Students, faculty give Harvard a global reach

By James F. Smith
Globe Staff / March 18, 2010

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CAMBRIDGE — Even as record numbers of foreign students are pursuing degrees at Harvard University, far more Harvard undergraduates than ever are traveling abroad for summer study, internships, and projects from Botswana to Beijing.

Last year, a total of 1,678 Harvard undergraduates went abroad to study, one-fourth of the student body. That is 2 1/2 times as many as the 667 who went abroad six years earlier.

“This is a remarkable turnaround from an era, not very long ago, when undergraduates were discouraged from going abroad because it would take them away from precious Harvard Square for some moment of their undergraduate experience,’’ Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust said in an interview in her Harvard Yard office before leaving for China last week.

That increase in students traveling abroad is just one of many measures of the growing globalization of Harvard over the past decade. Faculty are leading the charge, conducting research in scores of countries. Harvard now has offices in more than a dozen foreign cities. There is a Harvard Medical School partnership in Dubai; a Harvard-backed AIDS research lab in Durban, South Africa; and a Harvard Business School office in Hong Kong.

And it is not just an outbound global push.

In a period in which the size of the student body has barely nudged upward, the foreign student population has grown 33 percent since the fall of 1999, from 3,099 to 4,131 last fall, drawn from more than 140 countries. That is nearly 20 percent of the total enrollment at Harvard. Most of the foreign students are studying in Harvard’s graduate schools, and East Asian students are most prevalent.

Faust’s travel schedule reflects the growing global reach. She left Friday for an eight-day trip to Asia, where she visited Kyoto, Japan, for discussions with academics, then on to Tokyo, where she met Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama. She headed to Shanghai yesterday for meetings at the two-year-old Harvard Shanghai Center. This is her third overseas trip this academic year.

In November, she met with counterparts in South Africa and launching a teacher-education initiative in Soweto.

“We are an American university, but we have a global reach and a global responsibility,’’ Faust said.

Most leading US universities have expanded their international ties in recent years, and many in the Boston area have extensive programs abroad. Boston University, for example, has a pioneering summer-abroad program, sending 2,100 students, half of them non-BU students, overseas last summer to dozens of countries.

But few, if any, command Harvard’s visibility or its generations-old depth of international academic expertise. Its programs in Japan date to the 1870s; Harvard professor Edwin O. Reischauer, a specialist on Japan, was named ambassador to Japan in 1961 by President Kennedy.

It also helps to have Harvard’s resources. In 2008, financier David Rockefeller pledged $100 million for Harvard to broaden its international reach, and he has given an additional $2 million a year in grants for students to go abroad for “significant international experiences.’’

Faust, a historian who became president of Harvard in 2007, said the driving force behind the internationalization is the faculty, and that is not an accident. Harvard faculty members will lead 27 study-abroad programs to 19 countries over the summer.

There is no doubt that China is now the most popular draw. The Harvard Worldwide website lists no fewer than 191 faculty members involved with China, four times the number of faculty involved with Russia and nearly double the number with ties to India. European studies are not close.

The China boom is consistent with Harvard’s long and rich history with East Asia. The famed historian John King Fairbank, who first traveled to China in the 1930s, taught Chinese history for decades at Harvard and was a national policy guru. The Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies is named for him.

The Harvard China Fund, launched in 2006, uses an “academic venture capital’’ model to fund scholarly programs in Cambridge and China, including a $150,000 grant this year to develop a digital archive for Chinese local history. The fund and the Harvard Business School jointly run the Shanghai center.

The interest from China is mutual. A total of 463 Chinese students, more than 10 percent of all foreign students, are enrolled at the university, more than any foreign country other than Canada. Not far behind is South Korea, with 314 students, followed by India with 235.

Faust said China’s government has been eager to tap the expertise at Harvard. For example, Harvard legal specialists have helped China develop its disability law, and faculty at the Kennedy School of Government have helped China develop disaster-management systems.

Some of the most ambitious foreign outreach comes from unexpected corners at Harvard. Faculty and students from the Graduate School of Design have aggressively pursued projects worldwide. Faust pointed out that the redesign of the Bund, Shanghai’s riverfront, is being led by School of Design professor Alex Krieger. The Big Dig-style project is being completed this month.

The design school is also active in Africa. Faculty and students from the school are working with specialists from the School of Public Health and the Medical School to design hospitals in countries including Lesotho, Malawi, and Ethiopia that would enable safe treatment of tuberculosis.

Harvard Business School, another growing force in the globalization of Harvard, runs five offices overseas and offers an array of executive education programs that draw heavily from midcareer international students. About one-third of the 350 new case studies written each year at the business school are international.

Professor Jorge I. Domínguez, a prominent Latin American studies scholar and vice provost of international affairs, said that Harvard now teaches more than a dozen African languages among the 70 languages offered, and that interest in languages has soared.

“Ten years ago this would have been unthinkable,’’ said Domínguez. “We don’t have to force anybody to go abroad or study languages. They get it. This is the 21st century.’’

James F. Smith writes about Boston’s global ties. His blog is at He can be reached at

Correction: Because of inaccurate information provided by Harvard University, this story described president Drew Gilpin Faust’s trip to Africa in November as the first visit by a Harvard president. Derek Bok traveled to Africa in 1975 on a trip sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation.