Remarks from the President of the University of Puerto Rico

Published in:

A National Symposium

November 21–22, 2014

University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras
San Juan, Puerto Rico

Since the dawn of the technological era a few decades ago, it has become common knowledge that the world has experienced a “downsizing,” that frontiers have “shrunk,” and that international culture has become a prevalent notion of today’s world. The rocketing advances in communications and transportation have changed the paradigm for good, creating the phenomenon of so-called “globalization,” which happens to be a sort of enhancement or intensification of world consciousness, a kind of all-prevailing universalism.

However, as more and more world issues become local issues, we dangerously approach the idea of unitary solutions or answers to world problems, while losing sight of the importance of having a broader perspective into otherness, into difference, into oddity, which is crucial when trying to make a right assessment of issues that affect everyone. Globalization, as this trend is commonly known, might become strong enough to force upon us “globalized” issues (global warming, for instance), making us disregard local issues more and more, which, more often than not, affect our lives even more directly than world issues do.

True, there are urgent global concerns that need to be addressed in an expeditious fashion. But these global concerns require a global approach, a concert of minds, which means bringing together people from diverse backgrounds and cultures, who think differently and have different perspectives, in order to pursue common solutions. If anything, the mindset transformation of the past years brought about by this global perspective should make us more aware of the differences than the similarities, of the variances than the coincidences. Rather than enforcing a unitary mentality, an exclusive “worldview,” and applying the rule of “follow suit,” globalization is actually about understanding the way different cultures approach common knowledge, and finding insights into these particular ways of thinking. This broader view, enriched by multiple points of view, but driven by the idea of finding a common ground for people from different lands, is what globalization is truly all about.

In many ways, universities have always been “global,” or rather “universal,” which was the word used before the technological revolution to name the international connectedness by which information became world knowledge. Through journals, papers, and specialized publications, through the process of identifying sameness as a means of understanding reality, analyzing ideas, and identifying distinctions, the academic endeavor has traditionally been rooted in the exchange of knowledge. Especially in the fields of science and mathematics, the whole academic system of international exchange of knowledge and empirical data previous to the one nowadays is at the heart of this revolution.

International connectedness and “universal issues” have always existed. The transcendental change has come in the means by which information is interchanged, and in the speed it moves. This means that knowledge is now more than ever available, but also more integrated and interdependent. This dramatic reduction of time and distance achieved by technology has had a profound effect in the academic cultivation of knowledge, which now involves, in many ways, a turning away from the traditional pursuit of sameness, and a movement towards the pursuit of otherness as a means of gaining new insight into knowledge and teaching.

Globalization is, therefore, a reality of the modern era that will not turn back, and one which the institutions of higher education around the world must acknowledge, both as a source of new ideas, of finding new ways of understanding reality and new solutions to common problems, and an issue that must be taken into account in order to remain competitive. The universities must therefore accept the international perspective as a challenge, as a source of new opportunities, and as a natural evolution of the academic endeavor.

But going global, an imperative for any institution of higher education today, is much more than just introducing international issues into the curriculum, sharing a common language (nowadays as much linguistic as symbolic), or making mainstream the rapid movement of knowledge and ideas. Going global, having a global perspective in the academic disciplines, has more to do with understanding what global culture means, with a mentality of acceptance, of tolerance, of openness towards what is different. It has to do with educating individuals for the world, individuals who can perform competitively anywhere, and who feel at ease with world culture and perspective, but who also cherish their own uniqueness and cultural individuality.

However, in order to become a realistic, fair, and encouraging approach to knowledge, understanding, and culture, global perspective must be presented in a context so as to not cause frustration or paralysis in students and faculty. Having a global perspective does not automatically mean having an international understanding of issues, or being tolerant with different people. Neither does having a global perspective mean that one belongs to a world opinion that includes everyone. It must be understood that a global perspective is not necessarily more important or relevant than a local or national perspective, but rather complementary.

A global perspective in higher education should rather be an instrument for understanding world issues, learning about world trends, and developing stronger local perspectives. It should move institutions of higher learning to fine-tune their offerings according to the kind of careers emerging in today’s world of interconnectedness, to where they are emerging, and to how best prepare students for it; it should move these learning institutions towards an increased international presence, and make them think about being a successful institution of higher learning in a world of intensified competiveness; and finally, it should move universities towards identifying which knowledge trends and research topics are more crucial to academic disciplines today, and which trends are more likely to create knowledge for the future. Since these institutions of higher education are the primary producers of the intellectual capital that a society needs not only to prosper, but to survive in times of globalization, more than ever they are the backbone of every nation or community. They must meet these challenges head-on by means of a strategic plan that increases the international reputation of the institution by further connecting students, faculty, and community, and by underlining the importance of developing an entrepreneurial culture. Both are key elements for developing new knowledge and commercializing that knowledge in a global context.

