[The Montana Professor 21.2, Spring 2011 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

The Transnational Competence Race

Peter H. Koehn
Political Science

—Peter Koehn
Peter Koehn

Post space race. Post arms race. Post test-score race. Our interconnected world has embarked on a new race to guide the emerging future. It's the transnational competence (TC) race. By transnational competence, I mean the capabilities necessary for initiating and sustaining collaborative interactions among diverse individuals across political, cultural, and knowledge boundaries./1/

On the global underside, drug cartels, human traffickers, money launderers, polluters, resource plunderers, and persons planning terrorist acts are stealthily engaged in enhancing their TC, often informally, outside formal education systems. Folks on the networked underside recognize that transnational competence is essential to the realization of nefarious cross-border objectives.

The world's higher-education institutions must succeed in preparing transnationally competent graduates if they are to capture and secure the lead in the outcomes race with the underside. Foundationally, socially beneficial projects are advantaged by a rising level of education and transnational participation on the part of citizens/2/ who are affected by emerging interconnected and multilayered challenges. Complex interdependence challenges typically are accompanied by profound uncertainties, power differentials, and high risks. Information is at a premium. For effective policy making and implementation and improvements in conditions and outlooks, professionals are dependent upon the knowledge, influence, and behavioral decisions of educated stakeholders. Responsibility for ensuring that tomorrow's security officers, development and emergency-relief workers, public-health personnel, artists, journalists, lawyers, engineers, policy makers, and businesspersons possess the TC advantage also falls on our higher-education institutions. Working individually and in transcontinental partnerships, universities need to graduate professionals who promote democratic inclusiveness and social justice in their areas of technical expertise./3/

This essay specifically elaborates preferred outcome number four in Linda Gillison's vision for quality higher education the Montana University System; that is, Montana graduates should be prepared to "live effectively in global society."/4/ Laudably, albeit eclectically, The University of Montana has bolted in this direction in recent years. Building on academic foundations in foreign languages, international relations, and comparative politics, and with administrative support and leadership from Main Hall, popular multidisciplinary undergraduate and graduate programs have been successfully launched in international development studies (with a new Peace Corps Prep option), climate-change studies, Latin American and Central Asian studies, global and rural health, international resource conservation, and international youth and family development (among others). Still lacking on this campus, and at other universities in the MUS and around the world that seek to embark on quality higher education for the Twenty-first Century, is a unifying cross-disciplinary and cross-thematic vision of how to prepare graduates who will excel in the TC race.

The competency-centered campus internationalization vision

Higher-education visionaries have vigorously promoted competency-centered campus internationalization since 1980./5/ After nearly three decades of concern, however, there remained little clarity or certainty regarding the skills required for transboundary interactions./6/ As George Dennison, whose career has been distinguished by commitment to international education, lamented in a 2007 issue of this journal, "while globalization indicates many graduates will spend at least part of their careers in other countries, no one knows quite how to prepare them for it."/7/

During this time, awareness grew regarding the pedagogical and practical limitations associated with narrowly focused international studies learning. Based on results from a turn-of-the-century survey of high-level officials in business, government, and not-for-profit and nongovernmental organizations, a study supported by the Starr Foundation, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the United Nations Foundation, and RAND concluded that "the traditional ways that universities conceived of 'internationalizing' their curriculums—by developing academic area studies and language training—may no longer be the best ways of producing broad-gauged professionals. Instead, universities need to devise ways to give students a grounding in thinking and acting across cultures."/8/

The transnational competence vision and framework

The earliest published resource envisioning transnational competence appeared in a 1997 volume issued as an Institute of International Education (IIE) Research Report. The report, titled Towards Transnational Competence: Rethinking International Education (A U.S.-Japan Case Study), was prepared by the Task Force for Transnational Competence with support from the U.S.-Japan Foundation. Although narrowly focused on ways to improve "international education" in the United States and Japan, Task Force members recognized that "education in the future will need to place greater emphasis" on TC./9/

James N. Rosenau of George Washington University and I shared William B. DeLauder's conviction that the paramount educational challenge of our time is "how do we better prepare future leaders, managers, and other professionals to be effective in the global environment in which we live?"/10/ Drawing on insights and research findings from multiple fields of study, we developed a framework for transnational-competence preparation that involves five orienting skill domains that shape performance in a porous and dynamic world of repeated cross-boundary interactions of the face-to-face and virtual variety./11/ Without jettisoning area and foreign-language studies, our future-oriented TC approach moves beyond traditional geographic place-limited and culture-centered intellectual approaches.

Our vision of transnational competence is fundamentally a transactional one. Transnational capacity is expressed (or not expressed) in human encounters and in role performance./12/ We approach transnational encounters as micro-level interpersonal interactions that occur in social and power contexts and are shaped by macro-level forces (global, regional, national, and local). In our conceptualization, transnational competence involves applications of five sets of clearly differentiated capacities: analytic, emotional, creative, communicative, and functional. These skill sets are elaborated generically in Chapter 2 of our recently published book and, then, developed specifically with reference to transformative curriculums in education, business, engineering, social-work, sustainable-development (agricultural sciences, public administration, natural-resource management), and health and medicine./13/

Montana educators cannot afford to ignore the TC race

Here, I would like to suggest five reasons why MUS (and K-12) educators across all disciplines who are committed to offering a quality Twenty-first Century education and to preparing graduates who will live and work effectively in global society cannot afford to ignore the TC race.

