At the university in Venezuela where he studied electrical engineering in the 1970s, L. Rafael Reif would make his way through a textbook on electrical machinery written by faculty members at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). There was only one copy of the book in the library, so he and the other engineering students would share, as they couldn’t afford their own.
“Since I didn’t speak English, I could barely understand the text, but I could work through the equations. And I took some very important inspiration from that book,” said Reif, whose Jewish parents became refugees when they fled Eastern Europe to Venezuela during World War II to escape the Nazi regime.
Reif was inspired to go to the United States for graduate school, and he stayed, eventually becoming the 17th president of MIT. Reif was the keynote speaker at the “The Future of Global Higher Education” conference, organized by Penn Global and the Graduate School of Education (GSE) at Perry World House.
As an immigrant who was an international university student, faculty member, provost, and president, Reif is “an imaginative and innovative, and, most importantly, very articulate defender” and supporter of global engagement and its role in higher education, and of bringing international students to the U.S., as well as connecting and collaborating with researchers around the world, said Ezekiel Emanuel, Penn’s vice provost for global initiatives.
“The Future of Global Higher Education” conference featured academic panels on the future of international research collaborations, the future of international student mobility and exchange, and the future of international academic capacity-building and knowledge-sharing.
The conference is one of the ways Penn is marking the 10-year anniversary of Penn Global, as well as a decade since the adoption of Penn’s first global strategic framework, said Beth Winkelstein, interim provost. “Penn Global has become the face of the University’s worldwide engagement,” she said. “It’s in this context that we use our expertise to consider the range of challenges and opportunities facing globally oriented colleges and universities.”
Winkelstein noted other current and former university presidents who participated in the conference during morning panel discussions, including David Norris, vice chancellor, University of Botswana in Africa; Tymofii Brik, rector of the Kyiv School of Economics in Ukraine; and Julie Wollman, president emerita of Widener University and current Penn GSE professor of practice. Attending the keynote address was Peter Donohue, president of Villanova University.
Penn’s commitment to global engagement goes back hundreds of years, Winkelstein said, noting that the University was among the first in the Ivy League to accept international students. “Since then, we’ve been committed to increasing understanding, fostering engagement, and making an important contribution, not just here at home, but globally,” she said.
In a July 2020 op-ed in The New York Times, Reif defended international students and researchers against federal policies that affected their ability to study and work in the U.S. His stance has been a “forceful reminder of the importance of the moral and ethical leadership in higher education,” said Pam Grossman, GSE dean.
Grossman noted that her own family history is “marked by higher education’s commitment to sponsoring immigrants to the U.S.” Her father’s family fled Russia and moved to China, and her father went to college in California.
University partnerships in other countries build not just knowledge and capacity but also relationships, Grossman said. “I know from my own global work that I’ve come away fundamentally changed with much deeper understandings of the perspectives and knowledge within these other countries. Those relationships, I think, often are what sustained those partnerships in turbulent times,” she said. “So as our interdependence around issues of geopolitical conflict, democracy, and climate change become ever more clear, we are lucky to part of a university that has an unwavering commitment to our engagement with the world.”
Reif said Penn should continue with its commitment to international engagement, even though doing so is more difficult now with globalization in retreat and fragmentation on the rise.
At this moment there is “too much us-versus-them,” and the world is “setting the stage for dangerous confrontations,” he said. “We are in danger of sleepwalking into World War III.” Nations need to find ways “to develop a fuller understanding of our strategic competitors, both to challenge them and to seek common ground with them for the sake of peaceful coexistence,” he said.
“Universities like ours are uniquely able to build bridges across countries and cultures, through education, research and joint problem solving,” Reif said. “We may be the only institutions in our society able to build those bridges, and I believe we should accept the responsibility and help build them despite the political hazards.”
The world greatly benefits when those bridges are built, including with “nations with very different political systems,” he said. “The benefits are many, including the opportunity to understand and learn from each other while we all work to advance our collective knowledge to solve common problems and educate our young people.”
International students are key to the success of American universities, Reif said, and federal policies, such as travel bans, that discourage those students from coming and staying here are against the best interests of the nation. Most international students want to stay and work in the U.S., he said, and those who return to their countries will go with new perspectives. “Well-educated young people are the only hope for social progress in countries that oppress their own people today,” he said.
Reif highlighted Penn’s role as a founding university in the Coursera open-source learning platform, along with MIT and others. “People all over the world should be given the opportunity to receive an excellent education,” he said. “Because it is the surest path to a better, more fulfilled, and more meaningful life. And it is the surest path to a better, more prosperous, more understanding society and world.”
There are challenges in collaborations with authoritarian regimes in nations including Russia, China, and Saudi Arabia, Reif said, and it is important to find a balance between gaining the benefits of scientific and educational collaboration and avoiding undermining U.S. national or economic security or human rights.
Universities must do everything possible to protect academic cooperation, he said, and he applauded Penn and other universities who are working to develop “security training for the entire American research community so “we can share our common understanding of where the lines are.”
Reif emphasized that “individuals are not their governments” and colleagues in universities worldwide deserve respect. “They need and want our help, and we help ourselves and the world by helping them. We're all interconnected,” he said.
“So, as everyone considers the particular risks involved in each international nation, we also ask the important question, What do we risk by not engaging?” Reif said. “We risk understanding much less about where the rest of the world stands and not just in terms of technology development but in terms of other people's goals and aspirations.”
Encouraging other nations to advance academically will help to address global challenges such as climate change and the prevention of the next pandemic, he said, adding that often solutions are on the local level.
“On this small planet of ours we cannot do and shouldn’t do without the open mindedness, patience, and understanding generated by joint academic research and problem solving,” Reif said. “We should welcome mutually beneficial collaborations with our colleagues in other nations.”
Saying that “dialogue is crucial, crucial, crucial,” Reif urged Penn to continue with its international partnerships and collaborations. “Penn Global is a force for good,” he said. “Do keep on going. The world needs you.”