Boston University + Global Higher Education


It is the year 2050 and a young woman is studying undergraduate management and art history at Boston University. She is completing a senior thesis on financing preventive medicine in economically depressed communities in northern India as part of a large-scale research study led by researchers from the School of Public Health and the School of Management. She has come to Boston University for the same attractions that have drawn students here for decades: a quality, rigorous education at a residential university; the chance to be part of an academic community drawn from all over the world, representing the spectrum of academic interests; and the opportunity to study and intern in a variety of locations throughout the world as part of her university education. Sounds like Boston University today, but will it be so at the mid-century point? An equally important question is, will she have to come to Boston for a Boston University education?

As a major private research university with an outstanding and growing reputation, we must define our role in the global expansion of higher education. I have put together this paper to express my thoughts on this topic, on which I have been influenced by conversations with many colleagues at Boston University and by my role as an advisor in the development of higher education globally. 1

I believe the world will be fundamentally different in 2050. Estimates are that there will be 9 billion people on the Earth, with more than half living in Asia. 2 If the United States is still the world’s largest economy, it will only be so by a narrow margin over China and India, which will have emerged to become true economic powers, and some projections suggest that China will have surpassed us by then. Although poverty, malnutrition, and limited access to health care will still plague us, a worldwide middle class will have fully emerged that will drive economies around the globe. Corporations will respond (as they already are) by following the growth, leading to an ever larger presence in the major economies around the world. No successful large corporation will be focused solely on America, and I suspect the same will be true of major research universities.

We also should expect that the landscape for higher education will be transformed as new high-quality academic institutions emerge to serve the growing number of college-bound students and as existing institutions respond to global demand.

Western universities will no longer dominate the list of the best research universities in the world as governments and individuals fund new institutions in the successfully developing nations. Already, government-sponsored institutions from China, India, Korea, and Singapore are achieving recognition, especially for professional education. The 2011 Financial Times list of the world’s leading business schools includes two each from China and India in the top twenty. Planned investments by governments will accelerate this trend. Today, elite, privately operated universities remain limited largely to the United States, where they have been supported by a mix of government policies, philanthropy, research investment, and by individuals. However, important first steps by individuals and other governments to build world-class institutions of higher education are beginning, which will lead to the development of prominent quality, private institutions elsewhere.

How will Boston University respond to this changing landscape and thrive in 2050? Why will a student opt to attend Boston University over institutions across the United States and throughout the world? How will we continue to have relevance in a world that becomes both more accessible and much more globally competitive for supplying goods and services—such as higher education—to everyone? How will we continue to attract the world’s strongest research faculty? How will we position ourselves to access the growing research funding provided by foreign governments and private institutions? These are questions that demand our attention.

Since our founding more than 140 years ago, Boston University has demonstrated a perspective that extends beyond the boundaries of our Boston campus. Perhaps this heritage is derived from our missionary roots as a Methodist institution, or from the spread of our original campus over Beacon Hill, to downtown, and later to the South End of Boston and the shores of the Charles River. Whatever the source, our history and entrepreneurial spirit make us one of the most globally connected private universities in the world. The recent survey conducted by BU’s Global Operations office identified over 250 activities led by our faculty in 80 countries and Antarctica, representing more than 70 departments and academic units and 14 schools and colleges. This total includes programs ranging from our large study abroad programs, such as the one in London that serves 330 students each semester, to faculty-led collaborations in research and scholarship in many countries; the map below shows the countries of BU’s global activities in Academic Year 2009–2010.

I believe that the future success and impact of Boston University as a great private research university will be interwoven with our presence as a truly global university in the 21st century.

Strategy for a Global University

Four key attributes will define Boston University as a global university in the 21st century:

  1. An international student body on campus
  2. Academic programs and student experiences that create the foundation of a global education, including the opportunity to complete a portion of their Boston University program in other locations throughout the world
  3. Enhanced support for our faculty members and graduate students who are engaged in research activities around the globe
  4. An expanded global footprint of the University to support these programs, to provide a Boston University education for students who prefer to study outside the United States, and to enhance research programs with significant international components

The first two items are the traditional approach of a residential university toward providing international experiences for students and faculty members. Typically, both efforts are organized in a context that balances the impact of international students and study abroad opportunities with the residential, America-centered mission of a university. The third component is one that goes back to the theological roots of this University, and the vision of our founders, with engagement of our schools in research, scholarship, and service around the world. The fourth element, creating a substantial global footprint and supporting programs that are dispersed among multiple campuses, is much more difficult and less common. Doing so requires a sea change in university culture and organization. How do faculty and students organize effectively across multiple campuses and different countries and cultures? We know how difficult this is to accomplish even when the campuses are as close as the Charles River and Medical campuses in Boston.

