Gordon Gee

2011 IIE Best Practices Conference Opening Keynote Address

Dr. E. Gordon Gee, President, The Ohio State University

Friday, March 18, 2011

I want to thank Allan Goodman for that introduction, and I want to tell you all what an honor it is for me to be here today as we celebrate our collective commitment to international education.

That commitment is both personal and professional for me, which means I was in China again this January. Let me mention one thing if you are thinking about going to China in the winter.

Among other places, I visited Wuhan University and spent a couple days in the city of Wuhan. Now Chairman Mao apparently decreed that land south of Yangtze River was temperate, therefore heating systems were banned as an unnecessary extravagance. And I will just say this, Wuhan may officially be in a temperate zone, but it is the first place I have ever been where I had to bundle up to go inside.

Ladies and gentlemen, in three decades as a university president, I have seen the economic tides roll in, and I have watched them recede. The ebb and flow comes to seem automatic, natural, even, from a certain perspective, healthy. But the truth of the matter is that, today, waiting out the trough can no longer be viewed as a strategy. This time is different. Unlike the recessions of 1981 or 1991 or 2001, we are not simply in stage two of the life cycle of economic renewal. We are in the midst of a fundamental reset.

There is a new book—The Great Stagnation by the economist Tyler Cowen—that underscores this notion in two ways. First, the fact that this “book” is $4 and available only electronically is evidence enough of the changing economy we inhabit. But more to the point, Professor Cowen argues that the “low-hanging fruit” of American economic expansion was exhausted almost 40 years ago. We have already designed, built, sold, and used the revolutionary tools that catapulted daily life past the limits and indignities of candles and outhouses. We have already capitalized on the obvious gains to be realized by declaring that a 19th century 8th-grade education was insufficient for our populace. 

Today, Professor Cowen asserts, there are two paths to economic expansion. Countries can take good ideas already in use elsewhere and capitalize on them by exploiting their own low-cost labor and natural resources. Or, countries can be the source of new ideas that serve the rest of the world. Within the former strategy lies neither a practical solution nor a desirable consequence for the United States. Within the latter strategy lies our future. Many are skeptical of this assertion, and not without reason. Frankly, one-sided relationships are seldom fulfilling. And in 2010, American imports from China produced the largest annual trade deficit ever recorded between two countries.

But I submit to you, there is good news here. Good news for this nation and its economy. Good news for you and I and everyone in the business of educating Americans. Because now we can clearly see a new piece of low-hanging fruit within our grasp.

For centuries, the world around us has largely been an afterthought in the education of young Americans. Today, we can reap the incomparable benefits of teaching a global perspective to the next generation of American thinkers and doers. I say this not in aid of surrender of our nation’s international leadership of thought or commerce. Rather, it is an assertion of our vigor. In days of turmoil and challenge, it falls upon the capable to state the obvious. We can out-think the rest of the world, but not by closing in on ourselves.

Let me say that again. We can out-think the rest of the world, but not by closing in ourselves. Indeed my friends, it is time to think bigger, not smaller. It is time to provide all our college students with the benefits of a global curriculum, global experiences, and global thinking. We cannot sit idly by and watch economic challenges, of a scale unseen in our lifetimes, go unopposed by our ingenuity. We all know that unemployment has spiked in recent years and has proven resistant to a speedy recovery. Hidden within the overall numbers are some alarming signs of just how uniquely pernicious the current situation remains.

When unemployment rose 30 years ago, the typical out-of-work person could expect to find a new job within about 100 days. When unemployment jumped 20 years ago and 10 years ago, again within 100 days the typical jobless person was back to work. Today the “average duration of unemployment” has reached a record 260 days.

In my home state, one statistic puts the reality of economic pressures into stark relief. In Ohio today, a record four out of ten school children qualify for a reduced-price school lunch. Not four in ten from a particular struggling town or neighborhood. Four out of every ten Ohio children live in families struggling to provide for their most basic needs. Please do not mistake this as an argument for gloom. This is an argument for action.

