Integrating International Faculty [Inside Higher Ed]

By Elizabeth Redden, Insider Higher Ed, January 24, 2008

For all the talk about getting visas for foreign scholars to teach at American campuses, there’s relatively little attention to how they fit in once they arrive.

“People on campus generally aren’t talking about international faculty,” said Rebecca Theobald, of the University of Colorado at Boulder’s geography department. She recently completed her dissertation on “Foreign-Born Early-Career Faculty in American Higher Education.”

“Many of the deans and chairs I interviewed said, ‘Why are you doing this?’”

Researchers presented their inquiries into the integration of international faculty on North American campuses this week in Monterey, Calif. during ConnectEd: A Conference on Global Education hosted by Middlebury College and the Monterey Institute of International Studies. Theobald, who surveyed 103 foreign-born faculty teaching in the U.S. in addition to interviewing 30 chairs and 10 deans, presented her findings relative to what administrators are thinking. In addition, two Canadian researchers showcased the new online module they’re developing to address some of the key barriers to success for international faculty there. “The wish would be that the same way we have guidelines to develop good courses, that we also have guidelines to develop a culturally inclusive environment,” said Aline Germain-Rutherford, director of the Middlebury College French School and associate professor at the University of Ottawa — and the principal investigator for the project.

Beginning with Theobald’s research, in her surveys of early-career geography faculty she found that the universal stresses of their professional stage – including pre-tenure pressures – outweighed any particular stresses associated with being foreign-born. In her interviews with deans and chairs, she also found that issues particular to international faculty often weren’t a major concern (although immigration regulations were). Levels of structural support for these faculty members varied by college. “In my college, it’s very, very difficult for foreign-born faculty,” one department chair at a community college told Theobald. “They’re not supportive, there’s some issue as to whose responsibility [the visa work] was, whether the college was supposed to do something, whether the board of trustees, whoever, they all kept passing the buck.”

In her presentation, Theobald stressed the importance of “competent immigration support” on the institutional level and the importance of collegiality and support from the chair on the departmental level – for all early-career faculty, regardless of origin. She also addressed the disagreement among deans and chairs about whether to count foreign faculty when reporting on the percentage of non-white hires (which can have implications in the hiring process). While most deans and chairs agreed that foreign-born faculty should be included in a college’s definition of diversity, opinions were far from uniform. One department chair from a master’s university for instance said, “The law says that diverse means that you’re a United States citizen and a person of color, so that therefore internationals don’t actually count.”

And, upon their hire, Theobald described the variation and role of international faculty members’ own self-conceptions relative to diversity. “Do you want to be a geographer first? Do you want to be a Chinese geographer first?”

Following up on that presentation, researchers from Ottawa and Concordia University in Canada described their Ontario-based project, “Global Education and Faculty Mobility: How to Promote the Integration of International Faculty into Post Secondary Institutions.” Barbara Kerr, of Concordia, defined the immigrant professors they were studying — and seeking to assist — as those born and educated in a foreign country and whose professional experience was mostly obtained outside of Canada.

Aline Germain-Rutherford, of Ottawa, described the genesis of her research as such: her observation that, despite extensive experience abroad, some foreign-born faculty end up feeling like failures in a new cultural context and lose their identity as professionals. When asked about differences in teaching styles developed in other countries, for instance, she replied by citing instances in which long-term instructors in other countries, with very different teaching cultures, were devastated by student evaluations in their first few semesters of teaching in North America. “Some are quitting the profession,” she said. “They say, no, I’m not fit.”

In a literature review, the researchers found that the biggest challenges for new immigrant professionals (not only those in higher education) include a lack of recognition of foreign professional certifications, degrees or professional experience, lack of information about the dominant culture – including an institutional one – a loss of professional identity, a lack of fluency in a profession’s language, and the absence of a professional and social network. They subsequently sent questionnaires and conducted focus groups involving Canadian and new immigrant professors and Canadian and international students at four Ontario institutions to identify barriers specific to higher education. Among the recurrent themes that emerged: difficulty with the recruitment and hiring processes (in particular the negotiation aspect), different cultural values relative to education (foreign-born faculty were especially chagrined by the increasing focus on student-as-consumer), difficulty in socialization and interaction with colleagues, administrators and students, and the challenge of mastering explicit and implicit academic expectations.

In response, the researchers are developing a bilingual Web site,, that will include networking opportunities (a list-serv and blog), information on Canadian higher education as explained through video interviews with many of its practitioners (“How can you describe something without being prescriptive?” Germain-Rutherford said of the video approach), and a number of reflexive activities and simulations to encourage interactivity with the site and its content. Included on the site is information on expectations on teaching, specifically.

When asked by an audience member about the brain drain inherent in foreign-born faculty staying in North America (an appropriate question at a conference that, among its many themes, features a questioning of the imbalance of power in global education), Germain-Rutherford stressed that she did not create the module so much to attract more foreign faculty to Canada as to provide a resource to those already there. “This type of support for foreign faculty is null,” she said. “There is nothing.”

Echoing Theobald’s comments at the beginning of the session, Germain-Rutherford said, “People were surprised we were doing this research.”