Campus colossus: N.Y.U. and Columbia pursue a global university model, hotly

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NYU Abu Dhabi. ()
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In the spring of 2009, Columbia University opened two foreign outposts. There wasn't much fanfare at the time—the ribbon-cutting ceremonies garnered less coverage than, say, each of the university’s expansions into Manhattanville

Last year, just as quietly, Columbia opened two more centers, in Mumbai and Paris. And later this year, Columbia will open a center in Istanbul, with a center in Santiago hot on its heels.

By 2012, according to Kenneth Prewitt, Columbia’s recently minted vice president for global centers, the university intends to have centers operational in Rio de Janeiro and Nairobi. This, all of this, is only Phase One.

Columbia's effort occurs at the same time as a more aggressively publicized campaign by New York University to establish outposts around the world, starting with a portal campus in Abu Dhabi, to be followed in 2013 by a second portal campus in Shanghai and then a collection of 16 global sites (of varying sizes) by 2014.

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What these two New York-based universities are attempting—essentially to slip the constraints of Manhattan by actually, physically expanding across the Earth—is not in any way normal.

Typically, when American universities have set up outposts abroad, those entities have been modest-sized beta projects like the six minicamupses in Doha, Qatar’s Education City, established by Virginia Commonwealth University, Weill Cornell Medical College, Texas A&M University, Carnegie Mellon University, Georgetown University and Northwestern University. Each campus had one or two hundred students, and offered one or two programs of study. These campuses, according to not-disinterested remarks made in a report by N.Y.U. President John Sexton, tend to have “… relatively loose connections to the core of the university, its faculty, and its student body; moreover, they have been uneven in quality.”

Most American universities with reputations worth worrying about have avoided branch-campus expansion altogether.

“The higher the level of prestige of the home university the more risk of loss to the brand, hence the more conservative the decision as to overseas campuses,” said Stephen Heyneman, a professor of international educational policy at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of Education and Human Development. "Coupled with financial restrictions, the demands of partners in the region, and local restrictions and regulations, branch campuses stay small and simple."

N.Y.U. Abu Dhabi, which school spokesman Josh Taylor says has received 15,000 for its 400 available spots across a number of diverse disciplines, appears all the more bold in that light. The same can be said, in terms of willingness to embark on something new, of Columbia’s global centers, which buck the foreign satellite-campus trend entirely.

In terms of the actual financial investment required on the part of the universities to get these centers up and running, costs vary, but it appears the universities have found ways to mitigate whatever risk is involved with new ventures. 

N.Y.U.'s Abu Dhabi campus is an ostentatious development set on a man-made island, whereas Columbia's centers are spare and unassuming, costing between $250,000 and $1 million to start up.

But both universities have defrayed the costs by finding local backers. The government of Abu Dhabi is covering N.Y.U.'s costs, and also giving a $50 million gift to N.Y.U. Queen Rania is defraying Columbia's costs in Jordan, and local businessmen are doing the same in Santiago. 

So why is it that these two New York institutions are being so much more aggressive about pursuing their global ambitions than any other universities in America, or anywhere?

Perhaps it's simply that New York’s academic institutions, pressed for physical space in the world’s most globalized city, see international expansion as a much more natural means of growth than other colleges would. Here is a way, perhaps, to tap into new academic resources, through partnerships with institutions in other countries, previously available only in piecemeal, one-off partnerships due to distance. And here is a way, not incidentally, to create capacity to enable more students of modest backgrounds to attain hotly sought-after Western educations. And, maybe, to admit a greater number of tuition-paying students without bumping up against the physical space limitations that come with existing in New York. 

(For his part, Sexton has attributed N.Y.U.'s unusual rush toward globalization to its location in New York, though for the somewhat loftier reason that the city's identity is inextricably tied up in the idea of being a global capital.)

Another question is what it means for a school to globalize, precisely. As Barnard College president Debora Spar said earlier this year in a panel discussion on the global centers project, “Everyone throws [that word] out all the time, and I don’t think there’s ever any agreement what they’re talking about when they talk about globalization.”

Perhaps fittingly, given the vagueness of the ultimate goal of going "global," there is a fair amount of confusion, if not outright dissent, within the institutions themselves about what's happening.

The Columbia Daily Spectator, in what one suspects is a reflection of broadly held student opinion, has called the global university concept ill-defined and superficial.

And it is not a problem of communications: Columbia, by its own admission, doesn't have anything like a fully formed game-plan for the expansion and use of of global centers.

“Part of my whole theory here is, ‘Do not plan this, do not over-plan this,’” Columbia president Lee Bollinger told the Spectator.

In late April of this year, the university held a conference, “Columbia Goes Global: The Next 50 Years,” to discuss just what the purpose of its new centers should be. But in panel after panel, between students, administrators, and academics, no consensus could be reached. There were only more questions and new proposals.

This level of uncertainty shouldn't be surprising, given that universities with much more modest global-expansion programs don't have much of idea what they're doing, either. Ben Wildavsky, author of the book The Great Brain Race: How Global Universities Are Reshaping the World, says that since no university has ever been through this globalization process before, there is no map and as of yet no clear explanation yet of why these projects succeed or fail.

Michigan State University’s campus in Dubai was forced to shut down most of its operations in 2010 just as NYU-AD took off, while one Scottish University in Dubai has managed to reap significant financial gains (a completely foreign concept in this foreign academic territory) from its branch campus.

As a result, Wildavsky believes, “We’re going to see lots of experimentation. We’re letting a thousand flowers bloom."

Prewitt, the Columbia executive, echoed this sentiment. Regarding the idea that "any institution is smart enough to know what will constitute a successful ‘global university’ in 25 years," Prewitt said, "My guess is that university leaders who think they know that will be surprised by how different it will turn out from their expectations.”