Article Preview: Globalizing Education

Posted on July 25, 2011


Preview of an article I’m working on, unedited version, for my friends and family.

In the spring of 2009 Columbia University opened two international outposts. ( Though Columbia’s professors, students, and faculty had all made forays into the wider world—a bilateral research project here, a partnership or study abroad program there—the establishment of these “global centers” in Beijing, China and Amman, Jordan marked Columbia’s first major step, as a collective and whole institute, to slip loose of it’s Morningside bonds and become a global university. Yet ribbon cutting ceremonies passed with little pomp and circumstance (usually a prerequisite at university events). Nor did the event garner much press attention, especially when compared to the fracas surrounding the university’s local expansions into Manhattanville,( or even when compared to the fascination with concurrent development and opening of New York University’s portal campus in Abu Dhabi. (

Just as silently, almost exactly a year later, two more centers were opened in Mumbai, India and Paris, France.( And later this year, says Kenneth Prewitt,( Columbia’s recently minted Vice-President for Global Centers, the university will open a center in Istanbul, Turkey, with a center in Santiago, Chile to be opened hot on its heels. By 2012, Prewitt says, the university intends to have centers operational in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and Nairobi, Kenya; beyond that plans exist to build a center in Kazakhstan as well.  And this is only phase one of a larger and murkier drive towards globalizing the university.(

When set against the equally ambitious NYU, with its eyes on a second portal campus in Shanghai by 2013 and a collection of 16 global sites (of varying sizes) by 2014, Columbia’s growth looks average. ( But compared to other universities’ experimentation with global expansion, New York higher education takes on a bat-out-of-hell aura.

Most universities have gingerly attempted to set up branch campuses, like the six operated in Doha, Qatar’s Education City( by Virginia Commonwealth University, Weill Cornell Medical College, Texas A&M University, Carnegie Mellon University, Georgetown University, and Northwestern University—small campuses with one or two hundred students, offering only one or two programs of study. The campuses, according to remarks made in a report by NYU 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.” And the particularly risk averse, says Ben Wildavsky,( Senior Scholar at the Kauffman Foundation ( and author ofThe Great Brain Race: How Global Universities Are Reshaping the World( have avoided branch campus expansion altogether—including Harvard University.

The caution of most universities is understandable, says Stephen Heyneman, ( of International Educational Policy at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of Education and Human Development. Universities are, in the end, businesses providing a good in the form of education and competing for students and scholars and, says Heyneman, “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.” Coupled with financial restrictions, the demands of partners in the region, and local restrictions and regulations, branch campuses stay small and simple.  

NYU Abu Dhabi appears all the more bold in that light, having received, according to NYU-AD Assistant Vice Chancellor for Public Affairs Josh Taylor, ( 15,000 applications over the last year. The accepted class of 400, culled from all over the world, will attend a full campus with fewer programs than the New York campus, but more programs, staff, and infrastructure than other branch campuses. And the sheer novelty of Columbia’s centers, which altogether buck the trend of opening campuses, branch or portal, shares an equal amount of daring. (

Sexton has in the past attributed the rush towards globalization by NYU to its location in New York ( Ideologically, Sexton sees NYU’s character as tied to the fate of the City, itself arguably the most globalized city in the world. And Columbia as, my chance of history and academic interests, has been on an almost predetermined globalized path for years, pushed along by the pet projects and convictions of its sitting president. But it’s all only arguably because, as Barnard College President Debora Spar ( said this spring 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.” (

And as befits such a vague, but popular term, while many schools rush into the wider world with New York academies leading the vanguard, none of them really have any clear idea of what they’re doing. (

Few at Columbia understand why the centers are being built or what they will be used for. The school’s newspaper, the Columbia Daily Spectator, has referred to the global university concept as ill defined and superficial. ( And it is not a problem of communications: the university has only a minimal game plan for their path of and use for the expansion of global centers. The Spectator reported Columbia President Lee C. Bollinger ( as recently as May 2010 as claiming that he pushed for the creation of the global centers with no concrete plan. (

“Party of my whole theory here is, ‘Do not plan this, do not over-plan this,’” Bollinger reportedly stated.

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

Columbia is not alone in its confusion. Wildavsky notes that, since no university has ever gone global before, there is no map and as of yet no clear rhyme or reason for success—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,” and waiting to see which one finds root in the soil.

Prewitt echoes this sentiment, saying that whether or not one is concerned with the malleability of its global centers “turns on whether you think any institution is smart enough to know what will constitute a successful ‘global university’ in 25 years. 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 refusal to over-plan the centers also means, according to Prewitt, that, “The centers/network structure is less likely to look in 25 years what it looks like today than is a campus abroad model. I don’t think any of us really know what a ‘global university’ is, so from the point of view of higher education, it is a benefit to have multiple experiments going on.”

Embryonic as Columbia’s plan may be, some clear tensions between the model of expansion pursued by NYU and its uptown frenemy ( are apparent. While it’s true that most universities have some variation in their global tactics, Columbia and NYU set themselves apart not just for the speed and ambition of their spread, but for the novelty of their approaches. And by chance the two sit as almost polar opposites in their tactical, tangible approach to becoming a global university.

