Tohoku University International Advisory Board Meeting

For the better part of the past decade, internationalization has been at the forefront of Tohoku University's plans, as more in-bound and out-bound mobility programmes were introduced, more partnership agreements signed, more overseas liaison offices set up and participation in global networks stepped up.

To get a sense of what the university has been doing right and to suggest ways it could do better, the Tohoku University International Advisory Board was set up in June 2015, comprising eight members representing different fields from partner institutions and industry.

"Through this advisory board, we hope to be able to reflect on the university's research and education from a multinational, multicultural view point and hear from the representatives from leading universities in order to help us strengthen our future approaches," said Tohoku University President Susumu Satomi.

The board held its inaugural meeting in Sendai on November 25.


President Satomi opened the meeting with a brief introduction of the board members and an outline of Tohoku University's global vision, emphasizing the importance the university places on outward looking education and research.

He spoke of the goals behind the setting up of world-leading institutes such as AIMR for materials research and IRIDeS for disaster science. "We aim to create a place where students grow into individuals capable of flourishing in the international community. Fostering global leaders is at the core of our educational reforms."

Executive Vice President Toshiya Ueki emphasized Tohoku University's various internationalization initiatives since being chosen for the government's Top Global University project in 2014. "Our aim is to increase student mobility and create organic, strategic partnerships between Tohoku University and other institutions."

Tohoku University currently has 211 academic exchange agreements with institutions in 35 countries. It is expanding the number of liaison offices it has overseas and actively encouraging student and faculty mobility. It also participates in numerous international networks such as HeKKSaGOn and T.I.M.E.


For its part, the advisory board, chaired by Professor Fumio S. Ohuchi of the University of Washington, offered advice on ways Tohoku University can network more strategically to maximize the effect of international consortia. Specifically - sometimes it's better to do less to accomplish more.

"Most universities have too many networks and too many partners," said Professor Richard James of the University of Melbourne. "Many relationships referred to as strategic are not strategic at all. You have to be careful about getting into 'partnerships without purpose'."

Professor Harald Fuess of Heidelberg University added that it is often more beneficial to focus on a handful of meaningful core partnerships. "You cannot do everything, so you must have priorities. Know the benefits that each partner brings. Being in a partnership or network should allow you to do something that you cannot do by yourself."

Executive Vice President Sadayoshi Ito spoke of the important role the Tohoku Forum for Creativity has played in bringing together great research minds to share ideas and inspire.

While presentations by Executive Vice President Kimio Hanawa and Associate Executive Vice President for International Affairs Masahiro Yamaguchi, outlined the university's efforts to increase both inbound and outbound student mobility through the Future Global Leadership Program, the Global Leader Program and a wide range of short term exchanges. That was met positively by the board.

"Short programmes for undergraduate students can be a very good first international experience for them. They learn what's possible out there and that they will survive. And then hopefully the confidence they get will encourage them to do it again and for a longer period," said Professor Marie-Pierre Favre of Institut National des Science Appliquees Lyon. "Students who go on exchange programmes also mature and develop, and this self-development process is very important."

The board however, stressed that circulation and mobility should not be limited to students, but should extend to faculty as well, in order to foster effective, long-term research collaboration opportunities. They added that dynamic students and researchers also serve as good ambassadors for the university. "By being abroad, they promote Tohoku University and help attract other students and professors to come over here. So that's another reason to strengthen the outgoing programmes," said Favre.


Addressing the perennial issue of English language standards, the board said that more emphasis needs to be put on both the teaching and learning of English. "English is extremely important and you can't get around it," said Favre. "Actually learning any language is a good way to open the mind and discover new cultures. And students should know that language skills will always open doors for them in their careers."

The board suggested that rather than only providing courses in English, Tohoku University could offer a more comprehensive Japanese language programme to foreign students. This, they said, would not only help the students assimilate while they are here, but it would also be a way to promote Japanese culture abroad when these students return home.

Another recommendation is raising the international visibility of Tohoku University's humanities, law and economics departments, as well as fostering more female scholars in senior positions. "When you don't have enough women as senior scholars, you lack role models," said Fuess. "I don't think anyone discriminates but there's always a natural selection that goes both ways. And if you don't have enough women, other women think 'this is not for me' even though that is not the message you intend."

At the end of the meeting, members of the board each gave a short presentation drawing from experiences at their own universities. Dr. Kriengkrai Boonlert-U-Thai from Chulalongkorn University for example, shared his own version of an old saying: Think locally, act globally. "You should think about what you're good at, then do what it takes to let the world know."

Several members warned of painful challenges that come with internationalization - such as conflicts that arise from diversity and having to change existing ways of doing things - but stressed that without going through that process, the transformative benefits cannot be achieved.

Tadashi Onodera, chairman of KDDI Corporation and the lone industry representative on the board, suggested assigning a key performance index to the process going forward. "If there is no KPI or ways to measure your efforts, I think there is no meaning or motivation to any of this."

Next year, Tohoku University will undergo its first of three evaluations as a member of the Top Global University project. The International Advisory Board will meet again formally in 2019.


Yukako Yonezawa
Office for International Initiatives

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