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Connecting Societies and Cultures through Education

BC’s Philip Altbach has made the study of higher ed his life’s work

Monan Professor of Higher Education Philip Altbach. (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)

By Ed Hayward | Chronicle Staff

Published: Nov. 17, 2011

As a University of Chicago undergraduate and leader of the Student Peace Union in 1960, Philip Altbach traveled to England for a summer training program. There he noticed an eye-catching symbol printed on buttons being handed out by the British Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. So he bought a bunch and took them back to Chicago.

“I thought it was cool – it was the peace symbol,” Altbach said. “My friends at SPU liked them and we started printing our own buttons and handing them out. It was the first time Americans had seen the peace symbol and it caught on fast. The rest is history.”

Even today, Altbach, the J. Donald Monan, S.J. University Professor of Higher Education at the Lynch School of Education, continues making connections between societies and cultures around the world. During a career now in its fifth decade, Altbach has traveled the globe as one of the foremost experts in international higher education.

Altbach plans to retire in 2013, reducing his workload while still maintaining a role at the Center for International Higher Education (CIHE), which he has directed since he joined BC in 1994.

Yet a quick glance at Altbach’s schedule over the past month shows no sign he’s slowed down: a new book published, a book launch in Washington, DC, a trip to China to deliver nearly a dozen lectures in four cities; back to Washington for a briefing and finally returning to the home he shares with his wife of 49 years, Edith Hoshino.

It’s a career-long pace that his friends and colleagues say ensures Altbach knows just about everyone in the field, as well as their latest research.

“Phil is one of just a half dozen professors cranking out this extraordinary volume of research, writing, speaking and networking,” said SUNY Buffalo Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of Higher and Comparative Education Bruce Johnstone. “Phil is extremely current and more than anyone else knows who is publishing, who is funding and where significant scholarship is going on in international comparative higher education.”

Altbach has authored or edited nearly 50 books on topics ranging from higher education to India’s publishing industry to student activism. His most recent, The Road to Academic Excellence: The Making of World-Class Research Universities, which he co-edited with Jamil Salmi, was published last month.

In addition to publishing commercially, many of Altbach’s books are distributed in paperback through CIHE, making the work accessible to cash-strapped scholars in all corners of the world. His co-editor Salmi says the emphasis on accessibility is one measure of Altbach’s dedication to the advancement of his field as a whole.

“Phil is a gentleman and a scholar,” said Salmi, a higher and tertiary education expert with the World Bank. “He’s deeply knowledgeable about comparative higher education across many topics. People look to him for advice and guidance. Yet Phil is a very humble person and very approachable. He doesn’t put himself on a pedestal.”

At the Center for International Higher Education, Altbach has developed a world-renowned clearinghouse of publishing, scholarship and commentary.

The center publishes the quarterly journal International Higher Education, with versions in English, Spanish, Russian and Chinese. The center’s website offers research and resources, podcasts, social media links, and the center blog, World View, which is hosted by the influential industry website Inside Higher Ed. In addition, the site hosts the Higher Education Corruption Monitor, an online collection of news about diploma mills, research misconduct and administrative misbehavior, which Altbach says need to be exposed.

He also serves as an advisor to universities and higher education agencies in China, Russia and Saudi Arabia, bridging language and cultural divides to fulfill what he sees as a responsibility to help officials raise standards and operate schools, colleges and universities according to the best available practices.

“Over the course of almost 50 years, I’ve tried to contribute to understanding the nature of the university and how it affects human, economic and social development,” said Altbach. “These institutions are critical to societies, whether they’re in developing countries or developed, industrial nations. To have spent so much time learning about universities in America and other countries and picking up new perspectives has been exceedingly interesting and fulfilling. It’s what I care about and it’s what I feel is important.”