The Fragility of our Democracy and the Challenge Posed to International Educators

I wrote this essay last month -prior to the mid-term elections in the U.S. – for the blog series of The Gateway International Group where I am an Affiliate.

Understanding the implications of the U.S. mid-term elections on international higher education. We can’t afford complacency.

We do not need to learn the results of every local and statewide election on November 8 to imagine their lasting impact on our civil society and political life. Worldwide media coverage of the campaigns and court cases, gerrymandering, efforts at voter suppression, and in particular, the continued influence and impact of the former president’s denial of the legitimacy of the 2020 election, have cast a global shadow on the outcome of this election. We’ve only had two years to turn away from the anti-democratic and authoritarian policies and practices of the last administration; and we are still reeling from the aftermath of the January 6 insurrection and the ongoing legal battles for hundreds who rioted at the Capital. If Trump does run for president again, the normalization of violence, untruths and lies will once again poison our public discourse.

The current campaigns and candidates among the anti-democracy extremists within the Republican Party demonstrate how far we still have to go to protect our democratic institutions and electoral practices. The churn of domestic politics and the uncertainties about the stability of our social and political institutions portend challenges for international educators and the values of our profession. We’ve long assumed an acceptance of the “rightness” of our campus practices and policies to recruit international students and scholars, to provide campus and community models to bridge cultural and linguistic differences, and to widen the door to global travel for study, internships and service.

NAFSA’s advocacy mission statement states: “Global learning leads to a more engaged and welcoming United States, more responsive and participatory government, and a more secure and peaceful world…and advocates for policies that foster the exchange of ideas, a commonsense immigration process…and the evolution and improvement of democratic institutions and enlightened global engagement.”

As we move closer to the next season of presidential campaigning, are we confident these aspirations and values will be upheld and sustained by legislatures, state Attorney Generals, Governors and members of Congress following the outcome of the elections held today? How will we stand up to the challenges facing our campuses and international organizations to foster “enlightened global engagement” as the country becomes ever more divided?

In a recent blog for Campus Compact, Eric Hartman, Executive Director of the Haverford College Center for Peace and Global Citizenship, plainly states: “Our inability to see ourselves as a nation is expressed not only in our ignorance of racial and ethnic diversities and their shifts, but also in our collective commitments to insist that certain regions are irrevocably “red” or “blue.”

We do not usually address the fact that international educators are caught in the middle of what one writer refers to as the “diploma divide” (Eric Levitz, “How the diploma divide is remaking American politics,” New York, Oct. 19, 2022) which is fostering a widening cultural gap in the country. As Levitz puts it, “…college graduates in general-and Democratic college graduates in particular-tend to have different social values, cultural sensibilities, and issues priorities than the median non-college-educated voter.” Those in the Republican party who support and foster candidates out of step with democratic principles consistently prey on this divide (even as their leaders and spokespersons are predominantly college-educated). This polarization affects the practice of international educators and the successful implementation of internationalization policies at our educational institutions (for more on this divide, go to this story in the Chronicle of Higher Education: https://www.chronicle.com/article/college-is-a-dividing-line-in-politics-heres-what-you-need-to-know?cid2=gen_login_refresh&cid=gen_sign_in).

Professionals in my generation have fought the good fight to sustain and grow the field of international education for the past fifty years. However, we never faced a time in our political culture as intimidating as this time. A time when the basic principles of our democratic culture are being questioned and challenged. A time when our colleagues abroad are worried about our ability to play a leading role in world affairs, in scientific, educational and cultural exchanges, in supporting the open dialogue they came to expect from our faculties, in welcoming students into our communities on and off-campus. 

We can’t afford complacency. We will soon learn just how much there is to be done.

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