders in international education to interrogate the dominant global narratives and combat the spread of hate was stressed.

Other themes included the recognition that context and history are key to the nature of appropriate leadership; the necessity for leaders to actively address justice, equity, diversity and inclusion in higher education; the need to challenge international relationships that reflect and perpetuate historical imbalances; the need to work better together as a continent; and the difficulty of promoting internationalisation of higher education in a “gated” world, with increasing obstacles (especially pertaining to visas) to accessing international education, especially for people from the Global South.

Personal leadership journeys

A panel of vice-chancellors and leaders reflected on their own journeys. Dr Esther Benjamin, CEO and executive director of World Education Services, spoke of how her family had overcome conflict and immigrated to the US to enable her to have an opportunity to be educated and take up several leadership roles.

Professor Hassan Omar Mahadallah, rector and vice-chancellor of Somali National University, challenged the idea of a global citizen as a well-educated, middle-class, mobile academic, who could fit in and work anywhere in the world, comparing it to his own conception of a global citizen as someone who can flee as a refugee, learn a new language, understand a new religion, adapt and survive in a completely unfamiliar environment.

“Western Machiavellian styles of leadership are frowned upon in North African contexts … Africa offers models of collective leadership that would be better for humanity. Ultimately, we need to revisit what it means to be human,” Mahadallah suggested, flagging the need for investment in the humanities in higher education.

Professor Evanilda Souza de Santana Carvalho, executive vice-rector at the State University of Feira de Santana, Brazil, shared her journey of coming from an indigenous background and having to lead in a male-dominated “white space”, working through a second language.

Sustainable internationalisation

Dr Stephen Appiah-Padi, director of the office of global and off-campus education at Bucknell University in the United States, provided a comparison and critique of recent definitions of internationalisation.

Dr Quinton Johnson, director of the international office at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, said excellence, transformation and sustainability, intersecting with human potential, are the three critical pillars of his university’s internationalisation model.

Dr Sonja Knutson, director of the internationalisation office at Memorial University of Newfoundland in Canada, explored issues of sustainability and succession planning in university environments.

Concerns included new university leaders as an opportunity for income generation rather than quality promotion. Sustainable international education needs to align with the core academic values of internationalisation and not just be about financial sustainability, she said.

The need for ethical and democratic internationalisation was a recurring theme throughout the summit. Dr Ivor Emmanuel, director of the international office at the University of California, Berkeley, shared a model of building academic excellence to enhance reputation, becoming a magnet attracting international students from all over the world.

Justice, equity, diversity and inclusion

Fazela Haniff, a former president of IEASA, and a diversity inclusion HR specialist consultant in higher education and the ACEI Global Consulting Group, provided some thought-provoking insights on the challenges of promoting justice, equity, diversity and inclusion in internationalisation in national contexts that are increasingly polarised, nationalistic and populist. “Are we prepared to do the hard work to ensure inclusivity?” Haniff asked. She said internationalisation needs to be seen as an investment and not as an expense.

Participants identified an urgent need to develop a pipeline of professional international education practitioners and leaders. The importance of professional development and advanced degrees to prepare the next generation was strongly emphasised as a means to mitigate against an anticipated gap between the current expertise and the need for informed and experienced international practitioners and leaders in the future.

Other recommendations included the need to consolidate resources and differentiate strengths in higher education institutions. The need for more interconnectedness between universities on the African continent was flagged as a priority, with suggestions of moving from bilateral to more multilateral partnerships across the Global South.

A panel facilitated by Professor Judy Peter from the Cape Peninsula University of Technology provided commentary on the leadership lessons of the day from leaders of eight of the world’s most active international education associations, including AIEA, the Association of International Educators, or NAFSA, and the Canadian Bureau of International Education, or CBIE, from North America; FAUBAI from Brazil; the European Association of International Education, the African Network on International Education and IEASA from Africa and the International Association of Universities, which has a global reach.

Members of the panel said they appreciated the difficult and challenging discussions about inequalities in international relationships.

The fact that IEASA and AIEA had brought together such a wide range of international education leaders to discuss the current issues was applauded. Ultimately, international education leaders agreed that they must be agents of change, promote and ensure human rights, and speak truth to power.

Orla Quinlan (Rhodes University), International Education Association of South Africa, and Dr Darla K Deardorff (Duke University), executive director of the Association of International Education Administrators, were programme directors of the Global Leadership Summit.

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