To India and beyond? BOSP director looks to develop overseas programs

Dec. 1, 2010, 2:09 a.m.

As the Bing Overseas Studies Program (BOSP) continues to recover from the economic downturn that severely slashed its resources and forced significant cutbacks over the last several years, University officials are beginning to look toward the possibility of new centers, seminars and requirements that will define the program’s future.

A first step on this path was the appointment of Robert Sinclair, professor of materials science and engineering, who became the director of BOSP this quarter.

“The way things work at Stanford is that if there are new initiatives or new ideas, then it works best if the consensus is built up from all the possible constituencies,” Sinclair said. “We’re currently going through that process right now.”

Sinclair said he has given presentations to the BOSP advisory council, department office, executive council and Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education Harry Elam. Because of the large number of groups that must be consulted, it will take significant time and effort before students see major changes to the program, including any new centers, he said.

BOSP is returning to pre-economic downturn levels, according to the director. Speaking of returning to a “sustainable” level, Sinclair said the monetary commitment for a new center would be far from trivial, with the final numbers depending heavily on whether the center is endowed by a major gift, as well as the cost of physical setup and support. The approximate cost of a three-quarter center is $1.5 million a year.

“You can gauge from that what the startup would be and what the long-term commitment would be,” he said. “The one-quarter program, which is often more viable in the beginning, is less, but it’s not proportionately less.”

In the meantime, the program is instead focusing on re-instating the Overseas Seminar Program cut a year ago because of budget constraints. Currently, the plan is to reintroduce the program in 2012 at half its level before the economic downturn and fully the following year. Seminars are much more logistically and financially feasible for the still-recovering program, Sinclair said.

“Trial seminars” would occur in “key places,” including locations where BOSP hopes to open up full-blown centers in the future, he said. Expectations for expansion will play a significant role in determining the course of the seminars.

“The procedure in the past has been to open it up to faculty proposals, and we’ll do that to some extent, but there will be some targeted locations which faculty and staff will think about to try some of the new locations we might consider in the long term,” he said.

Sinclair called program officials’ top choices, which include India and the Middle East, “almost self-evident.”

“There are so many choices,” Sinclair added. “Personally, the School of Engineering has had good associations with Bangalore…it would help promote at the same time the involvement of technical and engineering students. There wouldn’t be a language requirement so there are lots of advantages there. If you look at finance you’ve got to think about Mumbai, if you think culture there’s Delhi and Calcutta, but we’re taking into consideration the difficult situation that technology students have, so Bangalore in the end is close to the top of the list.”

In his enthusiasm for a center in Bangalore, Sinclair also dispelled a common student speculation: that technical and engineering majors cannot go abroad because of their requirement-heavy curricula.

“The situation is not dire,” he said. “It’s not as bad as we sometimes think, but there are a fraction of engineering students who aren’t able to fit it into their schedules as easily as other majors and so we want to promote engineering and technical students to go abroad.”

An obstacle the program faces is globalizing the program without detracting from the centers already operating. Sixty-six percent of Stanford students who go abroad through BOSP go to Western Europe, but Sinclair said that he would like to change the trend.

“I personally would like to see a more balanced program and more globalization, and I think the University would also,” he said. “That having been said, the centers are all superb and serve a great purpose, so we wouldn’t want to have an impact on what they’re doing because they are really to the benefit of a lot of our students.”

Despite these difficulties, BOSP continues to flourish in various other ways. Applications to other centers remain extremely competitive, especially at Oxford and Kyoto, the latter of which enjoys a two-to-one application-to-spot ratio.

Sinclair said the fiscal constraints under which BOSP operates will continue to be the main determinants of its future direction.

“There are some changes that are possible, but we do have to remember that these are still really constricting financial times so I would say that any changes that are going to happen are going to be gradual, maybe not even in my time as director,” Sinclair said.

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