Laura Spitz on Cornell's mission of global engagement

Laura Spitz, J.S.D. ’05, vice provost for international affairs, oversees Global Cornell, a university initiative aimed at strengthening Cornell’s international dimension. Also included in her responsibilities are Cornell Abroad, the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies and Cornell University Press.

Spitz in Beijing

Laura Spitz, J.S.D. ’05, vice provost for international affairs, speaks at the Alumni Affairs and Development Asia-Pacific Leadership Conference in Beijing, April 2.

Your field of study is law. How has your experience shaped your approach as vice provost for international affairs?

Both my experience as a lawyer and a law professor have made me client-service focused; both legal services and teaching are service professions. I take that orientation with me to the provost’s office. I understand myself to be in the service of the university, the colleges, the faculty, the students.

In addition, I was an international student at Cornell – I’m from Canada, and while I was here getting my degree, I also spent a semester studying in Florence, Italy, at the European University Institute. When I was growing up, my father lived in the Philippines, so we spent a lot of time in Asia. As an adult, I’ve lived in many diverse places where I’ve had to learn to adapt culturally. This has also shaped how I approach problems and initiatives from the center.

Cornell University Press is a new addition to your responsibilities. What opportunities exist in this new structure?

My office helps people across units make connections. Cornell University Press, under its fantastic director, Dean Smith, is looking at ways to renew the relevance and viability of the press at a 21st-century global research university amid rapidly changing modern technologies.

Dean has been connecting with different area studies programs to explore possible collaborations; for example, he is working with the Southeast Asia Program to take over publishing their materials. In addition, Hiro Miyazaki, the new director of the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies, is bringing a lot of energy to that role. He has been developing a digital platform, and he is working with the Press in the development of this platform in an effort to get Cornell faculty’s work out into the world. So it’s really exciting.

You lead the Global Cornell initiative, now in its third year. What partnerships are involved, and what has been accomplished so far?

Although I took over the role partway through the initiative, I was involved from the outset as a member of the Internationalization Council. This has made the VPIA leadership transition easier.

Where are we so far? There was concern that there was not enough support for faculty doing globally engaged research, so we launched the International Faculty Fellows Program, now in its third year, to help fund research projects.

To support faculty who want to develop and internationalize their curriculum, we created Internationalizing the Cornell Curriculum grants, now in their second year. We’ve given dozens of awards, working hard to institutionalize faculty efforts.

We also have increased the funding for student travel grants, and for the first time we are making travel grant awards to undergraduate students, and that’s been super successful. Thanks to the hard work of folks like Marina Markot, director of Cornell Abroad, we have a “one-stop shop” common application for undergraduates, the Off-Campus Opportunity Fund, bringing together in one application multiple funding sources. That’s been a real step forward.

We are working on increasing the number of off-semester study abroad experiences, so that students can go in the summer or during winter break, and they can have shorter, different kinds of off-campus experiences that align with curriculums on campus.

Many of the challenges students and faculty face trying to arrange global programs or experiences are due to a failure of information or support, not a failure of opportunity. To address this, we are in the process of launching a global services website to support staff and faculty who want to take students or conduct research off campus – providing information on everything from human resource questions and tax compliance, to risk management and visa support. That’s been a project this year in partnership with Joanne DeStefano, executive vice president and chief financial officer, and Vice Provost Judy Appleton and their offices.

We are also working in partnership with Engaged Cornell to develop an equivalent one-stop shop for students: a virtual platform that has all the information they need about off-campus opportunities, off-campus funding and financial aid.

What about the partnership between Global Cornell and Engaged Cornell?

The Engaged Cornell initiative, focused on community engagement, can take place anywhere; it can mean community engagement in Buffalo, or Honduras. There are many opportunities for synergies between the initiatives, both in respect to the issues facing students and faculty who want to leave Ithaca to study or work and academic overlap abroad. So I like to think of this partnership as a Venn diagram – there are things in Global Cornell that aren’t community engagement and things in Engaged Cornell that are community engagement but are not global, but the overlap is significant and worth mapping and leveraging. For example, both the business services website and the one-stop shop for students will include global and domestic opportunities, anything not on the Ithaca campus. Judy Appleton and I co-chair the Provost’s Working Group on Public and Global Activities; that group has the opportunity to think strategically about the opportunities presented by the partnership.

We just hired a new director of global initiatives, Christine Potter, who started in her new position in June. One-third of her portfolio is explicitly working with Engaged Cornell.

How are we doing in ensuring that students at Cornell have a meaningful international experience as part of their education?

I believe 100 percent of Cornell students should have access to a meaningful international experience. That means there should be enough opportunities and enough financial and other support in place. And there should be enough curricular flexibility that any student at Cornell who wants a meaningful international experience in their education can find one or build one. I like to focus on universal accessibility: that we make it easy for them to find opportunities, possible for them to pay for their choices, and enough opportunities that all students could find one that fits their interests.

We should be thinking about what are the barriers that might not be obvious to us. Statistically, more women study abroad than men. Why is that, and what would it take to encourage more men to study abroad? And first-generation college students are less likely to seek international experiences, and some students come from families for whom study abroad is a financial strain. These are the kinds of challenges we should address and act on.

What is happening with the planned Cornell center in Shanghai?

I’m excited. We’ve convened our faculty steering committee on campus with very active China scholars from all of the schools and colleges. We also have our China advisory board of alumni and friends of Cornell in China, which had its inaugural meeting in April. We’re now in a position to add members. It’s going to be a tremendous resource for us.

I am also very happy to tell you that we are in the process of hiring an executive director for the Cornell China Center Initiative, and will be opening office space in Shanghai this summer. We’ll begin to coordinate with colleges and units about how to expand to a “center.” Our presence in China will evolve to meet the needs of the colleges and units.

Media Contact

John Carberry