Last month at NYU’s Tel Aviv campus, I participated in a conference on the future of global education. NYU is the only American university with its own campus in Israel, and to celebrate NYU Tel Aviv’s 10th anniversary, we brought together scholars from Israel, the United States and the United Arab Emirates.
Speaking with people in Israel — and in Washington, D.C., where I had participated in similar conversations just a few weeks earlier — two sentiments stood out. The first is that the interest in and commitment to global higher education initiatives is keen. The second is that the threats and challenges to global education are serious.
Let’s address the perils first. U.S. higher education’s global efforts are widely misunderstood, assumed to be launched for pecuniary reasons rather than academic. Some question if a liberal arts education can succeed in societies with more circumscribed personal and civic rights than is common in the West. And even as more American universities expand their presence abroad, we are in a period of increasing international tension: growing nationalism, strains on long-standing alliances and international conventions, new impediments to the mobility of scholars and students.
Heightened divisiveness is also an issue: Notwithstanding NYU’s repeated and unswerving commitment to academic exchange with Israel and the ongoing presence of our NYU Tel Aviv campus, calls for academic boycotts to close our program in Israel persist. And there are the unexpected and unpredictable threats: The day I left Israel to return to New York, NYU Tel Aviv students spent the day in their dormitory, confined due to the many missiles fired that day.
Still, speaking as someone who was educated in three countries and pursued his scientific career in a fourth, and who today is privileged to lead arguably the world’s most global university, what I experienced in Israel made me more hopeful about global education, not less. Here are some examples why: the archeological collaboration NYU has at Caesarea; the opportunity for our students to learn about Israel’s languages and its complex history and politics on the ground; the unique field trips, internships and volunteer opportunities. NYU is the only U.S. university with a campus in Israel, and I do not believe any of these developments would have emerged without a commitment to global education and engagement, including our presence in Tel Aviv. Global higher education is not a distraction from our academic mission, it is the fulfillment of it.
A few months ago, a prominent U.S. higher education publication had a piece that claimed that the “golden age” of global education was over.
I don’t think that’s right. I think that we are at the beginning of the global education movement, not the end. And it has taken many forms. NYU’s global network does not look exactly like what Yale has done. What Yale has done does not look exactly like what Duke has done. What Duke has done does not look exactly like what Tel Aviv University has done.
With different universities trying different approaches, the ultimate shape of global education is difficult to predict. Yet, even though these global initiatives do not share a common structure, they do share a common mission and some common understandings: that the liberal arts education is not a hothouse flower capable only of surviving when surrounded by the broadest set of liberties, but a hardier intellectual framework than that; that the presence of our campuses brings more freedom of speech and more free exchange of ideas, not less; and the key question universities have to answer for themselves is whether or not to engage the world through our physical presence.
At NYU, we have made that decision. And, as I said to my colleagues in Tel Aviv, I believe it’s one that is very much for the good.
Andrew Hamilton is a professor of chemistry, a Fellow of the Royal Society, and the 16th president of New York University.