History of IU’s global engagement

The early years

Indiana University has had international connections almost from its inception. In 1836, two years before IU had formally attained university status, William Richard Harding left Ireland and became IU’s first foreign-born faculty member, as principal of the Preparatory Department. Beginning in 1836, IU students could study a modern language (French). International law was an explicit part of the original law curriculum in 1842. That same year, Henry Tanner, raised in London, England, became IU’s first foreign-born graduate.

David Starr Jordan, biologist and later university president, began study abroad tours to Europe in 1879. Elmer Bryan, IU professor of education, took a leave of absence in 1901 and became general superintendent of education in Manila. His connections opened IU’s first informal international exchange. By 1916, 17 IU graduates resided in the Philippines. In 1916 as well, an IU branch of the Cosmopolitan Club was established and for 50 years was a major force in fostering social interactions between domestic and international students on the Bloomington campus.

For a rural Midwestern university, these early interactions provided a window to the outer world, but the permanent institutional commitment to international education awaited the leadership of Herman B Wells. Early in his presidency, he joined a tour of senior university administrators to Latin America. Afterward, he declared, “All at once I became conscious of the world scene.” His support for IU’s international engagement was unfailing. He championed a program to teach Central Asian languages to army officers during World War II and supported its expansion into a Summer Language Institute, which continues to this day, teaching languages that go untaught at most universities. In 1949, Wells seized an opportunity for IU faculty members to assist Thailand in developing university-level training. He established a center for international students on the Bloomington campus in 1951.

Wells, pushing back against the isolationist sentiments of the United States during the 1950s, expanded IU’s international commitments with projects in Thailand, Brazil, and Pakistan. Academic offerings increased, especially in Russian and Chinese studies.

In 1959, Walter Laves, chair of political science and a prime mover in IU’s development efforts in Thailand, reported “a whole new dimension” for American universities with “the vast increase of foreign students from non-European countries.” Laves, concerned that students came with different language and cultural issues, proposed that the university secure a grant that would allow IU to provide a full semester of preparatory study at no cost to the student. He asserted the institutional value of this special accommodation, which “should make a major contribution to the development of effective relations between the United States and the newly developing countries of the world” and so “might lead to a larger new role for Indiana University in the education programs of students from all the newly developing countries.”

Philip Daghlian, chair of IU’s Foreign Student Committee, took up that mission. He proposed an IU Counselling Institute for Foreign Students that would provide special programs to address admissions standards and English and cultural preparation. The Advisory Committee on Foreign Students defended IU’s handling of what was then called the “foreign student problem” and asserted what became long-standing policy: international students must meet standard admissions requirements under the oversight of the Office of Admissions, be tested in English when they arrive and be put into remedial English if required, and that the Office of the Counselor for Foreign Students had a good orientation program that should be “continued and expanded.”

With the help of Professor Robert Shaffer, a colleague in the School of Business, and a grant from the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, Associate Dean of Students Leo R. Dowling conducted a three-year research project aimed at measuring the impact of foreign students on their domestic counterparts. At a time when there were “pressures to limit nonresident enrollment in public institutions, to restrict housing and financial aid to resident students,” Dowling and Shaffer surveyed more than 500 students. The results of their survey “Foreign Students and Their American Student Friends,” published in 1966, included 22 general conclusions. Among these were (1) friendship with foreign students encourages American students to take a broader interest in national and international affairs, and (2) friendship with foreign students encourages American students to alter their future plans.

A historical photo of men and women gathered around a man playing the piano
The dean and two students stand beneath a sign that reads, International Services Room 021.
Herman B Wells speaks with a group of international students.

In 1943 President Herman B Wells appointed Leo R. Dowling as IU’s first permanent foreign student advisor. Dean of Students Robert Shaffer outside the international services office in the lower level of Maxwell Hall. Taken in 1956, President Wells is pictured meeting with international students.

After the 1960s

The Soviet victory in space triggered a new American interest in educating its citizens in matters of the world. Within a year of Sputnik’s successful launch, Congress passed the National Defense Education Act, which established funding for university study of areas of the world. By the 1960s, generous funding was available for universities wishing to expand their international curriculums or to engage in institutional development abroad. Federal support for strengthening area studies programs increased with the 1966 International Education Act. The Ford, Rockefeller, Mellon, and Carnegie foundations also provided large multiyear grants for U.S. universities to assist in the development of educational institutions in the “non-Western world.”

Two decades of Wells’s support of international education had ensured that the university was ready for these new initiatives. By 1965, IU had active government and private contracts for work in countries around the world. During the 1960s, the university established area studies programs for East Asia and Inner Asia (1962), the Middle East (1965), Latin America (1963), and Europe (1968).

The explosion of area studies programs and international development activity raised issues of coordination and management. IU’s solution in 1965 was the International Affairs Center with three divisions: international studies (area studies and institutes); international development research (institution building); and international activities (overseas contracts).

President Elvis Stahr introduced the new organization in a speech opening International Week in November 1965. He proclaimed, “This is a ‘yeasty,’ exciting university, and one of the reasons is that each year our international activities on and off the campus expand, thrusting their roots deeper and branches wider. Each year our students and faculty build sturdier bridges to unfamiliar cultures and unacquainted man.” The new center “signifies a recognition on the part of both faculty and students that the new international dimension is not an extra, but an integral, part of the educational program.”

Gus Liebenow, named associate dean for international programs in 1970, was IU’s first international deanship appointment. Five years later, George M. Wilson, associate professor of history, was appointed dean for international programs and headed the new Office of International Programs, which brought together international faculty and student services.

In 1993, President Thomas Ehrlich appointed Patrick O’Meara, renowned scholar of international development, comparative politics, and African politics, as dean of international programs. In 2007, President Michael McRobbie promoted O’Meara to the newly created position of vice president for international affairs, a recognition of the rapidly increasing importance of the international and global dimension in higher education. Until his retirement in 2011, O’Meara had oversight of international programs at all eight IU campuses, and he implemented IU’s first university-wide international strategic plan.

O’Meara’s successor David Zaret, professor of sociology and adjunct professor of history, continued to implement the strategic plan. Zaret, who retired in July 2018, oversaw the launch of IU’s Global Gateway offices in Europe, India, China, and Mexico, which McRobbie has described as “IU’s front door in these parts of the world.”

Thai alumni wearing cream and crimson
A group poses for a photo outside of the IU India Gateway.
Patrick O'Meara and Ellen John Sirleaf examine a paper on a table.

The first overseas international student reunion in Chiang Mai, Thailand, in 1999. Vice President Patrick O’Meara, left, showed Liberian President Ellen John Sirleaf part of the Lilly Library collection during her visit to IU in 2008. IU’s first Global Gateway office opened outside New Delhi, India, in 2014.