Good and bad ways to globalize Columbia

Universities function in a world that is increasingly integrated on many dimensions. Economic globalization continues in regard to international trade, short-term capital flows, multinationals which constitute equity investments, cross-border flows of humanity, and transfer and sale of technology. Cultural globalization occurs through internet, television, and movies. Both forms of globalization are intensifying on a scale hitherto unimaginable.

Evidently, universities cannot ignore these dramatic changes. Our curricula have already been affected. In economics, my primary field, the effect is seen dramatically in the fact that the old division between closed-economy and open-economy models has given way to open-economy models in whatever courses we give. We also are witness to the fact that far greater importance now attaches to courses on international macroeconomics and on international trade.

There are also added courses now being given regarding several aspects of globalization. I myself have been giving a very popular, and now more salient, course for many years to economics and School of International and Public Affairs students on trade, aid, foreign investment, migration and other elements of globalization, and their implications for developmental policies.

When it became increasingly clear that many civil-society groups were concerned instead with the implications of globalization, chiefly trade and multinationals, for “social” issues such as gender equality and rights, the environment, poverty in the poor and the rich countries, child labor, democracy, mainstream and indigenous cultures, my response was to take up the challenge and write the book “In Defense of Globalization” (Oxford, 2004). It was hugely successful because it uniquely and sympathetically examined many civil-society fears of this kind. These are all issues that variously concern those who are interested in questions of “social justice.” These issues now inform my courses.

Yet another way in which increasing globalization should properly impact our universities has to be through the two classic functions of a university: teaching and (high-quality) research. Universities today, and Columbia is no exception, are opening themselves increasingly to an influx of foreign students at all levels and encouraging our own students to spend some time studying abroad. When I received an Honorary Degree from the University of Hyderabad (now India’s highest-ranked university), I was delighted to see two young Columbia undergraduates (one who had worked at the Spectator!) at the reception afterwards—they were studying there on an exchange program. Columbia has also entered into a splendid collaborative program with the London School of Economics and Sciences-Po in Paris to facilitate exchanges of their top-notch faculties.

But, contrasted with these achievements, some serious questions have arisen regarding our other responses to globalization. In particular, two issues need examination.

First, should globalization also involve Columbia getting involved in pedestrian, consultancy projects abroad? These may marginally benefit the countries doing the consulting, but surely they are better off if they are advised instead by McKinsey, Boston Consulting Group, etc., which have a far better track record of producing outstanding policy-oriented Reports than university-based consulting groups like the Harvard Institute for International Development, which was so badly managed that it also wound up compromising Harvard’s good name when it got tainted by scandal and a lawsuit against Harvard.

Second, such “entrepreneurial” activities abroad, under the formal auspices of Columbia, inevitably embroil Columbia in local politics because the ambition to play a role in these countries, and perhaps to get political support from these governments in achieving other ambitions by mutual exchange of encomiums, will often lead to the kind of situation that arose when the Ethiopian Prime Minister was recently invited under the World Leaders Forum. Here was a leader, widely accused by the Ethiopian intelligentsia of human rights abuses, who had been cultivated with incredibly gushing tributes by Professor Jeffrey Sachs of the Earth Institute—encomiums by Professor Stiglitz were also circulated by the outraged Ethiopians—and unfortunately President Lee Bollinger’s WLF website also carried similar endorsements (because the well-meaning President Bollinger obviously cannot micro-manage these things).

Clearly, a distinguished university should not globalize in this way. It cannot prevent its faculty from doing low-level consultancies and political kowtowing. But it must take care to disengage itself from such activities by asking such faculty to always enter a disclaimer that these are NOT being sponsored or backed by Columbia.

Also, when unpalatable leaders are invited to the campus, as they occasionally will and should be, the drill must be that they should be informed that there will be a formal discussant who will be permitted to make dissenting commentary. If the leader does not seek to come under that rule, so be it. President Bollinger’s decision to critique the Iranian President was well-meaning and has prompted the Ethiopians to ask why he did not do the same thing with the Ethiopian Prime Minister. But surely this cannot be the model: It led to many protests on the campus itself.

The author is a university professor in law and economics.

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