As it expands, Yale can’t lose sight of self

With the announcement of the Yale Tomorrow campaign, President Richard Levin has begun moving Yale by $100 million leaps and bounds toward becoming the pre-eminent international university. Even before it was one of four main areas of emphasis within the $3 billion capital campaign, the internationalization of Yale was one of Levin’s dearest projects. Yale has the resources and the vision to succeed, but it will fail if it loses its identity or independent direction.

When Yale historian George Pierson said, “Yale is at once a tradition, a company of scholars, and a society of friends,” he knew to define the University not by its buildings or accomplishments but by its people and ideals. As Yale internationalizes, it must remain conscious of the ideals that define it. In its ocean-crossing interactions and overseas presence, Yale must share not only its knowledge in fields of study and knowledge of university operations, but also the values that define and make the University great.

In the past year, Yale has hosted the president of China for an on-campus speech, has expanded its presence in Beijing with the Yale-Peking University program, and has announced plans for the Greenberg International Conference Center, intended to provide executive education for foreign government officials, university officers and business leaders. All of these projects point to the already international outlook of the University, but they also represent instances in which our identity has been or will be tested.

When President Hu Jintao came to speak on campus last spring, the University stumbled. Despite its acknowledgement of its historical stance on freedom of expression, the University’s actions betrayed itself, making little room for dissenting students to be heard, and shielding Hu from controversy even in the form of chalked words on the sidewalk. Unless there was an unlikely private dialogue between Levin and Hu on the matter, the University wasted the opportunity to share its conviction in such ideals. As we have more opportunities to demonstrate and explain the workings of a great university to others, we must not waste these chances. If we do, Yale-Peking and similar programs will have little more connection to the University than logo T-shirts sold on the street.

The challenge to expand and share its ideology with different cultures will be serious, but Yale will also find challenges in setting its own agenda for internationalization. A spirit of competition is implicitly acknowledged whenever one seeks pre-eminence, and pre-eminence is a goal Levin has stated for Yale. Competing for the world’s foremost students and scholars is essential, but competition can also easily lead a university astray.

This summer, Newsweek International, not to be outdone by U.S. News and World Report’s domestic rankings, published its rankings of the top 100 global universities. (Yale ranked third.) Rankings can distract even the most focused people, and such mechanical rankings (the Newsweek rankings used, among other criteria, the number of articles published in Nature and Science and the number of volumes in a university’s library) can provide terrible incentives for a given course of action. Perhaps even stronger pressures can come from peer-cum-competitor institutions. The actions in recent years of Yale, Harvard and Princeton on issues such as financial aid and admission policies are evidence enough of that. The fear should not be that Yale does poorly in rankings or that Harvard seems more international than Yale; the fear, a serious one, should be that rankings or peer institutions determine the course of action that Yale takes.

The University has stumbled and, with expansion in so many areas around the world, will undoubtedly stumble again with regard to its identity; for the time being, however, Yale seems to have shored itself against some of the threats of competitive behavior. Despite great pressure, Yale recently declined to change its early admissions policy on the heels of policy changes at Harvard and Princeton. Yale has chosen to study its current policy before making any changes, insuring that if a change is announced, it will be because it was the best decision for Yale, not because the administration was following the pack.

To become the world’s most global university is a noble goal and, although such an achievement cannot be fairly measured or reasonably quantified, it is accomplishable, and it is one from which Yale should not shy. There are only a handful of educational institutions with resources such as Yale’s, and perhaps none with a comparably committed leader and inspired vision for internationalization. Becoming the most global university is possible, but Yale must set out on its own course and hold its identity dear.

Patrick Ward is a junior in Branford College. This is his first regular column.

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