http://chronicle.com/img/chronicle_logo.gifBy Peter Gumbel, director of the Center for the Americas at Sciences Po, in Paris. Sending students to study overseas is an inherently risky proposition. Bad things can and do happen. Students break limbs, get robbed, and sometimes die in auto accidents. One of our undergraduates now in Ecuador temporarily blinded herself while cooking. Another flew home, traumatized by a stalker in Boston.
The university where I work, the Institut d'Études Politiques de Paris, better known as Sciences Po, and other universities that seek to provide students with an international experience have tried and tested procedures to deal with those sorts of emergencies. Unpleasant and regrettable as they are, they're simply a fact of life, and study-abroad offices are set up to deal with them.
Yet no amount of everyday experience has been sufficient preparation for the momentous events that have literally shaken the world in the past few months: the "Arab Spring" with its uprisings in several Middle Eastern countries, and Japan's disastrous earthquake and tsunami and the subsequent nuclear crisis.
At a time of growing student mobility worldwide, those events are higher education's version of the "black swans" described by the author Nassim N. Taleb, extreme incidents or developments for which nobody is adequately prepared. They highlight an uncomfortable truth: students can suddenly be confronted by dangers that are far greater and far less predictable than the ones universities are used to tackling. Talking to counterparts in the United States and elsewhere, it's clear that even the most risk-aware colleges with the best-oiled procedures have been sorely tested by this year's events.
A thick fog of confusion is part of the problem. Both the Japan crisis and the Middle Eastern uprisings have necessitated that snap decisions be made at a time when reliable information on which to base those decisions has been scant. That in turn is prompting us in Paris and many of our partners around the world to take a much closer look at how we manage risk.
But that's not enough. Given the scale of the developments and the extreme dangers that they have highlighted, it's time to ask some fundamental moral and legal questions about the nature of the relationship between a university and its students. Where ultimately does one draw the line between individual judgment and institutional responsibility? What level of risk is acceptable? Should the criteria for tolerating and managing that risk be any different just because the students are overseas? Who gets to decide? And how? As I sift through the arguments, three issues stand out.
Judging when danger is truly dangerous.
The Middle Eastern uprisings have highlighted just how difficult it is to find reliable objective information on which to base contingency plans. At Sciences Po, we have relied on the official guidance of the French government, just as many American universities take their cue from the U.S. State Department. If the French government says it's not safe to stay somewhere, we'll pull our students out. But that system has its limits, as we discovered this year in the Middle East.
In Tunisia, absent official advice to the contrary, our students stayed put. As a result, they experienced some of the most exciting moments of that country's recent history, in safety, and will no doubt be profoundly marked by having done so. Egypt was different. There we also looked to the French embassy for guidance, but again officials made no specific recommendation for a withdrawal. Initially, we left it up to the students to decide whether they wanted to stay. After some intense internal debate, we decided to pull our students out. Why? Many other countries including the United States and Turkey were urging their nationals to leave, but the turning point came when French-speaking Egyptian police visited some of our students at their residence. Our Middle East experts, on the faculty and involved in study abroad, pulled the alarm cord, and the students flew back....