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The Internationalization Devil Can Be in the Staffing Details

As more universities develop international operations, the negotiating list is becoming clearer for faculty members considering overseas jobs. Ticket home twice a year? Check. Private schools for the children? Check.

But that old saying, The devil is in the details, certainly applies in this situation. Is the ticket business class or premium economy? Will the prospective faculty or staff members be given free time to pack up their belongings, or will they need to use vacation days?

Likewise, for administrators planning an overseas operation, minding the staffing details as well as the strategy can feel overwhelming.

A potential resource for those who are new to academic international efforts, “A Guide to Offshore Staffing Strategies for UK Universities,” may have been overlooked, perhaps because its title suggests it is just for the British.

The report, released this spring, is actually based on nine case studies, including Texas A&M University’s experience in Qatar and the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology’s experience in Vietnam. Many of the report’s checklists and conclusions are applicable to a university in any country considering offshore operations. (The report was published by the UK Higher Education International and Europe Unit and the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, and it can be downloaded along with the case studies. More U.S.-oriented information on such international administrative matters can be found at the Web site of the University of Washington Global Operations Support.)

The 48-page report plus the 56 pages of case studies are a lot to read.  Use of a big highlighting pen and a little caffeine is advised.

But they are an especially close and rare public look at the administrative detail involved in international-academic efforts, occasionally reminiscent of the war stories international-relations managers swap privately. The lesson learned in one case study in Malaysia: “The bureaucracies of other countries can prove to be very confusing and incomprehensible to foreigners.” In short, local support is needed.

The report sounds some alarms that echo what has appeared elsewhere. To avoid “brand damage” from international operations, the faculty and staff members need to be of the same quality as those at the home institution. Having a strong research element in an overseas operation is “proving to be a problem.”

But the authors also ring a positive note. They say that finding people to work in international-academic programs is no longer an issue of “exporting staff from the home country, but of tapping global networks and markets for the best people.” In short, university human-resource managers need to mimic the practices of multinational corporations. They need to switch their goal from persuading faculty members to fly out to international programs to finding those academics who are already internationally inclined.

The report gives checklists of topics to consider for institutional policy makers, human-resource managers, and faculty and staff members themselves.

Policy makers need to think ahead about what will happen to international-program employees in crafting an “exit strategy.” (And, oh yes, they will need an exit strategy.) Human-resource managers need to consider what country’s laws any contracts will be written for and in what currency salaries will be paid. Managers need to consider the morale problems that might arise when large gaps in pay and benefits crop up between those hired locally and those hired internationally.

Benefits packages may need to include a car in the new country or an allowance for transportation, help renting an existing home, and health screening. Those pesky “risk management” people will need to be called to take a look at international operations.

For those below the level of dean, or for faculty members who want to stay home, each detail may be another drumbeat of boredom.

But increasingly in the world of academic internationalization, information has a price. The British report offers up a lot of information for free.

David Wheeler is an editor at large for The Chronicle.

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