Here is where I believe we are with respect to the four components of a globalization strategy:

1. International Students

Today nearly 5,500 of the more than 33,000 students attending Boston University come from beyond our borders. In absolute numbers of international students, we rank tenth among institutions in the United States, although at approximately 15 percent of our total student body, our population is below many of our peers. 3 The numbers, however, are increasing; international undergraduate students have increased from 5.7 percent in 2005 to 10.4 percent in the freshman class that entered in the fall of 2010. International applications have been growing annually by double-digit percentage increases, with almost 6,000 applicants for the fall 2011 freshman class. There is no reason to think this interest will abate soon.

It is no surprise that our international students are coming disproportionately from Asia, with China, India, and Korea comprising 43 percent of the pool. India and China each have vast populations who highly value quality education, and each have rapidly expanding economies that provide an increasing percentage of their populations access, potentially, to Boston University.

2. Global Studies and Student Experiences

The quality and breadth of Boston University’s faculty members in the liberal arts and social sciences—in languages, culture, art, history, religion, politics, international relations, economics, and management—form the foundation for global studies across the University, whether organized through our area studies centers or in traditional disciplines. We continue to invest in these disciplines to strengthen our faculty and meet increasing student demands.

Our undergraduate study abroad program, organized through BU International Programs, is a cornerstone of the opportunities for global experiences by our students. With 83 programs in 21 countries that served 2,250 students last year, it is among the largest such programs in the country. We operate substantial facilities in London, Paris, Geneva, and Sydney, as well as Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles, and continue to grow; for example, a new program was established in Shanghai in 2009. Impressively, 65 percent of our students held internships as part of these programs, again one of the largest study abroad internship programs in the country.

3. Global Research

Today our faculty gives us incredible strength in international research and scholarship, ranging from the large-scale studies on neonatal health in Zambia, led by researchers in the Center for Global Health & Development, to our Tiputini Biodiversity Station in the heart of the Amazon jungle in Ecuador, and to the tremendous number of individual faculty working on research topics and with collaborators around the world. The global connectivity of our research is a strength of Boston University that enhances our reputation and the quality and relevance of our educational programs. Although individual faculty members are responsible for many of our global connections, organizations like the Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future and the Center for Global Health & Development also provide important platforms to bring together like-minded faculty and students who are interested in global challenges.

4. Global Footprint

Boston University has been developing programs and facilities abroad for many years (e.g., London, Paris, Geneva, etc.); indeed, our study abroad programs together constitute our largest international footprint. In addition, we offer other programs that are aimed at students from international institutions. Starting with programs developed for adult learners for the military in the 1950s, Metropolitan College today offers graduate programs in management science on a campus in Brussels. Several other of our schools and colleges have forays into international graduate education, including the School of Management International MBA program offered jointly in China and Boston, the Boston University Institute for Dental Research and Education in Dubai, and the School of Education’s new graduate program in curriculum and teaching in Mumbai, India. More programs are under consideration.

Each of these efforts has been successful at some level, but, in sum, they do not as yet constitute a truly global educational footprint. I believe we need to be much bolder and more focused in our approach.

Opportunities and Discussions

While we pride ourselves on the learning environments that we create within our programs, schools, and colleges, the collective impact and uniqueness of Boston University comes from the breadth of our programs, our educational offerings, and our engagement with the community around us. Acting alone, no individual program, school, or college can recreate either the imprint or the impact of Boston University.

I believe the time has come for the University to consider establishing a larger footprint elsewhere in the world, by creating one or more significant satellite campuses where a number of our schools and colleges are represented and where we serve local students, as well as students originating from our campuses in Boston and from across the world.

This concept has been considered before, although usually on an episodic or opportunistic basis; many times, governments and private partners have approached Boston University, inviting us to consider proposals for campuses around the globe. The challenge for the University now is to step back from such specific opportunities and consider, strategically, how establishing a true multi-campus presence might enhance the University, and where such an effort would best flourish in the long term.

Many questions arise. What does it mean to be a truly multi-campus university? How do we optimize the quality of faculty and staff and the availability of high-quality, English-speaking students, all within a sustainable financial model? Where will the government and the private sector be supportive of a long-term presence of Boston University?