(1) Tomorrow's graduates will be assigned anywhere and everywhere. Mobile graduates will be assisting displaced persons in Haiti this year, Afghanistan next, and Sudan after. Montana workers and families will encounter investors, migrants, teammates, texters, and tourists from Armenia today, Ethiopia tomorrow, China next week, and Guatemala next month. Regional and area knowledge is helpful, but no longer suffices.

(2) The TC curriculum prepares boundary spanners and edge-walkers. The TC curriculum is about preparing for emerging challenges to our interdependent destiny that arise at margins where we ends and they begins, where the known shades into the unknown. TC enables the graduate to "edge-walk" along and across the permeable and intersecting boundaries of culture, discipline, social class, organizations, and identities—as well as maps. TC engages vision and passion in educating teachers who are prepared to send forward K-12 students who treasure the synergy of indigenous knowledge joined with global perspectives; businessmen and women prepared to participate in transnational mergers, joint ventures, and positioning at multiple overseas locations; engineers prepared for multinational teamwork at the cutting edge of developments in nanotechnology that are reshaping manufacturing, food supply, and health; social workers prepared to face complex practice situations generated by poverty, ethnic conflict, prolonging life, transnational adoptions and abductions, and migration; public administrators prepared for unpredictable systemic challenges to sustainable development arising from climate change; and health professionals prepared for tomorrow's "lifestyle epidemics."

(3) Transnational-competence preparation is consistent with the mission of Montana's higher-education institutions. Higher-education preparation offers a unique opportunity to adapt and advance TC learning in reasoned and systematic, rather than in ad hoc and fortuitous, fashion. Transnational analytical competence is built on familiarity with the "big questions" raised and addressed in MUS science, social-science, arts, humanities, and professional classrooms. The TC functional curriculum provides learners with ethical context and direction regarding the humanist and social-justice promise of professional applications at the same time that it equips them with the interpersonal skills required to stay ahead of those working on the underside.

(4) Graduating TC-prepared professionals will be employed professionals. In today's dynamic and competitive employment environment, TC is huge. Corporate, NGO, and government employers considering university graduates are less impressed with the acquisition of technical knowledge that will rapidly become obsolete; they are interested in the graduate's ability to work effectively on multinational teams. Hard-skill, soft-skill thinking is yesterday thinking; technical skills must be accompanied by equally essential interpersonal competencies. The cross-profession demand for personnel skilled at working with others across boundaries on challenges that will enable us to realize common aspirations and will shape our common destinies necessitates that educators responsible for preparing employable graduates develop TC curricula that address interpersonal competencies with as much ardor and rigor as devoted to technical competencies. In widely heralded 2009 and 2010 steps in this direction, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation awarded $16 million in grants to 20 universities around the world to initiate Master's in Development Practice (MDP) curricula that include hands-on practical experience in low-income contexts. MDP curricula are specially designed to provide students with analytic skills based on integrated learning in social sciences, natural sciences, health sciences, and management./14/ Fusing key MDP components with curricular attention to the transboundary emotional, creative, and relationship-building components of the more comprehensive and demanding TC curriculum would round out the preparation of graduating practitioners and help secure employment in positions along the edge of current and future global challenges.

(5) TC-prepared professionals and academics will inspire and manage the next generation of transnational higher-education partnerships. In the face of faltering government revenues and pressing needs, tertiary-level institutions in the global South currently are hard pressed to undertake capacity-building initiatives on their own, while economic recession, competing agendas, and pressures on public spending constrain the ability of many Northern universities to undertake curricular enhancements. In this common predicament lies the potential for mutual gain. By mobilizing support from non-academic sources and sharing the assembled resources, transnationally competent academic leaders in North and South can forge higher-education partnerships (HEPs) constructed around mutual learning that bring "additionality" to human- and institutional-capacity building initiatives. The recent success of the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities (APLU)-inspired Africa-U.S. Higher Education Initiative in securing new USAID funding for HEPs provides an illustration of the power of such advocacy./15/

Engaging in the TC race

Will the MUS participate in, perhaps eventually lead, the TC challenge? At The University of Montana, it has been encouraging to find that outstanding and committed students with backgrounds in the social sciences, natural sciences, humanities, technology, and business are drawn to new interdisciplinary programs in international development, rural and global public health, and climate change that have been inspired by a shared faculty and administration vision for addressing critical global problems through higher education. To compete in the race for transnational competence, MUS administrative and faculty leaders, students, Regents, and higher-education supporters need to take the transforming next step of developing TC curricula. Then, Montana graduates will be prepared to live (and serve) effectively in global society.


