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Hubs: A Conversation with Wendy Wolford

On this page: Vice Provost Wendy Wolford explains what sets the new Global Hubs apart and how faculty, students, and alumni can get involved.

What's the most important thing to know about Global Hubs?

Wendy taking a selfie in front of University of Edinburgh.
Wendy at the University of Edinburgh

Hubs are about building a network of meaningful, long-lasting partnerships. These partnerships are with peer universities in a small number of strategic locations around the world that enable us to support faculty collaborations, student exchanges, and alumni integration and build connections to policymakers, NGOs, private sector actors, and local communities.

These partners and locations are strategic because the academic quality is excellent and the demand and support for the partnership exists on both sides and at all levels of the university—students, staff, faculty, and alumni.

Cornell faculty, departments, and colleges already have many international partnerships. What do Global Hubs add?

It is true that Cornell has partnered abroad for a long time—over 100 years! I hope all of these partnerships will continue. My office will support and encourage them, as we have done since the office was created.

Global Hubs are different and important because they are university-wide partnerships. They are coordinated and have buy-in at the highest level in the partner university; they are long-term; and they bring together students, faculty, alumni, and community members in a way that single collaborations don’t necessarily.

Global Hubs are different and important because they are university-wide partnerships.

As a faculty member, I have collaborations in Brazil, Ecuador, Europe, Mozambique, and South Africa, but each one takes a lot of work to build and is focused on my research fields and my students. These collaborations are very particular to and dependent on me.

And so, this is the key: Global Hub partnerships will be available for faculty, staff, and students across campus for the long term. They will lower the barrier for people to get involved. We’ve already made connections, agreed on collaborating, signed memoranda, and found partners in the local area, including alumni, who might be willing to host participants or participate in programming. We've identified good facilities, research strengths, curricular paths, and so on.

Why should faculty connect with collaborators abroad?

For understanding and for impact, faculty want and need to be partnering abroad.

Faculty want to partner with the best scholars and practitioners in their fields, and it turns out that not all of those are in Ithaca or in the United States. Many of the best academics are in universities around the world.

If we recognize that, and if we want to be doing the best work possible, then we need to be collaborating globally. On top of that, if we are going to address global issues—which most Cornell faculty care deeply about—we need global collaboration.

Students only have four years at Cornell. Why should they go abroad?

We live in a global society. We grow up in a particular place, and there are things we take for granted, things that seem like common sense. For example, I was a vegetarian for years growing up. I decided it was bad to eat meat, and I was quite committed. Then I went to Brazil and worked with people who lived on small farms and struggled to make a living. They needed animal protein to stay healthy—and, if you know Brazilians, they really like their meat! Bringing out the chicken for a meal was a big deal and an honor for a guest. It felt very awkward explaining that I had so much surplus food where I came from that I could choose to be judgmental about eating meat.

Students need to talk with people who live in different "worlds" and who grew up with different customs and don’t see the world through a U.S. lens.

Camping is another funny one—try explaining to a person living in a rural slum that you like to go camping so you can be off the grid. I still think vegetarianism and camping are very good things, but traveling and seeing these from other perspectives made me examine my assumptions and understand my privilege. There are so many things like this that you will only realize or understand if you go abroad!

Mark Twain said that travel is fatal to prejudice, and I don’t know about that—I think people can build some pretty high walls around their prejudice—but travel makes it harder to keep those walls intact, and most of our Cornell students want to learn, want to talk and learn with people from other cultures. I think they understand that you learn the most when you are outside your comfort zone. Our students have peers around the world, excellent, world-class students and teachers in all of these locations, as they go to Global Hub campuses, they will receive an education alongside their peers that is different and complementary to what they can get in Ithaca.

We already have an excellent study abroad office. How will students benefit from Hubs?

We do have an excellent Education Abroad team! And students have many options to study abroad, only some of which are with Global Hubs partners. The advantage of the Hubs is that these are strategic partners with whom we are developing clear curricular paths for students—so we are doing the groundwork to know how partner courses fit into majors and which courses any given student might want to put together to develop a new thematic track or complete requirements in an existing one.

Another difference from traditional study abroad is that Hubs emphasize experiential learning. Many locations have (or will have) internship opportunities for our students to work alongside their students and community partners, whether in short-term experiences or research projects during their study abroad semester.

One of our main goals is to increase the number and diversity of students who are able to access international opportunities.

Building the Global Hubs is a way to increase access—providing more opportunities abroad and supporting these more fully through financial aid, scholarships, and partner collaboration.

Global Hubs partnerships are well supported by both the partner university and Cornell, and so we hope that students who might not have considered going abroad will feel comfortable doing so, knowing that senior leaders, faculty, and staff there and here have met multiple times about housing, facilities, safety, and so on.

Students will also benefit from being in touch with our alumni in a more regular and coordinated fashion. Alumni are excited to meet with students and provide local information, internship, and employment opportunities, and point out where the poisonous spiders and best restaurants are (equally important, maybe!). 

Where did the idea for Hubs come from?

