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.”

The differences between the N.Y.U. and Columbia expansion models, even at this early stage, underscore the experimental nature of the whole enterprise.

While the N.Y.U. press office was quick to assert that they don’t view their campuses as satellites or branches, “but rather as portal campuses, each of which leads into N.Y.U.’s global network,” the focus remains on the physical establishment of a series of foreign locations, with an ever-growing flagship in New York. Students and faculty will be able to transfer easily from one center to another, picking and choosing among campuses on every continent according to their academic and cultural interests, perhaps eventually completing an entire degree program abroad, or spending one year at each center, with no sacrifice to the quality of their education.

This is, according to Taylor, the N.Y.U. spokesman, “all part of the evolution of N.Y.U. as the first global network university.”

They are placing the stress, in other words, on the novelty of this arrangement, whereby strongly interconnected campuses feed into each other with collaborative projects and equitable education to offer more foreigners a chance to attend N.Y.U. while at the same time broadening the horizons of its students. It serves as a correction to existing loose, uneven, and severely limited branch-and-satellite-university structures in which non-flagship locations are relegated to a second-tier existence.

Columbia, too, stresses the innovative aspects of its international efforts, by which they are essential creating global centers that live in the ether. The goal can be hard to summarize, leading Prewitt and his staff to issue nebulous mission statements with each center’s opening, in terms of how they will eventually function within the larger framework of the home institution.

The centers are clearer, for now, in articulating their mission in terms of the opportunities they present to locals.

Thomas Trebat, executive director of the Institute of Latin American Studies at Columbia University and a party involved in the development of the Brazilian center, says that the university makes overtures to local governments, universities, business leaders, and communities, offering an opportunity “to tap into the enormous investment that Columbia has made in human capital over many years.”

The centers thus offer tangible gain to the local nation in return for aid in operating in the region (often financial) and expanding research of importance to the university.

“It is also a way for the local community to have an impact on the intellectual agenda of Columbia by bringing to its attention particular issues and problems that could benefit from the concentrated application of knowledge that a place like Columbia can from time to time assemble,” Trebat said.

Trebat said that the Chileans have welcomed and supported the development of a center in Santiago as a means not to export a desirable western model of education, but to strengthen the weaker universities in Latin America.

This ostensibly noninvasive strategy has enabled Columbia to establish a foothold in India, which Wildavsky characterizes as academically protectionist—historically hostile to the development of a foreign university presence as it attempts to build up its own colleges.

Hostile parochialism from local government entities may be the least of the challenges to both Columbia’s and N.Y.U.'s expansion plans.

By finding local sponsors, both schools have minimized their financial exposure. But this means, for example, that NYU-AD’s existence depends completely upon cooperation and funding from the Emeratis, and that Columbia’s Center in Amman depends heavily upon the patronage of Jordanian Queen Rania Al Abdullah, whose interests in social work and teacher development have determined the stated mission of that center and may in the future turn it into a school whose primary focus is on education training.

This fact, that the local campuses will necessarily adapt their mandates to suit the people who are situated there, rather than back in New York, is explicitly part of the bargain.

“The global centers are not identical but rather organic in nature, and will evolve depending on faculty interests, as well as interests from within the region in which it is positioned,” said Safwan Masri, a professor who is the director of the Amman Center.

The universities' expansion has also been cause for skepticism  from others for the somewhat more foreboding reason that they might be constrained for political reasons.

“There are few governments which allow the freedom of research and the total control over the exploration of ideas which constitutes the essence of a great university,” said Heyneman, the Vanderbilt professor. “Most countries confuse universities with technical schools and when they say they want U.S. education what they really want is a tiny part of U.S. education which does not threaten.”

At present, no branch campus offers degree programs in theology, comparative religion, history, philosophy, music, nursing, medicine, law, library-and-information science or anthropology. Education and political science remain extremely limited abroad, and research in all of these subjects outside of America has been hobbled and piecemeal. (The portal campuses, separate from satellite campuses, have somewhat larger selections of studies.)

The answer to this last problem, in theory, is that in a network university—whether it is N.Y.U.’s version or Columbia’s—the system of centers and campuses can compensate for the shortcomings of one region with the strength of another. If Queen Rania only wishes to pursue educational research, so be it—relevant research at the Amman center would be picked up at the Beijing center and developed according to the strengths of that center. And if India fears allowing a foreign university’s presence to grow too strong, then research would be continued at a larger center.

The campus-networks could conduct “mega research projects” relating to global financial systems and global press freedoms.

The ideal extreme fluidity, Prewitt cautions, remains more an aspiration than a reality as of yet. It’s the networked nature of both N.Y.U. and Columbia’s expansion, and the acceptance of local limitations within that network, which has allowed Columbia and N.Y.U. to expand so rapidly as well. NYU-AD costs N.Y.U.’s board of trustees next to nothing, and the skill of grafting centers onto existing projects on Columbia’s end means that starting a center, with a full staff and functional program, costs just between $250,000 to $1,000,000, most of which can be raised through local sources, and this is easier to sustain, notes Masri, than one-off branch or satellite campuses. 

The more centers that open, the harder it is for the system to shrivel and die completely. And the more quietly they open, and the more independent they are within the network, the easier it is to limit damage to the parent university if they do fail.

It is still possible that both N.Y.U. and Columbia’s ambitious and innovative forays into globalized education will flop miserably. But the proportion of risk to reward suggests that they won't.

From Accra to Florence to Almaty to Singapore, for better or worse, it will become increasingly hard to avoid somewhere in the mix a student who is sending tuition money to New York.

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