  1. To minimize terminological confusion, I find it helpful to reserve "global" for references that include the entire world, to use "international" to refer to a particular form of organization and to relations among nations, and to apply "transnational" as a descriptor for the wide range of person-to-person and non-state relations that transcend country borders. No scholarly or professional consensus exists on the choice of adjectives to describe competence that crosses geographic and human boundaries; transnational, international, global, (inter)cultural, linguistic, and inter-ethnic all are widely encountered. Why should we privilege "transnational" over its closest conceptual competitors—"global" and "cultural or intercultural" competence? First, we need a term that captures the porous nature of nation-state borders in a time of unparalleled human mobility and interconnectedness. "Transnational" directs attention to activities that traverse and interlink political jurisdictions at the same time that it recognizes the permeable status of physical borders that have not disappeared. When attached to competence in human interactions, transnational is less universalistic than "global"; yet, it encompasses more than culture. Since few, if any, individuals interact on a world-wide scale, global competence is neither practicable nor necessary. Increasingly, however, human interactions occur across interconnected boundaries, many of which are not primarily culturally defined. We need a construct that does not sacrifice attention to capacity to cross multiple and fluid frontiers in the process of addressing complex interdependence challenges. "Transnational" captures the diversity and multiplicity of contemporary domestic-foreign boundary exchanges without requiring global reach. Also see Steven Vertovec, Transnationalism (London: Routledge, 2009); Ann M. Florini and P.J. Simmons, "What the World Needs Now?" in The Third Force: The Rise of Transnational Civil Society, edited by Ann M. Florini (Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2000), 7.[Back]
  2. In this context, my primary focus is on "civil-society" citizenship, the defining feature of which is participation in shared projects that increasingly involve transborder collaboration. See Peter H. Koehn and Phyllis B. Ngai, "Citizenship Education for an Age of Population Mobility and Glocally Interconnected Destinies," Finnish Journal of Ethnicity and Migration 1.1 (2006): 26-33.[Back]
  3. Sigrid Quack, "Law, Expertise and Legitimacy in Transnational Economic Governance: An Introduction," Socio-Economic Review 8 (2010): 12.[Back]
  4. Linda W. Gillison, "Shall We Talk about Quality?" Montana Professor 21.1 (2010): 9.[Back]
  5. For a concise statement of early milestone studies and initiatives, see Seth Spaulding, James Mauch, and Lin Lin, "The Internationalization of Higher Education: Policy and Program Issues," in Changing Perspectives on International Education, edited by Patrick O'Meara, Howard D. Mehlinger, and Roxanna Ma Newman (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001), 205. For instance, in its May 2000 "strategic vision statement for learning, scholarship and engagement in the new century," the U.S.-focused National Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges (now APLU) foresaw that cross-border influences on all fields of human endeavor necessitate "infusing the curriculum and all related co-curricular activities with an international perspective" and "ancillary skills." NASULGC, Expanding the International Scope of Universities (Washington, D.C.: NASULGC, 2000), 9.[Back]
  6. Sheila Biddle, Internationalization: Rhetoric or Reality? (New York: American Council of Learned Societies, 2002), 8, 119.[Back]
  7. George M. Dennison, review of Our Underachieving Colleges, by Derek Bok, Montana Professor 17.2 (2007): 47.[Back]
  8. Tora K. Bikson, Gregory F. Treverton, Joy Moini, and Gustav Lindstrom, New Challenges for International Leadership: Lessons from Organizations with Global Missions (Santa Monica: RAND, 2003), xxi.[Back]
  9. Task Force for Transnational Competence, Towards Transnational Competence: Rethinking International Education (A U.S.-Japan Case Study), IIE Research Report 28 (New York: Institute of International Education, 1997), 9.[Back]
  10. Commission, A National Action Agenda for Internationalizing Higher Education (Washington, D.C.: NASULGC, 2007), 5.[Back]
  11. The initial formulation of our framework appeared in Peter H. Koehn and James N. Rosenau, "Transnational Competence in an Emergent Epoch," International Studies Perspectives 3 (May 2002): 105-127.[Back]
  12. An "active skills" emphasis also characterized Richard Lambert's earlier notion of global competence. Richard D. Lambert, "Summary and Prospectus," in Educational Exchange and Global Competence, edited by Richard D. Lambert (Portland, ME: Council on International Educational Exchange, 1994), 286.[Back]
  13. Peter H. Koehn and James N. Rosenau, Transnational Competence: Empowering Professional Curricula for Horizon-Rising Challenges (Paradigm Publishers, 2010). Chapter 12 suggests ways to mobilize resources, institutional support, faculty buy-in, and student interest behind moving professional programs in the TC direction.[Back]
  14. "MacArthur Awards $5.6 Million to Support New Master's Programs to Train Sustainable Development Leaders around the World," MacArthur Foundation, 4 May 2010. Available at http://www.macfound.org/site/pp.aspx?c=lkLXJ8MQKrH&b=6008343.[Back]
  15. See Peter H. Koehn and Montague Demment, "Higher Education and Sustainable Development in Africa: Why Partner Transnationally?" Background Paper for the Ministerial Conference on Higher Education in Agriculture in Africa, Kampala, Uganda, 16 November 2010, pp. 4-5.[Back]

[The Montana Professor 21.2, Spring 2011 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

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