What’s the opposite of "out of Zeus’s head"? It’s hard to identify the exact moment that the language of Hubs emerged because it was really organic. The International Council that worked with Laura Spitz (my predecessor) had this idea of global hubs in one of their brainstorming documents. I can’t remember if they used that word, but it was in a list of "Big Ideas." Then, in discussing her vision for international programs, President Martha Pollack identified the idea of "platforms" that we might develop in places where there was a critical mass of university activity and interest.

The idea of a network of partnerships developed from these [faculty] conversations and from meetings abroad with university partners and alumni.

When I became vice provost in 2018, I started meeting with college leadership to talk about their interests abroad and how we might develop global partnerships in a strategic way. The idea was to think about how we could deepen university support for international work. The deans discussed with their teams and communicated their interest in different locations and activities.

We discussed the strategy with faculty leaders in the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies and with the International Council, and then we began to collect data on where to partner. We looked at travel data, study abroad, publications with international co-authors, existing collaborations, and college programs. And then, we looked at peer universities, and we selected Global Hub possibilities based on all of the above plus a desire for geographic diversity.

At first, we wanted to locate Hubs in 25 places with 30+ partners, but that felt too unwieldy—it felt like if we were everywhere, we were effectively nowhere because we wouldn’t be able to support all of these partnerships. So we whittled it down to the 11 locations we have today, with roughly 20 Hubs partners. We’ll continue to evaluate, and some partnerships may fade while others might present themselves as obvious choices going forward.

We’ll continue to evaluate and adapt, but the goal is long-term, sustainable partnerships.

Did faculty contribute?

Yes! All of our discussions with senior leadership in the colleges revolved around faculty and student interests. The International Council and the Einaudi Center have also been part of the discussions from the beginning.

Over 60 faculty were included on those committees.

In 2021, we held a faculty town hall to discuss the initiative and ask for thoughts on locations, and we created faculty/staff subcommittees for each of the potential Hub sites so faculty could explore the possibilities with their counterparts in the partner institution.

During the academic year 2021–22, Global Cornell presented to the Faculty Senate, visited every college, and presented on the Hubs to department chairs (and in some cases, to the full faculty), asking for input. We sent around a survey that spring, again to all faculty, with questions about existing and future collaborations. In 2022, we created a Hubs faculty advisory committee that includes the faculty lead for each Global Hubs institution. This council will meet regularly to discuss the Global Hubs as individual partnerships and as an overall strategy.

Some of the Hubs are in countries where the values differ quite a bit from Cornell values. Is it ethical to partner there?

Cornell values are deeply important to us, and we should not compromise on these.

Pursuit of knowledge, free expression, non-discrimination, and concern for impact—are all important values, and we agree on these in every partnership and program we create abroad, regardless of the broader context of the host country. If a program can’t agree on the importance of those values, we have clear avenues for terminating the relationship.

That said, engaging with people from around the world teaches you that there are differences of interpretation around the meaning of these values. Without falling into unprincipled relativism, I believe that we have to navigate those tensions diplomatically and sensitively and with great humility, recognizing that our own perspectives are colored by our media, our customs, and our experiences.  A few years ago, we worked with the President, the Provost, and International Council to develop a set of guidelines for building ethical partnerships, and I believe these provide constructive advice. The more we reach outside our comfort zone, where everything makes ("common") sense, the more we will learn and the better off we will all be.

Other universities have global centers. Would a physical center be more practical?

I like the Cornell logo as much as the next person, and I love seeing it on walls abroad! But having our own physical locations abroad isn’t always necessary. There are already excellent institutions in every country. It makes sense to partner with them, support their work, and improve ours through collaboration. In other words, with Global Hubs, our partnerships are our centers.

Our partnerships are our centers.

Our Hubs partners have the campus space to host our students and faculty in return for us hosting their students and faculty in Ithaca. Renting space abroad is complicated, in part because of complex local regulations and in part because controlling physical space anywhere adds responsibility—responsibility for a lease, for using the space, for hiring staff, and so on.

And in case you think that focusing on relationships sounds easy, it isn’t! It takes work and commitment to building a strong, lasting relationship. Anyone who is married knows that.

What does success look like for the Hubs?

There are many different ways a given Hub could be successful! We’re not going to predetermine exactly the route that each one should take. Some Hubs will have more dynamic student exchanges, while others may have more of a faculty focus.

We need to allow each partnership to develop according to interests on both sides.

For students, I hope that in three years’ time, we will have thriving student exchanges, with students able to take advantage of coursework, but also internships and research opportunities with local partners; more underrepresented minorities, first generation, and aided students going abroad; increased diversity in the locations students travel to; and clear gains in the recruitment of new students abroad—new pipelines for undergraduate and graduate students alike.

In terms of faculty, I hope that in three years’ time we have strong faculty collaborations and new research projects at each site, with joint publications, co-taught courses, policy briefs, active student exchanges, and more. For global alumni, I hope we have created stable and exciting pathways for them to participate in Cornell-related activities, connecting them to Cornell students and faculty in each Hub location.

In time, although it takes a while and is hard to measure, I expect Cornell’s visibility and reputation around the world will be strengthened.