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SGS Director Jeremy Weinstein discusses vision, efforts to make learning about the world an integral part of a Stanford education

Jeremy Weinstein

Jeremy M. Weinstein

Feb 19 2020

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Since 2016, political scientist Jeremy M. Weinstein has served as the Sakurako and William Fisher Family Director of the Stanford Global Studies (SGS) Division.

Under his leadership, the division has invested in a diverse set of curricular and co-curricular programs to ensure students gain exposure to global and regional issues; brought new faculty with global expertise to campus; expanded support for international research, internships, and language study; and innovated ways to extend its reach beyond Stanford to local community colleges.

As he begins his second term as director of SGS, Weinstein shares his vision for the future and the division's role, as part of the university’s Long-Range Planning process, in helping make learning about the world a central feature of a Stanford education. 

You became the director of Stanford Global Studies Division in 2016. How have you seen your vision for the division come to life over the past three years?

One of the critical parts of the vision was to work with Richard Saller, who was the dean of humanities and sciences at the time, to continue to grow our faculty strength, particularly in the areas of South Asian studies and Islamic studies. Over the last three years, we’ve made a number of significant appointments that bring to Stanford some of the most creative and innovative scholarly minds across the humanities and social sciences, but also people who are invested in teaching and training both undergraduate and graduate students. It’s really exciting now to have faculty strength in those two areas. That’s a gamechanger for our ability as SGS and the university to cover these really consequential parts of the world.

I also had an ambition to think in serious ways about how we more fully integrate global perspectives into the undergraduate curriculum. We began to make a set of investments in course innovations across campus that would energize faculty in creating opportunities for students to think about global issues in new ways. It’s been great to see the response of faculty members and the new courses they’ve promoted—whether it’s Around the World in Ten Films, or the new course that took Spanish language learners to the border to think about migration issues, or the course on transitional justice that went to Colombia last spring.

A third priority for me was to ensure that Stanford Global Studies is positioned to offer the range of opportunities and investments that our undergraduate and graduate students need to ensure that depth and understanding of areas is really central to their education, and I think we’re in a terrific position. Our centers are really healthy and robust, the growth of the internship program is creating opportunities for students to travel all over the world as part of their summers, and the research funding we’re able to make available to graduate students is exceptionally important. In that sense, the institution is really healthy and well-positioned to help Stanford address this issue that is very much on the table this year, which is: How do we institutionalize global studies as part of the undergraduate education?

Last fall, you presented at the faculty senate, where you discussed the university’s efforts to better prepare its students for an increasingly globalized world. Since then, one of the major proposals that has emerged through the university’s Long-Range Planning process is a reimagining of the first-year undergraduate experience to include a quarter focused on “Global Perspectives.” Where does this proposal stand?

The president and provost began the Long-Range Planning process a couple years ago, and one of the major priorities of the exercise was to figure out what kinds of changes we need to contemplate for the undergraduate experience to better prepare students for the future.

The proposal is an arc of the first year that in some sense moves from an investigation of the self, and what it means to educate oneself and to think about liberal arts, to a perspective on society and then the world around us. The first quarter focuses on liberal education. The second quarter focuses on citizenship—citizenship in the Stanford community and citizenship in our society. And the third quarter puts these issues in a global perspective. I think this is a really inspiring proposal that moves Stanford in a new direction. It means that we are taking a stand that there is a core set of things that our students, regardless of their major and background, should engage with critically in their first year. Also, especially at a moment when technology and technical majors are so prominent on campus, it will help us to ensure that we ground our students in the world in which they are going to live.

I think we have an extraordinary opportunity to develop a first-class program, and SGS will be a key player in that. Of course, the proposal is being deliberated at the faculty senate, and we look forward to a vote in the spring. The good news so far is that there is enthusiasm across the university, including among students.

As you mentioned, a lot of students across campus are pursuing STEM majors. Can you talk about the new course you are teaching that encourages students to think critically about the ethical and societal implications of technological innovation? How does the course help students develop a global mindset?