Our duty as educators is to battle cynicism—and prove there is another path. This moment demands the best of us. It is a moment for colleges and universities to assert their power as the central force in nation-building here at home by teaching a global view that spans the world. To be sure, there are many people who look out across the oceans and see threat where I see opportunity. Their inclination is to build walls not bridges. For centuries, we have known this country is an exceptional place, and yet now we seem to have somehow forgotten. Recent polls have found half of all Americans think our best days are behind us. I understand those fears. But I do not share them.

We are exceptional. I say this not with arrogance, but with an unshakeable optimism informed by belief in our potential. But, the simple truth is that we are not an economic island. And more to the point, protectionism cannot protect in a world where knowledge and creativity are not confined by borders.

I would submit to you that now is precisely the wrong time to turn inward. If we welcome all good ideas and develop new partnerships, if we cast our gaze around the world and expand our imaginations, then there is no question that we will be rewarded. We have not a moment to waste. Indeed, we will either be the architects of the coming change, or we will be its victims.

Ladies and gentlemen, during the Civil War, General George McClellan became famous—infamous actually—for dithering. He refused to take action, he refused to implement changes, he refused to seize the opportunities presented his army because he wondered if waiting just another moment longer might bring forth slightly more advantageous conditions. Within his inaction lies a great lesson. The journey to oblivion starts by waiting just a single moment more.

Indeed, war historians contend that McClellan’s unyielding hesitancy undermined the value of the strategies he was attempting to support. One of his contemporaries, General Henry Halleck, said of McClellan, “There is an immobility here that exceeds all that any man can conceive of. It requires the lever of Archimedes to move this inert mass.”

All of us can go back to our institutions and wait for a slightly more advantageous time to take forward-thinking action. But if it takes the lever of Archimedes to move us, we will have forfeited the value of this moment. Those of us who understand what is at stake must speak, we must lead, we must act. For the good of our students and our nation, we must turn this generation’s attention outward.

I had a conversation in China several years ago that underscored for me both our imperative and our opportunity. As I mentioned earlier, I have been to China many times over the years to meet with academic, business, and government officials, as well as with the alumni and friends of the University. On a visit five or six years ago, I was scheduled to have a fifteen minute chat with their minister of education. After three hours, he said to me, “How do you Americans teach creativity?” That question is our answer! Others recognize our advantage—now we must.

Others recognize that truly sustainable prosperity cannot be fueled by exploiting exhaustible supplies of low-wage labor and natural resources. Sustainable prosperity can and will be fueled by the inexhaustible forces of our imagination. And ladies and gentleman, I would submit to you that no nation is better positioned than the United States to expand our imagination, to understand the world around us, and to thrive in the global knowledge economy. “Not in spite of, but because of our polyglot background,” President Reagan once said, “we have had all the strength in the world.”

There is a spirit of discovery and creativity inherent in the American mosaic. To that we must add the transformative properties of the work we do by bringing the world into our classrooms and sending our students out into the world. Indeed, I am wholly committed to building on The Ohio State University’s tradition of global involvement. More than five decades ago, Ohio State began a partnership with Punjab Agricultural University in India.  What started with student exchanges and
basic agricultural assistance has flourished into a collaboration that includes the public and private sector, and is helping a nation feed itself. That is just one of 400 formal partnerships we have with universities in 66 countries.

Ohio State M.B.A. students in a Business Solutions course used their skills to advise the Ethiopian government on how best to improve its economic development efforts. Students studied the country’s agriculture and logistics infrastructure and offered proposals to help increase exports of flowers and coffee and other crops. The educational value of that real-world, global experience in diagnosing and solving problems is simply incalculable.

We have forged an exciting partnership to develop this nation’s first teacher-training program with the Royal Shakespeare Company. Last summer, we sent our first delegation of Ohio school teachers to Stratford-on-Avon for an unforgettable immersion in the Bard’s work that will shape their classroom teaching for decades to come.

