The Best of Times, the Worst of Times

March 02, 2017

By Richard Papale

On February 22, NAFSA Executive Director and CEO Esther D. Brimmer, DPhil, gave the keynote address at the Association of International Education Administrators (AIEA) annual conference. With the befitting title, “The Best of Times, the Worst of Times,” Brimmer emphasized that the work, unity, and resilience of international educators is more important than ever as we look to the challenges and opportunities ahead.

Here’s an overview of Brimmer’s message:

  • We’re in a Dickensian moment, witnessing the best of times and the worst of times. Given the political landscape, we see hopes and fears, opportunities and dangers.
  • In the wake of harmful rhetoric and policy initiatives, the “worst of times” are demonstrated by:
    • the negative impacts on the international education community, viability of global exchange, and the United States’s economic stability;
    • the assault on the United States as a welcoming society; and
    • the insidious attack on fact-based, knowledge-driven decisionmaking.
  • However, we’re also in the midst of the “best of times.” To make the most of the opportunities presented, we must:
    • herald greater cooperation among international education organizations;
    • respond to increasing worldwide demand for international education; and
    • bolster support for international education across the political spectrum.
  • Now is the time to work together. We must break down silos and nurture partnerships that cross professional and political lines.
  • International education focuses not on forestalling the worst in human action, but in inspiring the best in the human spirit.
  • Working across various fields and with a range of partners, we will defend and advance international education for the benefit of students, scholars, and society.

Read Brimmer’s full keynote address below.

“The Best of Times, the Worst of Times”
Keynote Address at the
Association of International Education Administrators (AIEA) Annual Conference
Esther D. Brimmer, DPhil
Executive Director and CEO of NAFSA
February 22, 2017

Charles Dickens was right: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” As we survey the political scene facing international educators, we see hopes and fears, opportunities and dangers. The theme of this conference, “Internationalization Through Difference: Transcending Boundaries,” is timely. We need to overcome our silos because we will need to build bridges across professional and political lines to keep the United States an open and welcoming society, while bolstering support for the exchange of people and ideas, and for innovative and effective approaches to internationalization on campuses.

Let us begin with the “worst of times.” Then I will discuss “the best of times,” for there we will find solutions to ameliorate the “worst of times.”

Before we begin, we must put our situation in perspective. We must acknowledge that even in “the worst of times” we are still engaging in peaceful debate. In many parts of the world, we could not have this discussion in public, in peace.

That said, under the rubric, the “worst of times,” I will discuss three topics that stem from the current political environment. The first is the impact, and ongoing effects, of the hastily issued executive orders which were promulgated by the current administration on January 27, 2017. We anticipate additional measures possibly this week. This would compound the crisis. As we know all too well, the effects of the executive orders were immediate. Students and scholars were stranded. Mothers were separated from children, husbands from wives, and too many people from their dignity when they arrived at the gates of our country. In the intervening weeks, colleges and universities, scholars and administrators, and communities across the country have taken heroic actions to help reunite those affected with their loved ones and return them to their places on campuses.

Courageous judges stayed the implementation of aspects of the executive orders. The judicial branch of government will deliberate in the coming weeks and months. Yet, it is already clear that the impact will be far reaching. The haste of the actions, combined with the lack of clarity about why these particular seven countries were targeted, has generated concerns. Will other countries be added to the list? Will other long-standing, law-abiding students and scholars be denied reentry into the United States in the middle of their degree courses?

As you know, the timing of the executive order was especially disadvantageous to U.S. institutions. Over the winter, colleges and universities send acceptance invitations to admitted students. In this season, students decide which institution they want to attend. Thousands of bright students from around the world are considering U.S. institutions. They have choices. If they are worried that the United States is becoming a less welcoming country, they may decide to study elsewhere. There are other options.

Their decisions have long-term consequences. We are not just losing them for one trip; a U.S. college may be losing that student for four years, or more. A decision by an international student now could mean that a potential classmate does not come to the United States. If, at an impressionable age, they decide to study elsewhere, we could be losing them for the next four years, or the next 40. This is a loss for other students who would have learned from that classmate and a loss for their institution.

Similarly, scholars may decide that they are not welcome and choose to conduct their research elsewhere. This is a loss for their colleagues here who would have collaborated with them on innovative work. It would also be a loss for the country.

Permanent residents—green card holders—were initially caught up in the rush to ban everybody from certain countries, irrespective of their status in or connections to the United States. The frequent verbal criticism of immigration has ricocheted around the nation and been heard around the world. Is this nation of immigrants no longer welcoming immigrants? Yes, we need to reform and adequately resource our immigration system, but we must also be vociferous and vocal in our support: we welcome new Americans to our country.