In the last couple of years, Stanford has experienced a decline in the number of students who are studying social science and a significant increase in the number of students studying in STEM fields, especially computer science. As I have watched that trend unfold, and also seen the impacts of technology on society both in the United States and around the world, it has become an increasing priority for me to find out how I can engage in the teaching of our technical students.

So, I joined up with Rod Reich, a political philosopher, and Mehran Sahami, a computer scientist, to begin teaching a course, CS 182: Ethics, Public Policy, and Technological Change. The goal is to figure out how we model for computer science students an integrated perspective on technology and its potential societal implications. That means challenging the view that we cannot anticipate or understand the impacts of tech. There’s very much a view that technologists “move fast and break things,” but I think there’s a lot that we can do to anticipate and understand the potential impacts of technology and also to think really hard about the ways in which we might intervene to mitigate potential harms associated with technology. And in that sense, this is where global becomes central to this conversation.

The perspective that our students have in the United States about the role of technology and how technology is regulated is just one perspective in the world, and it’s been really important to teach our undergrads about how issues of privacy and security are thought about in other parts of the world. It is really important, as we grapple with something that is as all-encompassing as technological change, that we recognize that there is a diversity of ways that societies respond that is a reflection of their history, their culture, and the way that their political systems work. That is eye-opening and mind-opening for our students to begin to get that perspective.

When you were an undergraduate, you studied abroad in Cape Town, South Africa. How did that experience shape you and influence your career trajectory?

For me, it was absolutely consequential, and the truth is that when I interact with a lot of alums and ask them what stood out in their education, it is very often the case that it relates to an experience overseas. Putting yourself in another cultural environment, especially one which is unfamiliar to you, is among the most earth-shaking kinds of experiences to have. It causes you to question lots of things you assumed about the world, and it challenges you to figure out how to communicate and engage with people in an environment that is unfamiliar to you. It creates enormous opportunities to learn every day, from things as simple as how do I get around in a new city to learning more complex things such as how do people think about their position in the world.

That was my experience living in South Africa. It was 1995, and apartheid had just ended. I was living in the townships outside of Cape Town, and if you had asked me before I went to South Africa what the likelihood was that I would end up as a professor of African political economy, I would have said zero because I was on the path to becoming a civil rights lawyer. I was really interested in the issues of racism and economic justice in the United States and being exposed to political change in South Africa shifted my worldview. It made me think that, not only are there grave challenges that extend far beyond the borders of the United States, but also there were contributions that I could make to those processes. The vehicle for those contributions became the U.S. government. Figuring out how we could position the U.S. government to be a successful partner with countries going through transition is what led me to public service. So, for me it all goes back to that experience in South Africa. I would be a very different person doing very different things if I didn’t have that exposure to a different part of the world.

Looking into the future, what are some of your priorities in the next three years during your second term as director of SGS?

My number one priority is the work that we’re doing around the undergraduate curriculum. We need to move from a place where approaching and understanding the world is something that students select into at Stanford, to something that is a core feature of everyone’s experience of undergraduate education. I don’t think there’s any career path where operating across borders, or being able to understand and work in diverse teams with different cultural perspectives, or thinking about the international dimensions of the things you’re working on, is not important. That is a common feature whether you are a scientist or a doctor or a private sector investor or working in the public sector. Students who go to Stanford have to be prepared to think about the world that they are going to inhabit.

A second priority is to make sure that the Global Studies Internship Program continues to grow. It began with a focus on East Asia, but I know that our students’ aspirations on campus are not at all limited to one part of the world, and so growing the internship program continues to be a top priority.

I also want to highlight the role that SGS plays in doing outreach to community colleges. We have had a long-standing relationship with faculty members at community colleges across California, and we work closely with them to think about how to integrate and tackle global issues in these really important institutions of higher learning that touch really large numbers of students in California and around the country. I’m excited to continue doing that work.