In China, we have opened the University’s gateway office in Shanghai—our first physical presence in another country. It functions as the University’s outpost for expanding teaching and research collaborations throughout the region, as well as a connecting point for students, alumni, and businesses there.

Let me give you just a sense of how small and interconnected our world truly is today. While I was in China last year, I hosted a breakfast meeting in Shanghai for business leaders who live in China while running corporations based in Ohio.  We had more than two dozen join us for breakfast. Think about that for a moment—two dozen business leaders, in just one Chinese city, running businesses in just one American state.

When you look at the numbers, I think it is safe to say that Ohio State is a global institution. Our student body includes almost 5,000 international students. Our faculty hails from nearly 100 nations. Our alumni live in more than 150 countries. By the way, I would like to remind all four Buckeyes living in the Cayman Islands that I am still waiting for my invitation to your next tailgate party. We offer 600 course sections teaching a total of 30 different languages. Each year, we send off one of the largest contingents in the nation of study abroad students. And, Ohio State ranks among the top ten schools in producing Peace Corps volunteers.

With that said, I want my university to think bigger. And so we have launched an ambitious, concrete plan of action to expand the imagination of Ohio State’s students. We have created the expectation that every one of our students will have a global perspective and a global understanding–and that begins with acquiring a passport. It is my own foreign policy of sorts, it has become my mantra, my hymn, my hope for every Ohio State student that he or she acquire a passport. I am determined to do everything possible to make that happen.

We are the first comprehensive university to ask all its students to acquire a passport–and we do so in the belief that holding a passport is a first and essential step toward empowering our students to discover the world and their place in it. Purely as a practical matter, there are opportunities for study and service abroad that arise within a window in which waiting to get a passport would prove impossible.

There is more at stake here, of course. The central reason for acquiring a passport is this: it is a tool for the imagination. It has become what the driver’s license once was:  permission to explore our most relevant surroundings. A student who has a chance to experience the world first hand, to navigate in unknown territory, will grow as a person, gain confidence, and learn skills that will last a lifetime. To step outside the familiar is to enliven creativity that nourishes innovation and the intellectual life.

Imagine what it means for a first-generation college student from Lima, Ohio, to hold a passport in his or her hands. Imagine the possibilities; the world conjured in his or her mind that suddenly has no borders, no limits. From international experiences come globally-competent students, with critical thinking skills, technical expertise, and global awareness.

For what is travel to a faraway place but an immersion in the lessons of culture, communication, language, problem-solving, and teamwork? Students return imbued with the ability to value differences, build on commonalities, and to see what is beyond the horizon.

We can ensure the next generation of leaders is fully prepared for the global tasks we now confront. We can ensure the next generation of business leaders is fully prepared for the far-flung opportunities that will arise. We can ensure that members of the next generation are citizens of the world, living a life made larger by a world made smaller.

Now I must tell you when I first broached the idea of passports for every student, our local newspaper was inundated with responses from their readership. Nearly every comment was negative. This suggests to me that I am on to something important. “Gee has an ulterior motive for this. What is it?” one reader asked. I do have a motive, it is this: As the world shrinks, opportunity grows.  In a time when actions taken on one side of the globe have an immediate and profound impact on the other side, we simply must reach out more fully and effectively to one another.

That is all well and good, but what are we actually doing to get passports in the hands of our students? We have launched a campus-wide marketing campaign with a clear and succinct message that getting a passport is a practical necessity in the modern global economy. Our emphasis is on entering students, who see and hear our message in a wide array of orientation materials and even on the sides of campus buses. We tell them how, why, and where to apply for a passport.

We have major events in the center of campus in support of our passport campaign and studying abroad. We have even walked students right over to the U.S. Post Office on campus, where they can submit their paperwork.

