Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Thinking about Washington and Harvard

For the next couple of days (including today) I am at a conference of the organization that coordinates higher education partnerships with USAID. Today was a day of contrasts. The opening speaker was a professor from Harvard's School of Education who spoke about "Global Citizenship" - it was an embarrassingly bad presentation. I would not have minded that his Powerpoint ended 10 minutes into his presentation or that he ran over by 20 minutes or so but the substance was simply a rehash of every PC statement one could string together. His point seemed to be that colleges and universities and indeed nations should work on being good global citizens. Not much to quibble with there, but each time he elaborated he got into intellectual muck. At one point he defined citizenship as something like a negotiation between people who live in the country and those who come there (presumably illegally or not). The definition of what a nation is has been going through a series of changes over the last couple of decades but those changes should not make legal systems situational. One other comment which bothered me - he kept commenting that one should not assume that a culture is superior to another. In this integrated world there should be respect for differences in approach but there are values which should be prized over others.
The original spirit of the United Nations recognized those kinds of differences - attempting to accomodate varieties of philosophical and cultural approaches but in the end it supported rights of the majorities and other concepts which are still not widely held in the entire world. The evolution and failure of the current iteration of the UN is due in part to an acceptance of the approach suggested by the professor rather than the original notion. When a group of known destoryers of human rights can lead the human rights commission - you see the problems with this kind of relativism.

We then went into a presentation about a joint project between a university I have worked with in Mexico and the University of Vermont. Their presentation was well done and told about the development of their joint work. I was especially impressed with the presentation by an official from the university who I have watched as a professional over the last decade.

In the afternoon we had a presentation from USAID about long term training trends. There was a set of contrasts. The USAID officer seemed like a nice enough guy although his comments were a bit puzzling. He commented that the number of students who come to the US over the last decade has dropped significantly. The agency seeks some ways to improve that and yet at the same time (and seemingly in conflict with the first statement) they want to shorten the time to complete projects AND want to demonstrate results in a very short period of time (5 years). The value of foreign students in the US is constantly reinforced to me when I am outside the country. I have met hundreds of people who did an advanced degree in the US and now are in positions of power in their country. In the last few years we have lost that pipeline to other countries.

Government is always an uncertain friend. A good deal of the reason for the decline in the number of people studying from outside the US at US universities relates to our over-reaction in visa systems for students post 9/11. Many of the students who came to the US in the past are now going to countries that recognize the potential for long term good coming from students who study in your country and then return to their own. Our visa system is a bit too complicated - we've traded safety for the benefits of bringing students here - in the long term, that tradeoff may not be a good one.

What was interesting about the comments - after the USAID person opened it up to a couple of projects - is that the universities seem to have made the best of a bad situation and have begun to develop some new models of cooperation that build in sound mechanisms for training. They have adapted well.

In the evening we went to a restaurant that I have not been to in 20 years. When we lived in Washington (through early 1974) we had a favorite restaurant called Gaylord. (The same name as the one in London). But down the street was Taj Mahal. Gaylord is long gone but the Taj Mahal lives on in fine fashion. The food was great, service excellent and for Washington prices it was relatively reasonable.

I am constantly amazed at how DC changes - always building new buildings and yet keeping some of the elements I remember when I was first there in graduate school. It was nice to see one place continue to maintain the quality I remembered

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