Education

University of Iowa dean envisions expanded global reach

World experiences shape new International Programs leader

University of Iowa International Programs Dean Russ Ganim stands Jan. 3 in the department's conference room in Iowa City
University of Iowa International Programs Dean Russ Ganim stands Jan. 3 in the department’s conference room in Iowa City. “The more we can do to make our university community look like the world itself, the more we benefit our students and our state,” said the recently appointed dean. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — As a child of Spanish-speaking parents who met on the U.S. border with Mexico, Russ Ganim grew up longing to learn their “secret code.”

He did, and in expanding his lexicon, Ganim expanded his world — inspiring what would become a lifelong pursuit of cultural awareness and understanding that on New Year’s Day propelled him to his new position leading the University of Iowa’s Department of International Programs.

“It was sort of a natural transition,” Ganim, 59, said after describing a meandering journey of cultural immersion that’s taken him to 22 countries and in 2011 to the UI, where he’s been serving as director of its Division of World Languages, Literatures and Cultures. In that role, Ganim partnered and traveled with Downing Thomas — the previous UI International Programs dean — to set up programs and arrange partnerships.

Their trips to China, Japan, Korea and Russia established the footing Ganim said made his step into Thomas’ shoes “natural.”

“I had a lot of experience and was able to form a lot of relationships across campus,” said Ganim, who also is a French professor and served as chair of the Department of German; chair of the Department of French and Italian; administrative head of the American Sign Language Program; and chair of Asian and Slavic Languages and Literatures.

“Thanks to all of that,” he said, “I felt that this was a challenge that I was ready to take on.”

But his preparation precedes his arrival in Iowa — or, at least, his second stint here.

Although he grew up in St. Louis, Ganim received an undergraduate degree in French from this state’s Grinnell College, attending from 1979 to 1983. During his time there, in the spring of 1982, Ganim made his first foray into international education by studying abroad in Tours, France — a historic city in the Loire Valley, known for its Renaissance architecture and parks.

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After graduating, he landed an assistantship teaching English in Pithiviers, France — a commune in the Loiret region, famous for its connection to Joan of Arc in medieval times.

He came back to the states — Virginia, specifically — to start graduate school in 1985, earning master’s and doctorate degrees in French language and literature at the University of Virginia. But while he was technically at UVA, Ganim spent the 1989-90 academic year in France again for an exchange program through the French government, teaching English at a high school in Toulouse.

“It was a marvelous experience,” Ganim said, noting he spent about five years total in France.

His heritage and extended family, though, is Lebanese with Mexican ties. His grandparents immigrated here in 1909, with his grandmother’s brother settling in Mexico.

“So there’s a very large branch of the family that lives in Mexico,” Ganim said. “We go down and visit them periodically. They have come to the United States to live with us to learn English. And that’s part of where the whole learning of Spanish has been part of my profile as well.”

Ganim for eight years had a front-row seat to UI efforts to expand opportunities abroad and grow the campus’ cultural diversity by bringing more international students here.

And from that vantage point, he’s seen recent enrollment changes, including a drop in international students.

From a peak of 4,540 enrolled in 2015 — following a sharp escalation from about 1,800 in 2000 — this fall’s international enrollment is down to 2,656, a drop of about 1,000 students from last year’s 3,665.

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International enrollment at Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa also fell this fall — and Ganim noted the phenomenon is not exclusive to Iowa.

A main reason for the decline, he said, relates to changes in China, which for years propelled the U.S. surge in international interest. Today, the Asian power is building its own universities at a rapid clip. Ganim notices it more every time he visits.

“China itself has at least 60 cities that are the size of Houston … and each of them has new universities that are being built,” he said. “So the Chinese are making a conscientious effort to keep students in China.”

Plus, he said, more countries around the world are competing with the United States for students willing to study abroad.

“Students are going to the UK, they’re going to Europe, they’re going to Australia,” he said. “As a result the U.S., while it’s still very attractive and it still has the best university system in the world, is facing competition that it didn’t have, say, 10 or 15 years ago. Similarly, the current political climate doesn’t help.”

The United States, he said, is not perceived abroad as being as open as in the past.

“I think that discourages some international students from coming here,” Ganim said. “That said, the University of Iowa has always been a very welcoming institution. It’s always been a world institution. And it’s opened its doors to students from everywhere.”

So while UI can and should continue recruiting students from China, it needs to expand its focus on countries in Latin America and Africa, according to Ganim.

“There are parts of the Middle East, as well, where we might be able to recruit students,” he said. “I’ll be developing strategies in my new position to look at how we might recruit students from those areas.”

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And it’s not just about students. Ganim stressed the importance of research partnerships and faculty exchanges.

“We need to be very active in Africa, in Latin America, and selected parts of the Middle East,” he said. “There are also parts of Asia where we can maybe recruit more students — I’m thinking of Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, for example, where we already have at least some presence, but we could have a bigger one.”

An immediate antidote to the international slide might not exist, but Ganim has a history of cracking codes — like as a child, curious about his parents’ private chats. And in his new International Programs dean role, where he’ll earn an annual salary of $236,000, Ganim stressed the need to develop a careful and deliberate approach.

“We have to create strategies around curriculum, around programs, around faculty expertise, where we think we can get the highest return on our investment of time and resources,” he said. “We do not have infinite funds at our disposal, and we need to choose those programs in those areas that we think can benefit our institution consistently over an extended period of time.”

If the university succeeds, the benefits will be rich, he said.

“The more we can do to make our university community look like the world itself, the more we benefit our students and our state,” he said.

Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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