We share with them testimonials from students who had never left the country, never been on a plane, who followed our advice, acquired a passport, and are now returning from adventures in Senegal, or Peru, or Finland, or three-dozen other countries. Even if our students never set off en route for the other side of the globe, the simple fact is that they inhabit a campus situated closer to the Canadian border than to any of our sister institutions in the Big Ten. It is a border we want them to be able to cross at will.

I am happy to report that our students are listening. With incoming classes bearing the full brunt of my polite but firm suggestion, 66 percent of our first-year students now hold a passport. That is about double the proportion of the nation’s population as a whole. Our goal for next year is 75 percent. Over four years, our goal is 100 percent. We recognize that passports are an added expense for our students and their families, and with the help of a generous donor inspired by our efforts, and a far-sighted corporate partner, we are creating a passport scholarship fund to help students in need.

Sending forth our students across the globe is just one piece of our larger commitment to providing a global education. We are enhancing the place of international studies in our general education survey courses. We are creating university-wide interdisciplinary research programs that focus on major global issues such as poverty.

Now I hardly want to represent to you that we in Columbus have discovered the world before everyone else. Indeed, we are making our own unique contribution to the visionary work of many institutions that have made the world their classroom. Goucher College now requires all its students to study outside this country. As we speak – this school of 1,500 undergraduates – has students in Prague, and Glasgow, and Bangkok, and Buenos Aires, and dozens of other cities and towns and outposts scattered across the world.

Lewis and Clark College has been strongly encouraging overseas studies for almost 50 years, having now sent more than 10,000 students off on learning adventures across the globe. The University of Minnesota-Morris has set the standard for public schools, with nearly half its students studying outside the country. They have achieved that by building a study abroad infrastructure that includes an online profile tool that matches student interests with overseas opportunities.

I applaud the work of these institutions and the work all of you do each day. As we endeavor to nurture a global perspective in students, we rise to meet their lofty expectations of us. Indeed, one of the defining characteristics of this generation on our campuses today is their respect and admiration for their elders. We must be equal to it.

This is our moment to impart what we know, to offer leadership, demonstrate perseverance, and nourish inspiration. Let us be creative without boundaries – on a map or otherwise. Let us dream and execute those dreams with a strategy for success. Push forward new global initiatives on your campus—take your students as far as you possibly can—literally and figuratively.

Ladies and gentleman, our challenge is simply this: Can we think big enough?

Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. In one of her columns she wrote about Ohio State’s passport campaign and noted that it stirred memories for her of a scene in the movie Breaking Away. In the film, set in small town Indiana in the 1970s, a mother is talking with her 17-year old son, trying to get him, as Schultz put it, “to imagine a bigger life.” The mother asks, “Did I ever show you this?” and then hands her son her passport.  Schultz wrote that she had never considered getting a passport herself until she saw that movie—that scene.

Connie Schultz was a young woman who had, at that moment, traveled to a grand total of four states. Yet, the power of that idea, the power of imagining a day when she might want to visit another country, imagining  a day when she might see herself as the kind of a person who would do just that, would change how she saw her own future.

I firmly believe that expanding economic prosperity in this country depends upon expanding the size of our imagination. Because imagination today is what steel was 120 years ago—the very building block of progress. The great fortunes of the world were once forged by muscle and sweat in the mills. Increasingly today the great fortunes of the world are amassed from products of the mind. Smokestacks were once the metric of prosperity. Today, it is the college bell tower.

We live in an era when ideas will be the catalysts of virtually all future economic progress. Which means, our colleges and universities have never been more vital. We must expand the tool kit we provide our graduates. We must prepare them to construct a global view.

Let us all go forward now and serve our students, our institutions, and our community with a renewed commitment to a global education. Let us set loose from our campuses global citizens with global experiences, global perspectives and global interests. Let us act with common purpose and common sense to claim this time for America, by claiming for our students an imagination as big as the world itself.

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