As a child, Sri Zaheer learned more about the world by visiting a library run by the American consulate in what is now Chennai, India.
It helped her rise out of poverty to study physics at a university in Mumbai. That led to a teaching career in Nigeria, to graduate studies in international management at MIT and then to 31 years teaching at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota, including the last dozen as dean.
This year, she will retire as dean and return to the teaching faculty, leaving Carlson in an exceptionally strong place. It recently raised more than $100 million for scholarships. Its faculty routinely score well in national rankings. And with one out five of its master's students newly out of the military, Carlson is widely seen as the nation's best business school for veterans.
Its undergraduate program was also just overhauled with a curriculum that incorporates more hands-on projects and deeper study into climate change, race, power and justice.
And yet, one development troubles Zaheer: the disappearance of Americans from elite education. Of the 88 students now pursuing a Ph.D. at the Carlson School, 14 are Americans and 74 are from other countries.
"We want Americans because we want diversity in the classroom," Zaheer said. "Students from China and India, they don't want to come to a class that only has Chinese and Indians in it. They come here to get to know Americans."
Overall enrollment at the U this academic year is the highest since 2011-12. But graduate-level enrollment has been declining for a decade. Its graduate programs have made up some of the decline by admitting more international students.
"This has been a huge issue in all graduate programs, especially anything with the slightest quantitative edge to it," she said.
The Carlson School has experienced its own version of pandemic and post-pandemic ups and downs. Graduate enrollment tumbled in 2020, then rebounded in fall 2021. Last fall's enrollment leveled between them. It now has 992 students in its master's programs, and 75% of them are Americans.
Normally, business graduate programs are countercyclical, meaning enrollment rises when the economy is bad and falls when it's good. When businesses lay off people, some take that moment to get an MBA. Right now, labor markets are tight, reducing interest in business schools.
And to be sure, a graduate degree of any kind is definitely an investment. Tuition in the full-time MBA program at the Carlson School is $42,000 for Minnesotans and $54,000 for non-residents, including international students.
More than 90% of the master's students at Carlson are on scholarships. Many are paid by their employers to be there. A Ph.D. student, of course, is paid to be at Carlson and helps teach and research.
But something deeper is influencing enrollment and Zaheer said it has been troubling leaders across American higher education.
As we talked more about enrollment diversity, we edged into the tricky terrain of cultural differences.
"Growing up in India, I was encouraged to do science. I was encouraged to do math. I don't think parents here encourage their daughters to go in that direction sufficiently," she said. "There are really brilliant Americans in math and science, just not enough of them."
Over the last five decades, employers' ability to squeeze wages and hire a steady flow of immigrants created labor competition that drove many Americans out of jobs. Some became reflexively angry with immigrants.
What's happening now in graduate schools is different. Fewer Americans are pursuing the highest heights of educational opportunity, and it's not because of competition from people who come from other countries. They either don't see the value or they don't want to do the work. Both reasons harm our competitiveness and economic potential.
The Carlson School is "making a huge effort to increase domestic student enrollment," Zaheer said. Its newest degree is a master's in marketing that's aimed at students who got a liberal arts degree as undergrads.
I welcome international students at the U and to any school in U.S., and I wish we tried to retain more of them. Some would turn out like Zaheer, whose impact on Minnesota businesses has been immense.
On the other hand, I also know how much they mean to their own countries and that one of the most powerful of America's "soft powers" is the friendship and connection they feel with Americans.
I lived and worked for a decade in Asia, and I met hundreds of people who came to the U.S. for part of their education. In Seoul, one of South Korea's former finance ministers asked me where I was from in the U.S. I told him a small town in Iowa that he'd never heard of. He pressed me. When I told him the name of my hometown, he said, "Heard of it? I went to college there."