Peter Coclanis: Talent Doesn’t Respect Borders

May 23, 2008

On any given day, you can find the associate provost for international affairs in his office on the top floor of the new FedEx Global Education Center, talking about the University’s public health projects in South Africa or a partnership with Kings College in London. One country, however, is bound to get Coclanis excited: Singapore.

Coclanis — who, as a historian, is a specialist in the economic history of Southeast Asia — makes the 18-hour flight to Singapore about four times a year, conducting University business, collaborating in research and consulting for that country’s Ministry of the Government. He says this kind of global involvement — whether in Singapore or Chile, London or Kenya — is essential if UNC wants to stay relevant in a globalized world.

“UNC is a very big-name university in the U.S., but traditionally has been less of a presence internationally as a brand,” Coclanis said. “What many people in the campus are trying to do is make it a better international player. We’re not doing a service to either our students or the state if we proceed as if internationalization or globalization is not taking place.”

Coclanis joined the faculty in 1984 and has held various teaching and administrative positions. His interest in Singapore began in 1992, when he was there conducting research on a Fulbright Scholarship. He was impressed with the country’s possibilities, and more specifically, the National University of Singapore. When he returned to Chapel Hill, he worked to convince the administration to pursue a partnership with NUS. Since then, UNC and NUS have collaborated on an exchange program involving a summer study abroad experience. Each university’s graduate school also has collaborated in research ventures. Today, Coclanis says, UNC’s work with NUS is the “jewel in our crown” of international partnerships.

“NUS, by most comparative league tables, is one of the great universities in the world. It’s one of the best in Southeast Asia. Singapore’s government is keenly interested in education and puts a lot of money into it. The 21st century is going to be, I think, a monumental shift in the center of the gravity in the world toward Asia, and I think the U.S. is such an important player and Singapore is such a strategically important entity.”

One of the most competitive study abroad programs at the University is the Carolina Southeast Asia Summer program, in which 25 UNC students spend five weeks studying abroad in Singapore and other countries in Southeast Asia. The program, which is offered free to students, is one of several initiatives funded by a $10 million gift from Alston Gardner ’77.

“The summer program is ambitious and a great opportunity for students to get a sense of Asia,” Coclanis said. “The purpose is to open up their eyes to the possibilities of Asia — not necessarily making them into Asian Studies scholars, but to give students largely from North Carolina who may not have even thought much about Asia the sense that, ‘I can do it, and this might be a place where I could find a career or spend some time.’ ”

The graduate schools at UNC are exploring what a partnership with Singapore has to offer. Collaborations are in the works with the schools of pharmacy, dentistry, nursing and the Kenan-Flagler Business School. Coclanis said that one of the ideas for Carolina North — the satellite campus expected to include corporate research space — is to partner with Singaporean companies in developing joint laboratories and research projects. Some of the collaborations with UNC already have made a difference in Singapore on a broad scale. Since working with the UNC department of psychiatry, the Singaporean government has incorporated that department’s innovative autism program into its policy on autism and related disorders.

“We are a trusted partner now, and I think it’s important and a good sign. They see us in a variety of ways as something that can add value to their University, and we see the same thing,” Coclanis said.

In the next few months, Coclanis says, UNC and NUS officials will be working to promote the joint-degree program, which started in August. The program is geared toward UNC students who are more serious about Asian studies. Undergraduates at UNC and NUS can spend up to two years at the other university studying subjects in the humanities and social science. Administrators from both schools are looking to expand the program to more subjects in the sciences.

“Rather than for us [to] try to replicate all the resources they have in Asia, for the small number of students who want to go out and be specialists in Southeast Asia, it makes more sense for them to spend a couple of years in Singapore,” Coclanis said.

Ultimately, Coclanis says, Singapore should be just one thread in the rope of the University’s international ties. With a similar partnership with King’s College in London in the works — a partnership that may include a sort of triangular collaboration among King’s College, NUS and UNC — he is working toward developing strong relationships with universities in strategic areas all over the world.

“We want to be part of the narrative of the 21st century, and I think it’s a global narrative. It’s almost impossible to be a really great research university anymore unless you’re a global university. Talent doesn’t respect national borders that much anymore.

“It’s not a zero-sum game. The fact that we are internationalizing doesn’t mean we’re turning our back on Duplin County or anything like that. … I think what we have to do is internationalize in a strategic way that will benefit the people who pay our bills around the state.

“The whole structure of opportunity and challenge is no longer from Manteo to Murphy. The world is the opportune level of refraction for many issues — diseases don’t respect national borders, and certainly immigrants don’t either. The whole world is often implicated in our plot, so we might as well rationally and out of our own choosing kind of interact and engage the world in a proactive way rather than sit here and be buffeted around by these forces.”

— Katherine Evans