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Speech Transcript

For immediate use

Oct. 12, 2007

Carolina history professor Michael H. Hunt delivers 2007 University Day address

Following is the text of "International studies to what end?," the 2007 University Day address given by Michael H. Hunt, the Everett H. Emerson professor of history, Friday, October 12, at Memorial Hall.

Click here to view video of Hunt's address.

Chancellor Moeser, distinguished members of the platform party, faculty colleagues, staff, and students gathered here today. I am honored to have been invited to deliver this address and delighted to help celebrate the formal dedication of the FedEx Global Education Center and what it symbolizes – the great strides international studies has made all across our campus.

Each of us will have our own yardsticks by which to measure those strides. I think of two upper-level undergraduate courses both on international topics but separated by a quarter of a century. The first was in 1980 (just after my arrival at UNC). The Cold War was in its thirty-third year, economic globalization was gaining traction, and the Iranian revolution had just triumphed. Yet an informal survey I conducted that year revealed that my students were strikingly blinkered. Few had traveled abroad, even fewer had spent substantial time living overseas, a surprising number reported never having left North Carolina, and none were exchange students bringing a foreign perspective into our discussions. By contrast, the students in a course this past spring were connected to the world in a dazzling variety of ways. Recent university initiatives help account for this big difference, notably the much expanded and vigorously promoted study abroad program, the availability of courses in departments such as Asian Studies that did not even exist in 1980, the presence of foreign exchange students, and the encouragement to juniors and seniors to develop research projects and career goals with an international dimension.

Windows on the world have opened and so have minds thanks to many hands working especially diligently over the last decade and a half. Making UNC a distinctly more cosmopolitan place has involved administrative leadership, alumni support, the hard work of fund raisers, faculty commitment, and graduate as well as undergraduate students’ growing appetite for foreign knowledge. When the history is written of this achievement, you’ll see familiar names but also some not so familiar.

The time for marking achievements and paying tributes is also a time for thinking about the future. Here too everyone with a stake in matters international on campus – whether in epidemiology, economic enterprise, security policy, demography, or the environment (to name some of the more obvious) – will have their own particular notions about how to raise still higher UNC’s standing. We’ve figured out how to make dramatic gains in a relatively short time. Building on those gains seems in general relatively straightforward.

What I would like to do today is focus on one critical issue that will prove on examination not at all straightforward: Why have we made this international investment and why should we continue? What are we to do with this store of international expertise that UNC is accumulating? Many, perhaps most of us would argue that the well being of our country and our communities constitutes an important, perhaps even ultimate justification for the specialized study that we conduct. In practical terms we honor our social obligation through what might be described as a “trickle down” or “come and get it” approach. Basically I think most of us on the faculty think of making a difference through the lives of our students and through our publications conveying research findings. We operate on faith that somehow or other what we have made available in the classroom and in print makes a difference.

In point of fact our approach has actually become “trickle down plus” as faculty get more and more help in communicating what we are doing and why it is important. The most fully dedicated conduit between our international expertise and a broader public is the Center for Global Initiatives and the associated regional centers (each with its own program of outreach). But others play at least some role in this system of international publicity and outreach. Examples that spring to mind from my own experience include the Project for Historical Education (run jointly by the School of Education and the Department of History), the General Alumni Association, the Program in the Humanities, the University of North Carolina Press, and the Carolina Speakers program.

Until fairly recently I thought we were doing enough, and it did not even occur to me to imagine ways of moving beyond “trickle down plus” – and for good reasons that will immediately occur to many in this audience.

My own work as a historian has led me to question whether trickle down plus is enough. I see three broad developments that have arguably transformed the environment in which the university operates. (Here comes the history lesson!)

The oldest of those developments is globalization. Over the last century and a half it has generated unprecedented and intensifying integration that is not just economic but also cultural, social, and political. New connections have taken all sorts of forms – from pop culture, to proliferating non-governmental organizations, to new international norms, to hordes of people as well plants and microbes jumping continents. These connections have in turn yielded extraordinary benefits, but they have also generated major, even potentially catastrophic problems not imaginable even a generation ago.

Then add the second big development – the changed U.S. relationship to the world effected in the decades since 1945. In that time American leaders sought first to build a better world after the trauma of depression and two world wars, then to stop communism, then to promote free markets and free elections, and most recently to wage a war against terrorism. Along the way we accumulated commitments in every region and many countries while also asserting a leadership role on broad transnational issues raised by globalization. Here too there are benefits but also problems far beyond what anyone before 1945 could have imagined.

Now for the final development that has most directly altered the context in which the university functions: the difficulty that the country has arguably had over the last four decades or so in coping with an ever more intricate global society and the daunting accumulation of overseas commitments. The current tangle surrounding the Iraq adventure comes at once to mind. But I’d like to suggest it is part of a larger, more deeply rooted problem facing our country.

Since the late 1960s U.S. foreign policy has suffered from persistent instability (what I have called the “disoriented giant” syndrome). We have witnessed a long string of failed leaders and failed policies. Presidents from Johnson, to Carter, to Reagan, to the elder Bush, to Clinton, and finally to the younger Bush have each in turn struggled to find and stick with a policy that enjoyed acceptance at home and proved effective abroad.

At the very time that Americans need to think in an informed and careful way about how to proceed in the world, we are less and less able to get our minds around all the issues that confront us. Opinion may differ over the main reasons for this deliberative failure on the home front.

Whatever the reason, the fact remains that we face serious obstacles to conducting a fruitful debate over the international challenges we face.

You can see where this history lesson has taken us: to the conclusion that these developments carry potentially profound, deeply troubling consequences. They put in question the democratic basis of our foreign policy. And they endanger the current global system built around U.S. leadership (with implications for justice, peace, and stability, not just the more frequently contested economic dimensions of globalization).

What I am suggesting is that this and other universities have in this new century a special opportunity and perhaps responsibility – to help sort out the international tangle that the United States has gotten itself and to reinvigorate the democratic ideal of an educated citizenry engaging in genuine debate over the great issues before us. This is a role that the universities have not chosen; it has come to us through events we could not imagine and through the failure of other institutions that we have to lament.

How might the university make a difference in this alarming situation – a policy morass and a clogged, constricted market place of ideas? The answer may lie in a more boldly conceived, perhaps better funded and coordinated, and certainly (as far as faculty go) better rewarded outreach strategy. Here let me limit myself to identifying off the cuff four ways that the university is particularly well suited to assert itself:

Others with more experience in these matters will doubtless have a good deal to say about the feasibility and direction of a more energetic approach. What audiences might we reach? How might we use new technologies to make ourselves better heard and respond more rapidly to issues that erupt into public consciousness? What funding or other support might make us more effective? Can we do more with what we have – through collaboration on this campus across established lines of division or more broadly through cooperation between UNC and other universities?

Let’s be clear about the stakes if this university seeks to become a more audible voice in debate and discussion in American civic life on pressing international issues of our day. Such a shift will unsettle long established academic routines (especially dear to faculty) and displease powerful groups more comfortable with the current, circumscribed “trickle down plus” approach (a prospect to make administrators wince). But precisely because UNC is a place that honors knowledge and reason and open debate and precisely because many of us feel deeply a commitment as educators, as citizens, and as members of a global community, we need to give careful thought to speaking out more forcefully and more often. Let’s also remember, especially on this occasion, that the public voice that we now have and the greater voice that we can at least contemplate is the direct result of our recent achievements in international research and education. May those activities continue to prosper – and may we continue to contemplate the question: international studies to what end?

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