A Closer Look

Donald B. Holsinger: On Education, Development, and Vision

Since coming to BYU in 1997, he has switched from encouraging education internationally to providing an international education.

Donald B. Holsinger

Donald B. Holsinger has spent most of his professional life championing education in developing countries. Since coming to BYU in 1997, he has switched from encouraging education internationally to providing an international education.

By Gail Andersen Newbold

When Donald B. Holsinger found out he’d been nominated to be director of BYU’s David M. Kennedy Center of International Studies, he was in Ethiopia serving as chief policy advisor for its Ministry of Education. Holsinger’s international career in education made him an ideal candidate, and he’d always thought it would be nice to return to his alma mater. But his specialization in education and development had not been well represented at BYU, so he didn’t think there would ever be a place for him.

“My wife didn’t think I had a prayer for the job,” he remembers. “She reminded me, jokingly, that I wasn’t married to a general authority’s daughter, I hadn’t had a career at BYU, plus I was halfway around the world.” Evidently none of this prevented those doing the hiring from choosing Holsinger, a man who has spent most of his career promoting economic growth and reducing poverty by increasing educational opportunities in the poorer countries of the world.

Now he is in Provo, where he hopes to help train students to pick up where he left off in international development and education. In his Kennedy Center office he sits surrounded by memorabilia from his travels, wearing a white shirt, suspenders, and slacks and looking much younger than 55. His wife Ellen says it’s the fat in his cheeks that erases a few of his years. Perhaps it’s his trendy hair–cropped close and bleached blonde–that strips away the years. But Holsinger insists he’s not a bleached blonde. “This is what happens to red hair when you get old,” he says with a grin.

While he can chuckle about his hair, Holsinger takes international development and education very seriously and has made that the focus of his work. In his 30 years’ experience, he has taught at four universities, served in the ministries of education of Ethiopia and Indonesia, and spent l3 years with the World Bank in Washington, D.C. The World Bank is a development organization loaning billions of dollars annually to developing countries. There Holsinger was a senior education specialist, traveling about l40 days a year to bring greater educational opportunities to people in various parts of the world.

“From the day I returned from my mission in Brazil, I knew that my professional destiny was to work in the developing world,” Holsinger says.

Through his experience, Holsinger has come to believe there is no better way for a developing country to achieve economic growth and reduce poverty than by educating its people. The Asian nations of Korea, Hong Kong, and Singapore began experiencing rapid economic growth in the l960s, Holsinger says, because their labor forces were becoming more educated with about 25 percent completing a secondary education. Now more than half do.

Holsinger also notes that education brings higher levels of democratic rights, and nations with higher levels of education tend to be more politically stable, which in turn facilitates higher levels of foreign investment. He has also observed that the rates of return on investments in education are generally greater than the rates of return on investments in infrastructure. In Latin America, good infrastructure investments average around l2 percent returns, whereas investments in education are twice that high.

“Behind much of this is that education makes labor more productive,” Holsinger explains. “No one has yet been able to explain precisely why this relationship exists, and there is much about formal schooling that appears only tangentially related to a specific work task. But the fact of the relationship remains. Both the individual and society benefit from investments in education and those benefits are enduring ones.”

Since starting at BYU last October, Holsinger has switched his focus from encouraging education internationally to providing an international education. He hopes to use his expertise to strengthen BYU’s development programs and help the Kennedy Center become a beacon for international studies. “We’re at the geographical heart of campus and that’s symbolic since this is a worldwide church and BYU’s motto is ‘The World is Our Campus,'” he explains. “As the Doctrine and Covenants says, the Church is coming ‘out of obscurity’ (D&C 1:30) and is looking in particular at BYU and the Kennedy Center to be part of coming out of that obscurity. To be the head of the Kennedy Center at this time is a big deal. I’m not a big deal–a lot of people could do this job. But this is a very challenging opportunity and I like challenges.”

