Cautionary Words of a Stanford Expert on Partnerships in Higher Education

Often American policy analysts, political representatives, and university administrators who visit Vietnam are treated as "experts" on what Vietnam should do in higher education. As I discussed elsewhere, most of these people are not qualified to pass judgment on these matters.

In this section I'd like to quote from some of the observations about "partnerships" with U.S. universities that were made by someone who truly is an expert. Joel Samoff is a professor at Stanford University in its African Studies Center; he is the North American Editor of the International Journal of Educational Development and is on the Advisory Board of the Comparative Education Review. The excerpts below are taken from a 130-page article by him and a coauthor (Bidemi Carrol, a graduate student at Stanford at the time) that appeared in the African Studies Review in 2004.

Prof. Samoff criticizes the fashionable word "partnership" as a misleading term that obscures the true nature of the role of U.S. universities in the Third World:

Partnership has become the mot du jour of foreign aid... In the contemporary world of aid, everything is a "partnership"... What earlier was called aid is now called a partnership. What earlier was described as external guidance, oversight, and validation is now recharacterized as partnership....
But as African institutions asserted their sovereignty and autonomy, they sought to recast the relationship with their foreign sponsors and mentors. At least rhetorically, the overseas higher education institutions recognized the difference between receiving technical assistance and collaborating as equals, a situation for which "partnership" seemed the appropriate term....
As a senior Zambian official noted, applying the term "partnership" to a relationship among unequals in power, authority, and wealth can be a polite euphemism that obscures the inequalities and the differential benefits from the association.

Samoff describes the types of problems that arise with partnerships:

Beyond the obfuscating terminology, other critiques are many and often sharp. The U.S. partner receives most of the money; the availability and use of resources are far from transparent; the U.S. partner makes or controls the principal decisions, from conception through design and implementation, the African partner has little say over starting, transition, and ending points; curricular and pedagogical innovations originate in the U.S. and are inappropriate to the African setting; the locus of decision-making renders the partnership disempowering and unsustainable; partnerships are extractive, with information, knowledge, and often personnel generally moving from Africa to the U.S., primarily to the benefit of the U.S.

The U.S.-Vietnam Education Task Force Final Report envisions long-term effects of a "partnership" with U.S. universities. The initial period of very expensive investment by Vietnam (lasting approximately ten years) will supposedly be followed by a much longer period of fruitful collaboration. However, this is not what happened in Africa:

...we found only a few reports of academic partnerships or even significant sustained informal collaboration that persisted well beyond the completion of the original initiative and its funding. Very rarely, apparently, have the U.S. institutions been willing to invest their own resources to continue a partnership beyond its initial external funding.... we did not find significant evidence of curricular, pedagogical, research, or institutional innovations at African universities that resulted from an academic partnership and that persisted beyond its completion....

Although Samoff does not say that all academic partnerships between Africa and the U.S. are defective, he makes the following general warning:

The extent of the external interest can be more overwhelming than liberating, more distracting than constructive, and international higher education partnerships may create more problems than they solve....
Since independence, many of the relationships between African universities and their overseas partners have featured the rhetoric of development, "closing the gap," protecting national initiatives, capacity-building, and empowerment. In practice, though, the truth of many universities has been continued dependence, with initiatives, oversight, and validation remaining largely external.

Samoff calls attention to the contradiction between the stated goals of many academic partnerships and the reality:

A major stated goal of Africa-U.S. academic partnerships is to reduce the inequalities between institutions and between scholars and scholarship in the two settings. In practice, the outcome may be just the opposite. That can happen in many ways. The ethos of the partnership may reinforce the notion of U.S. superiority in all of the measures that academia deems important, from the quality of instruction, to the prestige of journals, to the credibility of particular approaches and methods, to the idioms and preferred jargon of academic discourse, to specific pedagogies, to the values embedded in the roles of professor, researcher, dean, librarian, technician, learner, and student. Material benefits may flow unequally toward the U.S. partner, even with adjustments for the generally higher U.S. cost structure. The U.S. partner may insist on retaining authority for making or approving all major decisions. New ventures, including both research and instruction, may be initiated by the U.S. partner or within the U.S. institution, thereby limiting the influence of the African partner over orientation and activities for the life of the partnership. Academic partnerships may facilitate the movement of senior scholars and promising researchers to U.S. institutions, with no corresponding movement, either shorter- or longer-term, in the other direction.

According to Samoff, one of the most insidious results of excessive dependence on U.S. universities is that it stands in the way of one of the most important functions of a Third World university -- namely, to provide a setting for basic research, independent thought, and cultural rejuvenation in opposition to any neocolonial pressures or tendencies. As he says,

These inequalities may also have broader developmental consequences. Africa, like any other region, needs institutions for "unapplied" teaching, learning, reflection, and research. This is particularly so because of the powerful and intensifying imbalance in the production and application of knowledge that exists between Africa and the North, and the corresponding sense of technological, intellectual, and cultural dependence that can be addressed only if the continent has the facilities and the incentives to encourage the best African thinkers to design appropriate paths. The conduct of basic research and the opportunity for original thought are in the last resort the only means by which societies can take control of their destiny. Such a function is not a luxury that can be dispensed with for a period, pending better economic times, but an integral part of the development process itself.

Just as any emphasis on the basic sciences is missing from the recommendations in the Vallely, Ash/Fulbright, and Task Force reports, so also is any recognition of the importance of the humanities. The development among the younger generation of an appreciation of and expertise in Vietnamese history, literature and the arts must be an essential function of the university system. It is only by maintaining and strengthening its cultural traditions that a country can defend its independence in a broad sense and resist the negative influences on youth that come from the wealthy countries.

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