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“Yes, I Am a Leader”

Sora H. Friedman couldn’t help but notice the difference: Nearly all of the students in the master’s program in international education at the School for International Training Graduate Institute, where she is chair, are women. When she would go to professional conferences, however, many of the speakers were men.

That observation led Friedman to author a chapter on gender and leadership in international education, just published in The Wiley Handbook of Gender Equity in Higher Education. Not long before International Women’s Day, Friedman and I hopped on Zoom. Women are achieving greater parity in the field, she told me — for example, she found they hold half of the leadership positions in groups like NAFSA, AIEA, and the Forum on Education Abroad — yet challenges remain. Here are some excerpts from our interview.

On key takeaways from her survey of women in the field:

Women are achieving senior leadership today, but often the title is not executive director, dean, provost, or president. Women are managing large staffs, they are managing budgets worth millions of dollars. They’re handling crises that are the purview of a senior leader — you’re not going to have an entry-level person handle a situation if a student dies on study abroad. But because they’re working in large universities, especially, they’re three or four levels down from the top. So they’re not seen as senior leaders. 

Many of the women were also not giving themselves credit. We don’t see our successes clearly. I call for a reframing of the term leadership based on what somebody is doing, and not what their title is. Because if we understand leadership by professional responsibility, many, many more of these women who responded would qualify, and they would answer the question, yes, I am a senior leader.

On the multiplicity of experiences:

One woman arrived in a new country in a senior leadership role. She had a meeting set up with her counterparts at a local institution. She knew enough culturally that she had a gift for them, and they had a gift for her. When she opened it up, it was a tie. They knew that she was a woman, but they still couldn’t wrap their mind that a tie might not be appropriate. And she kept that tie in her office as a reminder of the challenges she had faced and how far she had come in spite of assumptions that others would make about her based on gender.

It’s important that we not assume everybody has one experience. There were a couple of stories where gender was an advantage, such as a woman who was working in the Mideast, where there were women’s only schools. if she had been a man, she would not have had access to the students or for research. So in that case, it was just exactly the opposite.

I have not experienced gender pushback professionally in 35 years in the field. I have been promoted, I have been sought out, I have been supported, I have mentors who are both men and women.

On what can be done to advance women in the field:

There was a lot of discussion about the need to be a mentor, to be a coach. To pay it forward, whatever we’ve received. 

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A Global Look at Academic Freedom

Seventy-one countries, including the United States, earn high ratings for academic freedom in the just-released Academic Freedom Index.

The updated version of the index, first released last year, assesses 175 countries and territories on a set of factors including freedom to research and teach, freedom of academic exchange and dissemination, institutional autonomy, campus integrity, and freedom of academic and cultural expression. About 80 percent of the world’s population lives in countries that limit academic freedom.

Katrin Kinzelbach of Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg and one of the report’s authors, noted that the U.S. “sticks out — rather uniquely — as a highly polarized country where the freedom of academic expression remains, nevertheless, very well protected.”

The dataset, which charts academic-freedom trends from 1900 to the present, is a joint project of FAU, the Global Public Policy Institute, the Scholars at Risk Network, and the V‑Dem Institute. The new report makes a number of recommendations about how university leaders, public officials, research-funding organizations, and others can use the scores.

In a commentary, several of the report’s authors look at another audience for the the index: groups that produce global university rankings. They propose ways that scores could be built into rankings, such as using them as an additional weight when placing universities, downgrading institutions in countries with lower levels of academic freedom.

The authors also hit on a point I’ve raised before: By not including academic freedom among their current metrics, are rankers effectively saying that a university need not have protections for speech and ideas to be world class?

They lend credence to the false premise that academic freedom is an unnecessary luxury.

By trumpeting numerical lists of universities purportedly showing greatness without accounting for vastly different conditions of intellectual and personal freedom, ranking companies contribute to a distortion and risk complicity in commercial deception and political repression.

Recommended reading: The report singles out Hong Kong as one of a handful of countries where academic freedom has deteriorated in recent years. Joyce Lau has an excellent piece in Times Higher Ed examining the tradeoff facing universities there: more money, but less space for thought.

The Stranded

For all students, the coronavirus pandemic has been enormously disruptive. For the more than one million international students enrolled in American colleges, Covid-19 has been a vortex, flinging them to every part of the globe. Even those who remain in the U.S. — bound by academic obligations or blocked from returning home by travel restrictions — are, in a way, dislocated, cut off from the support of family and longtime friends.

For the Chronicle of Higher Education, I spent months following two of these students: T, from Mongolia, has spent the pandemic alone in a college dorm room. “I’m just thinking about how I don’t even remember what home feels like anymore,” she said. Lily, studying from China, takes classes at night and dreams of being back on campus. And of orange chicken: “It is not even a real thing in China. But now I miss it so much.” Read their stories.

It’s been a busy week: I also wrote about how Chinese students may be less interested in studying in America — and how Americans may be less open to having them here. (Sign up for a Chronicle account and you can get access to a limited number of articles.)

Tell me what you think. Then help me with my future reporting. Some ideas I’m interested in exploring: 

  • How will you welcome and integrate international students who have been gone from campus for 18 months — or may have never set foot there? 
  • Do you anticipate having students unable to travel to the U.S. for the fall semester? How are you planning to serve them?
  • Are there changes that you made during Covid that you will retain in your work? I’d love to hear from people in all sorts of roles — international-student services, education abroad, English-language instruction, international admissions, the faculty — about how the pandemic has altered how you do your job.

You can reach me at or via Twitter or LinkedIn.


….to Paul Fain, the writer of a new Open Campus newsletter, The Job, a weekly look at the connections between education and the American workforce. Paul and I are former colleagues — we started at the Chronicle within days of one another — and he says he particularly wants to focus on how postsecondary education and job training systems can work to better serve lower-income learners and workers. Subscribe here.

Around the Globe

The U.S. State Department is temporarily expanding eligibility for waivers of visa interviews.

A new petition asks the U.S. government to give priority to student visas in China, where consulates have been slow to resume visa processing.

Federal prosecutors charged two men with conspiracy, visa fraud, and identity theft for helping international students secure visas and admission to U.S. colleges by forging their transcripts and paying people to write their application essays and take their standardized tests. 

China is suing an American-based researcher who exposed human-rights abuses in Xinjiang.

China will increase spending on basic research over the next five years as part of an effort to become a science and technology power.

Jo Johnson, a former UK universities minister and brother of the current prime minister, is warning of the “poorly understood” risks of closer collaboration with China.

The Myanmar military stormed universities, releasing tear gas and firing rubber bullets at students and faculty.

One person was killed as police and students clashed during a protest at South Africa’s Wits University.

Thai university officials are warning that foreign students who take part in protests there could have their visas revoked.

International students have been accused of “importing” Covid to Northern Cyprus.

Australian academics say proposed legislation that would ban the teaching of gender fluidity would force Shakespearean plays like Twelth Night to be cut from the curriculum.

A new Bloomberg Opinion piece argues that optional practical training is broken.

And finally…

Travel fans, I’ll be talking with well-known author Rick Steves about the future of travel this coming Thursday, March 18, at 6 p.m. ET. Registration for the virtual event is free, but donations will go to the Fund for Education Abroad, which provides scholarships and other support to students who are underrepresented in study abroad. Have ideas for questions or topics I should pose to Steves? Drop me a note at Hope you can join us!

’Til next week — Karin

A freelance journalist and expert on global issues in higher ed, Karin has been writing for more than a decade about the changing relationship between American colleges and the world.