One of the biggest challenges Holsinger faces is that, in his estimation, BYU isn’t living up to its international potential.

“I look at the internationality of BYU and try to measure its quality and what I see is a lot of self-congratulation by members of the BYU community who believe we handle our international aspirations very well.” Yet it is actually the Church that gives BYU its international flavor, Holsinger explains, because it sends youth on missions who then come to BYU as students and later as faculty.

“The net contribution BYU makes to the international character of its student body is actually very modest compared with other universities.”

This is something Holsinger hopes to change. He would like to see the Kennedy Center become a stronger international institution–perhaps a Kennedy School of International Studies. “Center¬†implies something tightly focused and specific, not broad,” Holsinger says. “We’re not like that at all. We’re a big organization.” In seven undergraduate degrees and one master’s program, the Kennedy Center graduates more students each year than the Departments of Economics and Political Science combined. The center also runs all BYU’s study abroad programs except the Jerusalem Center and administers a large publications center.

Holsinger also envisions every BYU student having an international experience, perhaps even declaring a country when they declare a major.

Most of all, he would like to see more BYU students graduate in programs relevant to international development careers, an area in which Latter-day Saints are underrepresented, he says.

“We have quite a number of individuals in the LDS community who would identify their work with the objectives of development–promoting economic growth and reducing poverty,” Holsinger told a group of students at the Kennedy Center last February. “But my subjective impression is that there are far fewer in number from our religious community who are professionally engaged in international development work than those who would claim affiliation with diplomatic activity or with the State Department in general.”

He continued, explaining that while there are members of the LDS community contributing to fields such as law, medicine, business, or education, there is need for more involvement in development. “We may achieve excellence in our traditional academic disciplines, but these same disciplines have not done very much to prepare people to solve a few fundamental problems that destroy, debilitate, demean, and denigrate the lives of billions of people.” He is referring to problems such as the lack of basic primary education and health care for the majority of the worlds’ population.

“Yes, I’ve been accused of being a dreamer,” Holsinger admits, “but BYU is unique and we shouldn’t be like everyone else. We’re not a state university, nor do we have an obligation to be mediocre. I raise the idea, someone says that will be tough, and I say, ‘Is that a reason why we shouldn’t do it?'”

His wife Ellen says her husband is a visionary man. “He gets excited about possibilities and is really very good at getting other people excited about his vision,” she says.

Lawrence R. Flake, associate professor of church history and doctrine at BYU and Holsinger’s childhood friend, calls him “a forward thinking fellow who’s ready and willing to try new ideas. He’s not traditional or bound to anything in the past.”

But he chuckles when he says his friend sometimes reminds him of Will Rogers. “Will’s solution to the problem of the German submarine U-boats which were sinking our ships during WWII was to raise the temperature of the ocean. When someone asked how he was going to accomplish that, he said, ‘I just get the ideas and someone else needs to work out the details.'”

Fortunately, Holsinger feels the support of BYU for some of his visions and is pleased that BYU President Merrill Bateman is internationally minded. “I believe he will be known for expanding the international character of BYU in much the same way as other presidents are remembered for their support of legal and business education,” Holsinger says.

Holsinger isn’t sure where he’ll go at the end of his five years at the Kennedy Center. He may teach in the Department of Educational Leadership and Foundations where he is a full professor, work in Portuguese-speaking Africa, serve a mission, or stay on at the Kennedy Center if asked.

But he’s finally reached the point after many years where he’d rather be good than recognized. “I’m far less impressed now with stuff like this,” he says, picking up an academic article containing his byline. “I don’t know how much good articles like this really do for the world. They are a way of impressing people. These days I’m less impressed with people with lots of credentials and more impressed with people who are good. And I think being good is a lot harder to achieve. I’m trying to get there, but I’m not there yet.”


Gail Andersen Newbold, a BYU alumna, is a freelance writer from Bountiful, Utah.

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