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January / February 2009
From David Skorton
Building a Bridge Between Cultures
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Among the top issues facing President-Elect Obama and his foreign policy team, given the political and ideological tensions between the U.S. and some other nations, are how best to prevent international conflict, contribute to the rebuilding of failed states, and secure global cooperation through diplomatic and other means. As I've written before, I believe that higher education—and the educational, research, and cultural interactions it fosters—is one of our nation's most potent diplomatic assets, and I urge the new administration to utilize these capabilities to the fullest.

David SkortonCornell, in its self-appointed role as land-grant university to the world, has been among the most global of universities, whether measured by the number of international students, formal and informal research collaborations, global investigative initiatives (such as the Cornell-led, Gates Foundation-funded project on stem rust in wheat), or other means of bridging the divides that separate us from our neighbors. Through the activities of individual faculty and students as well as organized units such as the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies, Cornell is present broadly throughout Europe, the Middle East, Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

Among the many venues for education, research, and cultural exchange are some "difficult" places: countries where our work is more challenging, either because of security considerations or because our countries disagree strongly (and sometimes violently) over policy issues unrelated to education. As just one of many examples, Professor Alice Pell, our vice provost for international relations, works with international colleagues in many African venues, including Southern Sudan, as well as in Afghanistan. Why subject ourselves to the risks inherent in these exchanges?

The answer is that academic opportunities are not limited to the countries we see as allies. The imperative to build human capacity is ubiquitous, as compelling in countries at war as in peaceful settings. Of course, personal safety is paramount, and Cornell exerts enormous effort to protect our people as they follow their aspirations wherever they may lead. But we do find ourselves often in settings that are "difficult," at least in the popular imagination.

Recently, I had just such an opportunity when I was invited to join a delegation to visit with academic colleagues in Iran. Prior to the 1979 Iranian Revolution, a large proportion of Iranian academics had obtained their graduate degrees in the U.S., and the 50,000-plus Iranians were the largest group of international students in our country. That has changed dramatically in the last three decades. Today, fewer than 3,000 Iranian students come to our country each year. At Cornell, the numbers have declined from a high of fifty-four students in 1980-81 to just seven in 2008-09.

Over the last several years, through the efforts of the U.S. National Academies, several prominent American academics have visited Iran in an attempt to rebuild those ties. More recently, the Association of American Universities—a consortium of prominent research institutions in the U.S. and Canada—was asked to organize a delegation of university presidents and chancellors to visit Iran. In November, as part of that delegation, I visited universities and a medical center in Tehran and met with academic leaders, faculty, staff, students, and the Minister of Science, Research, and Technology.

I was impressed by the warm and welcoming attitude of our colleagues in Iran, by the quality and enthusiasm of students and faculty, and by the level of scholarship. I was also reminded of the effect of our embargo on some aspects of research, particularly the acquisition of Western scientific equipment.

The visit enabled a cordial and frank exchange about opportunities for, and inhibitors of, further collaboration. Our Iranian colleagues shared their continuing concerns regarding U.S. visa and immigration policy. We in turn shared our perception that the content of scholarly inquiry could lead to detention and imprisonment of academics in Iran. All agreed to work on these issues, as we could, and to pursue further exchange.

I left Iran more secure in my conviction that the start of a new administration in Washington offers a rare opportunity to put universities to work for the national and global good. International exchange represents an important and promising step toward a future in which the U.S. can more fully and productively engage educators, researchers, and students everywhere—even in "difficult" places—as a way to build the institutional and human capacity so desperately needed in today's interconnected world.

President David Skorton
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