While Taylor and others at NYU are quick to assert that they don’t view their campuses as satellites or branches, “but rather as portal campuses, each of which leads into NYU’s global network,” the focus remains on the establishment of campuses. Though Heyneman stresses that NYU-AD will not become a mirror image of NYU, it is experimenting with unprecedented programs. The end goal is to create a series of interconnected campuses, always with the widest selection of programs and largest number of students at an ever-growing hub in New York. ( But 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, says Taylor, “all part of the evolution of NYU as the first global network university.” From Taylor to Sexton, all are sure to stress the novelty of this—strongly interconnected campuses feeding into each other with collaborative projects and equitable education to offer more foreigners a chance to attend NYU while at the same time broadening the horizons of its students. It serves as a correction to the loose, uneven, and severely limited branch and satellite university structure.

Columbia too stresses its innovative international efforts, but rather than refining and strengthening existing trends and establishing firm campuses, the global centers approach lives 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 short, the centers constitute a series of interconnected but semi-independent offices with flexible missions around the world, focusing on research and local cooperation, but as of yet with no clear place for students or courses of action.

Global centers have thus far sprung up as extensions of existing partnerships and projects by the university abroad—Columbia’s Earth Institute operated in Mumbai and Nairobi ( before work began on the global centers, and Studio X, ( a project of Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, was already at work studying the future of cities in many of the regions targeted for global centers as well. And academics at any university have all started a number of projects, exchanges, or joint programs between American and international universities.

“One way to see the centers,” says Prewitt, “is deepening and broadening the standard [memorandum of understanding]/partnerships by doing it as a network rather than a bunch of one-offs.”

Translated out of organizational/strategic development speech, the centers take existing projects and expand them by using the university to connect and drive forward the research of individuals abroad. The centers provide a nexus, reducing the cost of research by providing locally-based staff, travel allowances, offices, and support, making it easier to move from place to place and increasing the chance for research to spread. The centers simply make international activities by the university, whatever they may be, easier and help them to grow larger in scope and impact.

As Prewitt puts it, “Very little of what the centers will do could not have been done without them, but maybe with more difficulty …”

The centers also market themselves effectively to locals. Thomas Trebat, ( 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,” Trebat adds, “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 notes 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 admittedly weaker universities in Latin American. This non-invasive strategy has enabled Columbia to establish a foothold in India, which Wildavsky characterizes as academically protectionist—historically hostile to the development of foreign university presences while it attempts to build up its own universities.

The Columbia focus is, then, on flexible research centers in cooperation with local universities (and even with other American universities—there has been discussion of using Columbia’s Amman center to facilitate teacher exchanges between Jordan and Harvard University ( Campuses, programs of study, and even the place of students do not factor in as heavily as they do in NYU’s global network university. However Columbia is currently discussing incorporating students into the centers, through study abroad, research programs, or optional fifth year programs—but all of this remains unsettled.  (

Both NYU and Columbia’s approaches face a number of challenges, although many are clearer in the case of the young and shifting Columbia centers. NYU-AD’s existence depends completely upon cooperation and funding from the Emeratis,( and likewise with each of Columbia’s centers. 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 directionality of that center and may in the future turn it into a center whose focuses are primarily on education training. ( But, says Director of the Amman Center Professor Safwan Masri, this is how the centers were planned.

“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,” says Masri. The same is true of the limitations and specializations that have started to and will continue to develop in NYU’s network nodes.

For the past several years, the development of branch campuses has been disheartening to some and viewed with skepticism by others, ( like Heyneman. “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,” says Heyneman. “Most countries confuse universities with technical schools and when they say they want US education what they really want is a tiny part of US education which does not threaten.”

Limitations and fear mean that at present no branch campus explores 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.

But in a network university—be it NYU’s version or Columbia’s—one uses the system of centers/campuses around the world to strengthen and supplement research and education in one region with the aid of another. If Queen Rania only wishes to pursue educational research, so be it—relevant research at the Amman center will 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 continue the research at a larger center.

It’s a lofty ideal, overcoming the limitations of overseas expansion by creating a university that shares manpower and ideas easily across borders. Prewitt says, though, that there are already early indications of individual centers strengthening and bolstering each other—Masri mentions “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 NYU and Columbia’s expansion, and the acceptance of local limitations within that network, which has allowed Columbia and NYU to expand so rapidly as well. NYU-AD costs NYU’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, ( this is easier to sustain, notes Masri, than one-off branch or satellite campuses. The more centers that open with a degree of flexibility and fluidity between them, the easier it is to compensate for the limitations of one center with another—the easier it is to overcome those challenges that have limited other efforts at global expansion.

The more centers one has, as well, the harder for one to shrivel and die completely. 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. Both models have promise, although they seek to pursue a network in different ways.

It is possible that both NYU and Columbia’s ambitious and innovative forays into globalized education could flop miserably. The logic, at first incomprehensible in the silent blur of the expansion of a series of utterly untested systems, appears firm and reasonable after some consideration. But, as almost everyone in the field of global education seems fond of repeating, no one knows what will happen in 25 years’ time. ( Yet given the success of New York’s academies in developing strong and novel systems of higher education in the past, ( given the energy NYU and Columbia have thrown into their global network projects, the two models stand a good chance of taking root and flowering. And that chance, coupled with the modest but notable successes thus far, mean that the expansion will likely hold course for the foreseeable future. Wise or unwise—many fear the complicity of universities in the evils of the countries they occupy or the abandonment of academic values–from Accra to Florence to Almaty to Singapore, it will become increasingly hard not to find a Greenwich hipster or a Morningside nerd somewhere in the mix.

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