The University of Puerto Rico is aware of this reality and has made—and continues to make—important advances in the process of incorporating the international perspective as a basic component of its strategic plans. Higher education strategic planning must be geared to developing policies aimed at making the university itself, the institution as a whole, grow into a global campus and community, which will be the basic environment needed for faculty members and students to progress towards an international mindset. Second, it must include strategies to increase the dedication, motivation, and capacity of faculty members to educate truly internationally-focused students. And finally, but nonetheless most important, strategies should be directed at better guiding and educating students for the global environment, which means best preparing them to be real creators of new knowledge, as well as competitive entrepreneurs in the global market of ideas.

Our students of today are the workforce of tomorrow, and not Puerto Rico’s workforce exclusively, but the workforce of the world. The University takes into account the necessity of graduating students who will be prepared to compete in the global economy, and work in different countries or communities to succeed. Therefore, part of our strategies are directed to adjusting our academic offerings to the business, market, or industrial trends of the future, and to the continuous duty of keeping up-to-date with shifts and changes in the economic environment, which may quickly be converted into shifts and changes in our academic offerings.

Both for students and for faculty members, the University’s international exchange program is the cornerstone of our globalizing strategy. Two of the most fundamental tactics for increasing global perspective in a university environment are to promote study abroad and to draw in international students. To achieve a truly globalized campus and community environment, it is imperative that national and international students blend together into a real international community. Hosting international students is hosting world cultures in our land, and the relationship that forms between local students and foreign students constitutes for both a most necessary experience in otherness, in respect, in tolerance, in solidarity, and in universal values, all of which are essential elements for success in the global future. International students bring to the local reality a real world dimension that is an eye- and consciousness-opener for our students.

On the other hand, the exchange program’s future mark is to make study abroad accessible to all students in all fields of study. No technological or virtual experience can substitute the experience of living and studying in a foreign country. For most students, the human and cultural experience is so intense that it changes their mindset forever, making them more receptive to global ideas and perspectives, and better prepared to face the challenges of global competiveness in the job market. The University of Puerto Rico has exchange agreements with more than 60 universities and technical institutes, in some 14 countries, which not only affect students, but professors, teaching staff, researchers, and administrative staff. Just this past week we have signed new partnership agreements with institutions of higher learning in Spain.

Faculty is central and critical to any institution’s embrace of globalization. These exchange agreements are central to the process of developing an internationally- and entrepreneurially-focused faculty, and also to the process of creating a strong global network of meaningful relationships based on partnership, on common values and common goals, that may develop into trust between partners, which is of the utmost importance in today’s globalized world. These exchange agreements and multinational research programs, which in fact are strategic partnerships, are a logical form of addressing global challenges by the University. Other faculty- and student-centered initiatives that might be considered include sponsoring exceptional visiting scholars, degree and non-degree certification options, specialized overseas study agenda, exclusive international internships, innovative student scholarships, part-time job options in the international workforce, and innovative overseas partnerships, among others.

The market for higher education has also become more global, and new competitive strategies need to be developed in order to survive the reshuffle. Alliances between local institutions, in order to present a common international academic offering, are other examples of local consolidation for a unified and more attractive global impact. Just recently, all campuses of the University of Puerto Rico, and most private universities on the island, joined together under a central government initiative called Campus Puerto Rico, with the purpose of presenting a common front, and a truly attractive educational offer for international students looking to study abroad.

Institutionally, the University is also making adjustments to adapt better to the changing reality of a globalized higher education. These adjustments are centered in changing the administrative culture of the institution and creating the framework for international expansion. They include developing a clear approval process, developing adequate controls and processes, and educating and informing administrative staff members in new skills and capabilities to manage international expansion, among others.

Global university rankings and comparisons between global higher education institutions are another element that the University is increasingly taking into consideration. This means creating within the administrative structure of the University a “ranking culture,” which is nothing less than an attitude towards complying with the information required by these international ranking services. Branding—that is, increasing the institution’s prestige and excellence so as to be recognized for it, which is the best brand for any institution—is fundamental to the process of globalization, as well as to the increasing of funds for international research, which depend greatly on a university’s prestige and excellence.

Today, becoming globalized is tantamount to surviving in the competitive market of higher education. Adjusting to the meaningful, yet irreversible, changes brought about by the global phenomenon, and being able to reap from it the new opportunities it creates, while overcoming the challenges it presents, is a must for each and every modern learning institution. It is their duty and responsibility to educate whole individuals, firmly in touch with their local culture and circumstances, but also profoundly aware of the global perspective necessary to move at ease in the complex world of a globalized economy, culture, and human experience. Embracing this paradigm is the challenge of today’s institutions of higher education.

Go to the table of contents for:
Spring 2015: The Global Imperative for Higher Education