They have been down the same path, but they had never had the opportunity to learn from each other’s experiences. They are the university faculty, administrators and experts running US-Russia dual and joint degree programs.
Enter Jonathan Becker, Vice President and Dean of International Affairs at Bard College and member of the SEE Higher Education Working Group. Together with Bard’s long-standing partners at Smolny College in St. Petersburg, Becker won SEE linkage funding to organize the first-ever US-Russia Joint/Dual Degree Conference in New York in January 2014.
The conference gathered more than 50 participants, including 14 Russian and US dual degree programs, which Becker refers to as “deep partnerships” because they have withstood the pressures of global turmoil and funding. The attendees represented a range of partners, from the highly experienced to those just starting out and ready to learn. They shared eagerly about challenges ranging from curriculum development to language capability to retention of faculty and student interest.
Using the conference as the launch pad, Becker and his Smolny colleagues Philip Fedchin and Valery Monakhov sought to create a binational network of educators uniting existing U.S.-Russia degree programs, which up until last January existed without consistent communication or collaboration.
A key resource and knowledge base for this network is the 2014 project of the SEE Higher Education Working Group: their exhaustive joint degree guidebook. First introduced at the conference and now awaiting publication by the Institute of International Education, the guidebook is called “How to Develop Partnerships between U.S. and Russian Universities: From Motivations to Results.”
The text was written mainly by the working group’s Advanced Practitioner fellows Mark Johnson from University of Wisconsin and Elena Abrosimova of Moscow State University. Along with the group’s Emerging Professionals, these fellows supported the group’s efforts with on-site research and fact-finding missions to various Russian and American institutions.
The guidebook’s goal, says SEE fellow Elena Abrosimova, is to build understanding, so that universities “may better comprehend the problems that can arise while organizing collaboration… and so they see what motivates American [or Russian] universities that are seeking partnerships.”
The guidebook consists of two distinct nationally-targeted editions, meaning that the content is tailored to the specificities and expectations of each country’s educators.
“It was written by Russians in Russian,” explains Abrosimova, “and by Americans in English. There won’t be a translation from Russian to English or from English to Russian, because the presentation of information is targeted at a specific audience.”
The English-language guidebook, for example, clearly lays out the importance of genuinely mutual and balanced relationships between national partners, now that Russian academia has regained its vitality and the days of aid and “international tutelage” are over.
In the Russian-oriented counterpart text, faculty and administrators will find an explanation of how American universities view partnerships as expanding their horizons, not just increasing institutional ratings or providing new revenue. Both documents contain a frank discussion of challenges posed by issues of funding, program longevity, disconnects of academic tradition and student culture shock.
By the time the conference participants went their separate ways, Novgorod State University had begun to find common purpose with UMass Amherst, and six other Russian universities had expressed interest in joint programs with US institutions.
Thanks to the efforts of Bard and Smolny Colleges, these educators can also now avail themselves of a new online forum, where they can share valuable knowledge and network with their colleagues. Soon, Universities will also be able to take advantage of the working group’s guidebook, and find insight tailored to each country’s distinct conditions, concerns, and cultural understandings of the contemporary university.