As the demand for higher education grows and as foreign governments and private institutions increase research investments, one can imagine the advantages of being a multi-campus university:


These concepts ceased to be abstract as we began considering a campus in India for a potential expansion on the recommendation of the Council for a Global University. Why India? Consider that India, with a young population of 1.2 billion people (the median age is only 26.2, compared to 36.9 in the U.S.), is projected to be the fastest-growing economy among G20 countries between now and 2050. 4 Based on internal economic measures, India already has 50 million people who have entered the middle class, which is expected to grow to 500 million by 2025. 5 At that point, India will have the world’s largest English-speaking middle class seeking higher education. This enormous growth in the demand for higher education in India cannot be met solely by government-supported institutions, and the government has already begun discussions to allow private and foreign institutions to help meet the need. 6 We have tracked these discussions; as reported in BU Today, Kapil Sibal, Minister for Human Resource Development for the Republic of India, visited us in October 2009 to discuss the potential opportunity. 7 The University also held a meeting of our International Advisory Board in New Delhi in January 2010 to learn more about the government’s plans for higher education, which I reported on at our spring 2010 Faculty Assembly meeting.

In summer 2009, I appointed Professor Sushil Vachani of the School of Management as Special Assistant to the President for the India Initiative, with the directive to pursue this concept in Boston with University leadership and in India with the government and private sector. Professor Vachani has worked with the deans of interested schools and colleges to develop a model for how Boston University might engage in India. Our focus has been on establishing a residential campus where we initially would offer graduate professional programs representing the breadth of the University. These programs would be offered first using a blend of teaching in India, on our campus there, and residency in Boston, but would quickly evolve to be offered entirely on our India campus, staffed by faculty recruited for this purpose. Professor Vachani has worked with the deans of six schools and colleges who are interested in offering such programs.

Discussions of this concept continue with potential financial supporters and educational partners, the Indian government, and with our International Advisory Board and Board of Trustees. Although no conclusion has been reached, I want to share background information on this effort with you as an indication of the magnitude of the commitment that we are contemplating.

Organization of Global Initiatives

The complexity of our existing global programs and our desire to enhance our global footprint demand a new level of organization both for our academic programs and our administrative services. The first step toward this goal was the appointment of Willis Wang as Vice President for Global Operations in January 2010. Vice President Wang has established his office with the goals of helping academic units launch international programs and assisting the University leadership in coordinating these activities and leveraging our international investments. Information about the first steps in this direction is available on the new Global Operations website.


As you can see from my remarks, there are new and, I believe, exciting visions for education at Boston University in the year 2050. We could, by then, be a multi-campus institution with a very different articulation for the range of educational programs we deliver and how our student body is constituted. I hope that this short essay serves to bring you into the conversation about Boston University’s role in global higher education and the options we are considering.

To some it might appear that we are trapped in the paradigm described by Pogo Possum, “We are confronted with insurmountable opportunities.” 8 That is, some might feel either that the effort is too large to be feasible or that other priorities require our focus. We must continue our ongoing efforts to improve the quality and stature of Boston University relative to the best research universities in the United States. We have made much progress in the last decades, hiring nationally competitive faculty members, attracting increasingly more qualified undergraduate and graduate students, and investing in important facilities and programs. There is much more to do; however, as we continue to invest we must keep our eyes on the horizons of higher education and develop a vision for what great research universities will look like in the decades ahead.

Although I am sure that there are a range of opinions about how active Boston University should be in global higher education, I hope we can agree that we should focus on preparing the University for the students we can expect to welcome four decades from now, in 2050. Forty years is a short period in the history of the University; we would be remiss if we failed to take steps now to plan for that future.

I want to emphasize the power of a long-term vision for the University. It took more than forty years to relocate Boston University from all over downtown Boston to our campuses on Commonwealth Avenue and in the South End (the School of Law moved into the Law Tower in 1964), based on a vision that was articulated at least as early as the presidency of Lemuel Murlin (1911–1924). It took another forty years to consolidate the Charles River Campus and convert us to a residential university (we now house over 80 percent of all our undergraduates on campus for all four years), an effort pioneered by President John R. Silber. In this same time span, over the past forty years we have become a major research university. But with a vision and an operating plan, we can continue to grow as a leading 21st-century global university. I look forward to our continued discussions of this potential.

  1. There has been considerable thought given to this topic by our colleagues. Specifically, with the formation in 2005 of the President’s Council on Boston University and the Global Future and the successor Council for a Global University, faculty members from across Boston University have carefully considered the opportunities for the University in the emerging world of global higher education. See the Council’s September 2006 report. Their recommendations have supported many of the initiatives that we have undertaken over the last several years.
  2. World Population Prospects: The 2008 Revision Population Database.
  3. OpenAccess website 2009.
  4. Uri Dadush and Bennett Stancil, “The World Order in 2050,” Carnegie Endowment for World Peace, April 2010.
  5. U.S. Department of State, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs, Background Note: India.
  6. The Chronicle of Higher Education, “India Prepares a Welcome Mat for Students and Foreign Universities,” March 13, 2011.
  7. BU Today, “BU Enters Talks for a Campus in India,” October 29, 2009.
  8. Cartoonist Walt Kelly.