Losing international students would also be an economic loss. As you know well from the data on NAFSA’s website, in 2016, there were over 1 million international students studying in the United States. These students and their families contributed over $32 billion to the U.S. economy and accounted for over 400,000 jobs.

The second topic is the assault on the United States as a welcoming society. Whether we came here voluntarily or not, the vast majority of our country is descended from immigrants. As Martin Luther King Jr. famously noted, “We all may have come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.” For four centuries, our country has benefited from immigration. We still do. Immigrants from Alexander Hamilton to Andrew Carnegie to Elon Musk have enriched our nation, not only financially, but also culturally, adding to the dynamism that enlivens life here.

Moreover, the United States has a system in place to receive some of the world’s displaced people. Too often in history we have closed our doors to those fleeing devastating persecution. In recent decades, we have developed a complex system to vet and, selectively, admit refugees. Like all countries, the United States must maintain security, and all policies can be improved, but not by disregarding the need for innovation and compassion.

The third topic is the insidious attack on fact-based, knowledge-driven decisionmaking. Not only in the United States, but in too many countries, national leaders decry the influence of experts and disdain those who would criticize their government. Debasing evidence-based discussion erodes the quality of public debate and the quality of democracy. Daily, readers, viewers, and voters have to discern the difference between actual news and “fake news.” We as educators have a special responsibility to defend knowledge and expertise. From classroom to conference room, wherever we work, we must advocate for actions informed by expertise. In the public space, we should hold our leaders to the high standards of accuracy to which we hold our students. We should have allies in this effort. The integrity of public data matters. Educators, manufacturers, bankers, and others all rely on accurate data and honest statements of fact by public servants.

Calling for action brings us to “the best of times.” First, I would herald greater cooperation among international education organizations. We have different remits and different histories, but we are on the same side. We think international education is vital.

Second, I would cite greater worldwide demand for international education. Over 80 percent of U.S. students would like to study abroad, but only 10 percent of those who graduate end up doing so.1

The Center for International Business Education and Research surveyed more than 800 executives of U.S. companies and found: 75 percent of companies indicated that global perspective was important for professional staff at both management and entry levels.

A recent survey found that almost 40 percent of companies surveyed missed international business opportunities because of a lack of internationally competent personnel.2

Third, there is support for international education across the political spectrum. In many countries, there is recognition of the importance of universities. In the United States, there is bipartisan support.

There is a lot you can do to bolster that support in our various countries. Many colleges and universities have explicitly stated that they want to welcome international students. You can continue to convey that welcoming message. We can help support knowledge-based decisionmaking. On the NAFSA website, we provide information and resources. How can you help provide data in your field? You can help inform the media and policymakers. For example, if you live in the United States, you could invite your member of Congress to visit your campus and see the benefits brought by international students and scholars.

We are working on this front too. Through our International Education Leadership Knowledge Community, NAFSA provides opportunities for SIOs and other campus leaders to build coalitions as well—on campuses across divisions, and between campuses when institutional collaboration is required. The signature such event at our conference is the Symposium on Leadership, which this year is exploring the intersections between international education and diversity and inclusion.

To realize the “best of times,” we need to overcome our silos. We need to work together as administrators and faculty. After all, we are pillars supporting the same bridge to student learning.

I know it is not always easy. In my own career, I have spanned worlds. I have been a scholar and a diplomat. In my classroom, I worked with colleagues to bridge disciplines. For example, most recently, while on the faculty at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, I led a seminar on “Diplomacy, Technology, and Global Spaces” as part of the effort to examine how statecraft addresses new issues raised by technology from the oceans to the Internet to outer space.

As a diplomat, I tried to help build coalitions in international organizations with traditional and nontraditional partners. Here in Washington, I tried to shape policy by holding regular meetings with other agencies. I understood that to be effective, the U.S. State Department needed to work with others including the Agency for International Development, Department of Defense, Department of Education, and Treasury.

Now, I am combining my interests in diplomacy and international education. International education focuses not on forestalling the worst in human action, but in inspiring the best in the human spirit.

International educators have been facilitating the exchange of people and ideas for decades. We have overcome challenges before, and we will persist. Working across our various fields of expertise, and with a range of partners, we will defend and advance international education for the benefit of students, scholars, and society.

Thank you.


1 Based on data from the American Council on Education, Institute of International Education, and the U.S. Department of Education.

2 NAFSA analysis


Richard Papale is the senior director of strategic communications at NAFSA: Association of International Educators.


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