Leading International Partnerships: 7 Roles for Presidents

July 18, 2010

In an age when international partnerships and offshore activities are so much in vogue in higher education, little has been written about the leadership roles needed to make them successful. We have all heard disaster stories of foreign campuses forced to close and of offshore ventures falling afoul of host governments. But how many of those outcomes resulted from the way the projects were led? How important was the college or university president's involvement?

I have just completed a project, supported by agencies in three countries, that has sought to answer that question. The organizations are all dedicated to promoting leadership skills in the higher-education sector of their respective countries: the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, in Britain; Akept, in Malaysia; and the LH Martin Institute, in Australia. Our brief was to carry out eight case studies of overseas ventures and assess what contribution presidents made and what lessons could be learned.

We studied a wide range of projects among institutions in our three countries and with China:

  • In three cases, the relationship was between a university and a state government.
  • Two situations involved setting up offshore campuses.
  • Two case studies described faculty links with overseas partners that are only slowly becoming broader and wider.
  • One partnership started as a one-to-one link between two faculty members, but it broadened into links between administrators and students, too, and was adopted as a strategic partnership by the president.
  • One case study illustrated how the president planned to disengage from all of the university's international operations in several countries.
  • One partnership ran for many years but does not now operate, because of a change in strategy by the foreign partner.

The variety of the cases led to different management challenges. And, of course, some international programs operate at only the individual faculty level. Our analysis suggests seven areas in which, at the campuswide level, university presidents must play a role if international partnerships are to succeed:

1. Setting the international vision and strategy (or embracing earlier initiatives and bringing them within the strategy). An outsider to higher education might assume that a charismatic president would devise an international strategy which the academic community will readily adopt. Of course, it is not that simple. In three of our cases, the president did indeed develop and then promote a new international strategy. The three involved establishing an offshore medical campus, cutting down many of the university's international links to focus on four large strategic partnerships, and withdrawing altogether from offshore teaching activities in several countries.

In another situation, the president's role was to embrace a bottom-up initiative and build it into a much larger collaboration. In yet another, it was to respond positively to an unsolicited invitation from an overseas property-development corporation and use that opportunity to significantly change the college's international strategy. Presidents must be able to develop and sustain their own visions but also know when to support and expand other activities that may arise. For example, in one of our cases, the president transformed a small teaching partnership that had reached the end of its useful life into a wider set of linkages involving collaborative research and student exchanges.

2. Appointing able champions to develop and carry out the activities. The selection of the right person to oversee the operation of an overseas project or partnership is crucial. Clearly, it helps if that person is familiar with the country and the culture of the partner institution. He or she must also be able to face both ways within the home institution: toward the president and management team as well as toward the faculty, who will need to be involved.

Champions must invest a lot of time in persuading their colleagues to venture overseas. In one of our studies, the champion was a former dean, with substantial international experience, who was asked to establish a medical school in Malaysia. He is greatly respected by his colleagues, and he now has the task of recruiting some of them to devote time to teaching at the new school. He has used university funds to fly faculty members to Malaysia and meet medical-school colleagues in the hospitals there.

3. Getting support from administrators and faculty members for international ventures. Whether the university decides to focus on a only few strategic partnerships or divert major resources to an entire offshore campus, many faculty members will feel threatened or worried that their own international connections will be downgraded. They may also be reluctant to embark on a project in a country that they do not know. In such situations, the president has a significant task of persuasion, which cannot be left solely to the champion. For example, the president of an Australian university that sought to create a major link with Sichuan University, in China, created a training program in Chinese language and culture to encourage participation by faculty members.

4. Providing centralized financial resources to create or encourage international activities. In the case studies, we saw a wide range of examples of presidents' using centralized budgets to pay for faculty members to make exploratory trips to partner institutions; to establish training sessions in the language, culture, and practices of partner countries; and, on occasion, to pay the costs of faculty travel from a poorer institutional partner. At one Australian university, the president allocated $200,000 to each dean so faculty members could travel to visit their counterparts at the partner university. Without such central support, the partnership would probably not have gone ahead. The legal and professional costs of due diligence can usually be afforded only by tapping the central budget.

5. Managing the involvement of the board of trustees. Alarm bells may ring in the minds of many trustees when they think about offshore activities or overseas partnerships. If the project is likely to have a financial or reputational risk, the president must take care to involve them at an early stage. Not all boards are sympathetic to international ventures, and the president will need to brief trustees regularly and assure them that the project has been thoroughly researched. In one case study that we reviewed, a nervous board commissioned a special audit of how well the exploratory and due-diligence processes had been carried out. In another case, the chair of the board visited the country and site of the new campus.

The president will not want the trustees to become overly involved in detailed aspects of an international project. He or she can alleviate that risk by carefully handling the agenda and briefing the board chair.

6. Bridging cross-cultural differences. In all of the cases we evaluated—even those between England and Australia—cross-cultural differences arose. But we found that college leaders need to distinguish between personality differences, cultural and language differences, and institutional and bureaucratic cultures. The last are the hardest to overcome because the processes that are readily accepted on one side may seem ludicrously bureaucratic to the other. We saw many cases of that, but problems were usually resolved by the exercise of patience and cautious understanding. In one situation, the bureaucratic blockage was at the ministry level, and combating it forged a common bond between the two universities. Such differences, however, emphasize the need for the president to require cross-cultural training of both administrative and academic faculty members.

7. Supervising the human-resource implications of offshore activity. Some challenging tasks include deciding whether the international venture will be staffed by the institution's own faculty members, locally recruited faculty members in the other country, or international faculty members from the global market—and determining how to assure quality if people other than the institution's own faculty members are involved. Presidents should also develop employment and reward policies that encourage faculty members from their institutions to teach and conduct research abroad, in the hope that when they return, their skills will have been enhanced. One approach is to identify service offshore from a different culture as a key criteria for academic promotion. Another tactic is to allow faculty members to return home for three-month periods during which they can continue their research full time.

Leading and managing an international activity places new responsibilities on presidents. Beyond creating or sustaining a vision, the ability to select champions and supporters who will promote and manage the international activity is also crucial—as are the skills of persuading a possibly hesitant community about the need for the venture. Presidents must be willing and able to take charge in those areas if their college is to be successful in major international operations.

John Fielden is director of CHEMS Consulting, which specializes in higher-education policy and management, in Britain.