VPIA candidate brings international view

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February 3, 2011

10:12 PM

When the American crouched into the back seat of the old cab in Afghanistan, and the driver let slip that he was desperately low on money, Ethan Kapstein responded without hesitation.

He congratulated the cabbie on an upcoming wedding, which in Afghanistan can last up to five days and can be held in venues as large as one of the College of William and Mary’s academic buildings.

The crowd of students, faculty and donors gathered in the Sadler Center looked at the speaker, unfamiliar with the scene in the back of the cab. Only a former ambassador in the audience seemed to know what the cab driver was referring to. Ethan Kapstein wants every student to understand the situation, too.

The New York native was the first candidate for the positions of vice provost for international affairs and director of the Wendy and Emery Reves Center to host an open forum in the SC Wednesday. According to Kapstein, as an institution that prides itself on being an elite liberal arts university, we must place greater emphasis on global affairs and education.

“I want people to be able to function globally if they are artists, musicians, scientists or whatever they are,” Kapstein said. “I am concerned by the instrumentalization of American higher education. We do have to be very aware that we are not simply here to serve the global economy — students should be able to do their thing.”

Kapstein currently serves as the chair of Political Economy at INSEAD, a premier business and research university in Fontainebleau, France, which claims that its students could be dropped anywhere in the world and be successful. Kapstein wants to transfer that mantra to the College.

He said that such a goal is attainable at American universities like the College, but he cautioned that schools need to avoid risks in the competitive market of global studies.

“Universities are scrambling to globalize, but they have not thought deeply about what that means from an educational standpoint,” he said. “It is kind of like ‘build it and they will come.’”

Kapstein proposed a module system to combat this problem. While the specifics are still undetermined, Kapstein would encourage students to work, serve and study abroad, complementing this with coursework or independent studies back at the College.

“If William and Mary could develop a module that taught all its students how to become global citizens, that’s something we could package and take on the road,” he said. “That is something the U.S. government would be extremely interested in.”

However, Kapstein said that current trends in American higher education were not helping to transform its students into these global citizens. The study of foreign language in American colleges has dropped by 50 percent over the last 20 years. Kapstein cited federal funding of $31 billion for broad research and development programs at the university level, while less than $300 million is allocated for foreign studies.
In a larger sense, Kapstein said he believes a global studies program could actually help the College overcome its budget constraints.

“To do that you will have to tap international pools of capital,” he said. “If William and Mary wants to be a leading liberal arts university, you are going to have to be plugged into the global economy. Otherwise you will be a fine Virginia institution, maybe a good American institution, but you will not be a leading [international] institution.”

Additionally, Kapstein did not agree that the College lacked funding for these programs.

“I have never in my entire career as an academic faced a [monetary] constraint,” he said. “If you have a good idea, you find money.”

The final part of Kapstein’s proposed program lies in attracting international students to the College. He cited the school’s beautiful campus, strong safety record and historic location as influential incentives for parents of students from the Middle East, Southeast Asia and South America who would like to send their students to the United States to study.

“One of the beautiful things about William and Mary is that you are small enough to make a difference,” Kapstein said.

Four other applicants have been scheduled to give talks, and will be available for questioning over the next two weeks. Candidate Steve Hanson hosts the next open forum 4 p.m. Monday.

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