At the forefront of international higher education

PGAOn 5 April, a large group of colleagues, students and friends gathered in Boston to honour the career of Philip Altbach, director of the Center for International Higher Education and J Donald Monan SJ professor of higher education in the school of education at Boston College, US. He will retire from his professorship, but continue as director of the centre.

The global gathering was organised to pay tribute to Altbach for his enormous contributions over almost 50 years as a teacher, scholar and advisor, and author of many books and articles on international higher education.

During a one-day seminar, key topics in international higher education were addressed by scholars and higher education policy leaders from around the world – including China, India, Africa, Russia, Europe, Latin America and North America: national and regional challenges for higher education; the international pursuit of excellence; and international imperatives, initiatives and risks.

Altbach, who does not like to put himself on a pedestal, set one condition for accepting this surprise honour: the seminar had to be substantive and its results will be published by the centre.

Look out for its future publication, as together the presentations provided a comprehensive overview of developments in international higher education over the past 20 years.

Follow this link to read the rest of this article by Hans de Wit, professor of internationalisation of higher education at Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences, and director of the Centre for Higher Education Internationalisation at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milan, Patti McGill Peterson, presidential advisor on global initiatives at the American Council on Education, and Jamil Salmi. a global tertiary education expert and former World Bank Tertiary Education coordinator.

Some Reflections

I’m devoting a belated post to this “global gathering” because it was my honor and privilege to study with Dr. Altbach in the late 1980s while enrolled in a Ph.D. program in Comparative and Higher Education at the State University of New York at Buffalo.  (He was one of the reasons I chose SUNY/Buffalo over another top-notch program in the Midwest.  Two other faculty, Dr. Harold J. Noah, who became my academic adviser, and the late Gail P. Kelly, were the others.)   While I decided not to follow in his footsteps as a professor, but instead chose the professional life of a practitioner, what I learned from him and his distinguished colleagues has served me well in my career and in life.

I appreciated Prof. Altbach’s in-depth knowledge, extensive international experience, high standards and, as the authors point out, his humility.  (The condition that he set for the conference organized in his honor does not surprise me in the least.)  I took a number of classes with Dr. Altbach, benefited greatly from his friendly advice – inside and outside of the classroom – and his constructive criticism.  He was never one to mince words when something was not up to par, which made me a better writer and researcher.

I have treasured memories of Dr. Altbach’s mentorship of me and others, a role he clearly relished.  I wrote my first scholarly article – at his request – about the German Democratic Republic’s postsecondary education system for inclusion in a volume he edited entitled International Higher Education: An Encyclopedia.

I recall one evening seminar at the beginning of a fall semester when a classmate asked in jest if his middle initial (G) stood for God. Such was his reputation.  While I don’t remember his comeback, I do remember his smile and chuckle.

The culmination of my academic career, when I successfully made the transition from Ph.D. student to Ph.D holder, was when Dr. Altbach served as the chair of my dissertation committee and hooded me at the commencement ceremony.

I’m grateful to Prof. Altbach for his friendship and his assistance over the years, including opening a door that allowed me to participate in a pioneering international research project (i.e., the TIMSS 1995 Case Study Project), headed up by the late Harold W. Stevenson, which involved Germany, Japan and the United States.  He has profoundly influenced a generation of scholars and practitioners around the world, including me.


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