A Conversation with Marlene Johnson, the CEO of NAFSA

DENVER—Marlene Johnson might have seemed like a somewhat unconventional choice for NAFSA: Association of International Educators when she was hired in 1998 to be the organization’s executive director and CEO. But NAFSA felt it needed someone with a broad perspective and diverse skills. Johnson had wide-ranging experience as a leader in the business, government, and nonprofit sectors, and she brought a strong commitment to strengthening NAFSA’s financial independence and its voice as an advocate for the importance of international education.

As lieutenant governor of Minnesota from 1983 to 1991, Johnson was a strong proponent of the state’s engagement with the world, through trade, tourism, education and the arts. At NAFSA, she built a policy team that fought hard to advance international education—especially to help shape public understanding of the benefits of welcoming international students to the United States, and the importance of exposing American students to the world. Under her leadership, NAFSA has been at the forefront of efforts to expand educational exchanges with Cuba; to advance the Simon Study Abroad Act; and to ensure that U.S. immigration policy does not hamper the country’s ability to be an attractive destination for international talent. Then-Secretary of State Hillary of Clinton appointed Johnson to the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO. She also serves on the Homeland Security Academic Advisory Council, for which she currently chairs the subcommittee on international students.

Johnson is active in many other international initiatives, serving on the boards of the Women’s Foreign Policy Group, the Kakenya Center for Excellence, the Communications Consortium Media Center, and the  Washington Office on Latin America. She sits on the advisory council of the U.S.-China Education Trust and is an honorary fellow of the Foreign Policy Association.

Last week, from her suite on the thirty-sixth floor in Hyatt Regency Denver, away from the bustle of the premier meeting of international educators that is the 2016 NAFSA Annual Conference and Expo, Johnson spoke about her experience in managing what has become the world’s largest global event in the field, and her reflections on the role of international education.

– How do you like to present the NAFSA annual conference?

The best way to describe this week is as a gathering of people from 100 countries who care about the issues of international engagement, who understand the importance of intercultural learning, of providing students with opportunities to learn together and about each other, and for faculty to be more actively engaged. And because we are such a large event, with 9,000 people here, and offer such a variety of places where people can learn, there’s really something here that suits everyone.

– What’s new this year?

One thing that’s new and exciting is [NAFSA’s Global Dialogue Fellowship Program], which we launched last year, and which provides partial financial support for educators and administrators from Africa to attend the conference for two consecutive years. They have to apply and demonstrate their interest in an international focus. Every year we’re starting a new cohort, so there are two groups here in Denver. Each participant is paired with an American partner to help them find their way around the conference and look for partnerships with U.S. campuses that are suited to the kind of work they want to do.

– Does this program include North Africa too?

So far we’ve focused on sub-Saharan Africa, but we will need to consider what geographic criteria we’ll use for the next cohort. In the first two years we’ve focused exclusively on certain countries that are classified by World Bank as the lowest-income countries. But we need to do further thinking about this.

– This is my second time at NAFSA and I still notice that Arab participation is not up to expectations. What are the reasons behind this clear weak representation?

That is true. At times in the past, we had better participation from the region. The unstable situation there may play a role, in addition to the strategies of universities there right now, which are focused on getting Western universities to put in campuses, and to recruit students from the region. Given this, NAFSA is not the most efficient way for them to recruit. But of course, there are other ways to establish partnerships and exchange experiences through NAFSA. This year, we are hosting several distinguished speakers from the region such as Haifa Jamal Al-Lail, president of Effat University in Saudi Arabia, and Sultan Abu Orabi, secretary-general of the Association of Arab Universities, and we are looking forward to having greater participation in the Expo and conference sessions in the future.

– Was there a special focus this year on Iran as a new player in educational exchange?

This is really revisiting an old link, because there was a time when Iran was the largest sending country of students to the United States. It’s encouraging that we’re back in a situation where there is an interest in Iranian students coming here, and the political possibility that they can come. These are small steps but a very good sign.

– In 18 years of leading NAFSA, what do you feel is your biggest achievement?

I think it’s building an organization that can sustain itself in a healthy way and that is producing this annual opportunity for everyone in the field to get together and do their work. We also play an important role in providing a range of opportunities for intellectual discussions that are necessary for that work. We use the plenaries on a large scale to provide that, but also, increasingly, smaller session venues that offer intellectual engagement. I think my sense of pride is that this experience seems to be so worthwhile for so many people.

– Is there any goal you have not achieved?

I don’t think so, but you know my goals were broad as opposed to specific. Because in building an organization like NAFSA it’s really difficult—perhaps impossible—to anticipate what we might be able to accomplish five years from now. We’re operating in a world where political changes happen in front of us all the time, and we have to respond.  For example, when we have a good conference, it’s important that we acknowledge that, but at the same time we need to start reassessing and figure out what we can do better, and to keep space available in the next year’s conference for late-breaking issues.

– There are some critics who say NAFSA is too commercial. What is your response to this?

I understand and appreciate that perspective. In general, we always have to be careful of that. We also need to recognize that many commercial enterprises are contributing very constructively to the field. The Expo Hall might feel commercial when you walk in, but most of the floor is occupied by country pavilions that are presenting their higher education opportunities as a coordinated group. This is an important contribution because it helps people understand that there’s more than one approach or one kind of university in each country. It is also important to recognize that NAFSA’s financial independence allows us to have a public policy program that is speaking truth. We don’t take government money. So if we disagree with the government, we can speak to that without concern.

– While refugee education has sparked big international debate recently, the topic was not on NAFSA’s agenda this year. Do you think this issue needs more attention?

Absolutely—this is a weakness in our programming, and we have to do better next year. It’s a challenge in our U.S. public policy—we’re not doing our part as a country to address refugee issues. We feel our government needs to do better, and we as an organization need to do better. NAFSA has been working at a policy level behind the scenes on these issues, without much success at this point, but we will continue to do so.

– You have decided to retire this year, so this is the last NAFSA conference under your leadership. What does that mean to you?

Well, I have seven more months to work, so I’m not done yet, but this is my last conference, and it has been such a joy to be in this role at NAFSA. I can honestly say I have enjoyed every day. Some days have been more challenging than others but I’ve so enjoyed working with people from all over the world, and it’s been a very special opportunity for me personally.

– What are your plans for the future?

I don’t have future plans—my plan is to work up until the end of December, and then next year when I’m not working at this job any more, I’ll figure out what I’ll do next.


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