'A Mini-NYU'

The typical model for establishing branch campuses abroad is to offer specialized programs or schools. In Qatar, for instance, Carnegie Mellon University offers business administration and computer science, Cornell a medical school and Georgetown a School of Foreign Service. Also in Qatar, Texas A&M offers engineering, and Virginia Commonwealth art and design.

August 31, 2007

The typical model for establishing branch campuses abroad is to offer specialized programs or schools. In Qatar, for instance, Carnegie Mellon University offers business administration and computer science, Cornell a medical school and Georgetown a School of Foreign Service. Also in Qatar, Texas A&M offers engineering, and Virginia Commonwealth art and design.

But New York University is in negotiations to possibly go one big step further: to open a full-blown campus -- “a mini-NYU" -- in Abu Dhabi, according to a senior faculty member who was part of a group that traveled to the United Arab Emirates to scope out the site in January.

“Everything we do at NYU in New York City in theory would be done on a much smaller scale [in Abu Dhabi],” said the faculty member, who requested anonymity since the negotiations, which have been going on for more than a year, have not been publicly announced. The “mini-NYU” would be most comparable to the American Universities in Cairo or Beirut -- a full undergraduate college with divisions in the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences. It would have a research component and eventually, the faculty member said, the plan would be to add graduate programs, too.

The campus would ideally serve students from all over the region, and while students would be encouraged to spend a year in New York, they would complete their degrees in Abu Dhabi. The hope, the faculty member said, is that a certain number of NYU's core group of professors in New York would travel there on temporary exchanges (including perhaps to teach short-term, intensive classes between semesters in New York City), but that NYU would also maintain its own permanent faculty in the region.

Few details of the discussions are available at this point. Specific programs and majors are still under consideration, although another faculty member, Sylvain Cappell, a professor of mathematics and chair of the Faculty Senators Council, said academic programming “will essentially be the faculty’s domain.”

“This is a different kind of branch campus,” said Mona Mikhail, a professor in NYU’s Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies department and a member of the university’s Faculty Senators Council. “Here it’s building it from scratch.”

NYU’s spokesman, John Beckman, declined to comment on the discussions, and a message left at the United Arab Emirates embassy in Washington did not garner a response. Yet, faculty have been involved in in-depth discussions surrounding the “Middle East branch campus” (the Abu Dhabi location has officially been kept confidential) throughout the past year. The risks of such an ambitious project to NYU’s reputation and resources (even considering the fact that its host would be picking up the tab) are complicated by concerns about security in the region, and the need to ensure equal access and academic freedom in a very different cultural context.

"There’s certainly intellectual interest in the opportunities that might be generated," said Cappell. "There are also concerns that operating at a distance will generate unforeseen problems.”

As President John Sexton told the Faculty Senators Council last fall (as paraphrased in the October 19 meeting summary), “a NYU branch campus in the Middle East would only be possible if an agreement was reached to establish a high-quality American-style research university, with little or no expense to NYU, without compromising excellence.”

Thorny Topics

Attempts to establish branch campuses in the Middle East -- typically paid for by oil-rich host countries prepared to write some impressive checks -- have at times been fraught with controversy over issues surrounding academic freedom, equal access and opportunities for women and Jews, and human rights issues. The University of Connecticut, for instance, recently backed down (at least temporarily) from negotiations to open a campus in Dubai, also located in the United Arab Emirates, after influential state leaders began questioning the Emirates’ treatment of migrant workers and Israeli nationals (as reported by the Journal Inquirer).

“Clearly, one of the hot topics [in NYU's discussions] was to ensure that one would have academic freedom … to make sure that people would be able to attend,” said NYU’s Mikhail. “We were given assurances that the university is very sensitive to that and they’re asking -- and they’re getting -- all these assurances that the university would be almost in a free zone area and that they would do whatever they want and teach whatever they want to teach.”

But while NYU faculty have expressed some concerns about the proposal to establish a branch campus in the Middle East -- with particular attention not only to academic freedom issues, but also faculty and student recruitment and “demand for and interest in a variety of curricula” (per the January Faculty Senators Council minutes) -- many are optimistic about NYU’s unique approach.

“There are risks and dangers. As faculty, we are worried about our colleagues and our students, just to make sure that, if and when it is set up, there are safeguards for everybody,” said Srinivasa Varadhan, a professor of mathematics and a member of the Faculty Senators Council's branch campuses committee. Yet, he said he believes the administration is “well aware” of the challenges, and indicated that “the faculty in general I think is supportive of any activity which enhances the presence of NYU. We live in a world that is very much interconnected.” (It’s worth noting that Varadhan spoke broadly of plans for a “Middle East branch campus," as did the Faculty Senators Council's Cappell. Both declined to comment on the location).

Neither has the New York City Jewish community raised the sorts of questions that complicated the University of Connecticut’s plans. Cindy Greenberg, executive director of NYU's Edgar M. Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life, said that the entity has been focused on the university's new study abroad location in Tel Aviv, and that it has not been involved in the discussions surrounding an Abu Dhabi campus. And Michael Miller, executive vice president of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, said that while he was not familiar with NYU’s negotiations, in his prior research of the United Arab Emirates, “I did not find any actionable wrongdoing on the part of the country pertaining to Jewish interests…. Considering the presence of some of the most significant Jewish leaders in New York on the NYU Board of Directors, I would have assumed they’d done their homework, too.”

The Proliferation of Branch Campuses

Branch campuses are hot commodities these days as the word “internationalization” sneaks its way into university-wide strategic plans everywhere. The number of branch campuses worldwide nearly quadrupled in just a few years, from 24 in 2002 to 82 in 2006, according to a recent report from the London-based Observatory on Borderless Higher Education. Branch campuses are perceived as a natural response to globalization, a strategy for improving the international stature of the institution while bringing a different -- and hopefully needed -- type of educational program to another part of the world. (Plus, as a motivation for some colleges, they can bring in cash).

Yet, Philip G. Altbach, director of the Center for International Higher Education and a professor of higher education at Boston College, pointed out there are reasons why the full campus model under consideration at NYU is unique, and why other institutions have opted to build branch campuses with just one professional school or type of programming. Not only is liberal arts education less typical in many places outside the United States, but the smaller scale of the more typical model results in lower risk in terms of investing resources and predicting student demand (a topic of NYU faculty discussions).

And while branch campuses more generally may be great options for some of the institutions that are choosing that route, he said too many are jumping on the bandwagon without considering the opportunity costs, and what other strategies might better match their objectives.

“There is a downside for American institutions that go over,” said Altbach. “Even if the financial risk is being taken by the host, they will inevitably be spending a whole lot of their time figuring out how to do it. If it doesn’t work out, it’s really egg on their face.”


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