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The University of Nottingham's branch campus in Malaysia. Many campuses are bucking the branch campus model.

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George Washington University was, like many American universities, contemplating a campus in China.

Under the leadership of Doug Guthrie, the former dean of the business school and the vice president for China operations, George Washington was in discussions about possibly developing a campus in partnership with the University of International Business and Economics, in Beijing. But after Guthrie was fired from his administrative posts in August for budget overages in the business school, the university shifted course, convened a faculty advisory committee, and, last month, confirmed it would not proceed with building a China campus after all

“We asked, 'What are some of the key principles we’d have to fulfill in order to be comfortable with a project as substantial as a campus in China?' ” said Steven Lerman, George Washington’s provost. He identified those principles as fourfold: 1) that a China campus would meet the academic standards of the Washington campus, 2) that it would be financially self-sustaining, 3) that it would align with the university’s strategic plan, and 4) that it would have strong support from the faculty. That last one, Lerman said, proved to be the stumbling block.

“While we envisioned being able to construct a relationship that would probably be able to meet the first three of these, we felt at the time that we had not yet built a strong faculty consensus around the idea of a whole campus in China,” Lerman said.

More in This Package

  • Together, U. of Michigan and Shanghai Jiao Tong U. run innovative joint institute. Read more.
  • Columbia's creates network of eight "Global Centers" to promote transnational teaching and research. Read more.

“We never say never, of course – no one should – but for now this is not the right time for us,” he continued. Instead of building a campus, Lerman said, the university plans to focus on enhancing its existing partnerships in China, including a new Confucius Institute on the GW campus, operated in collaboration with Nanjing University.

“I would say they pulled back because they got pushback from faculty,” said David Shambaugh, a professor of political science and international affairs and director of the China Policy Program at George Washington, and a member of the faculty advisory committee on China. He said that last academic year prior to the formation of that committee there was “no consultation and inadequate due diligence” done.

“We’re now in the middle of a long overdue and much-needed process of due diligence, thinking through, talking through various dimensions of the university’s relationships with China” – which Shambaugh described as encompassing everything from joint research and exchanges with Chinese universities to its China-related library collections. “We’re right in the middle of that process, we’re far from finished, but we’re doing what we should have being last year before they even began to contemplate a campus in China,” Shambaugh said.

Guthrie, the former vice president for China operations, said that the next step in the negotiations with UIBE would have been to bring a proposal back to the Faculty Senate for a broader discussion. “We were never going to go down some road without consultation by the faculty, but these things take on a life of their own,” he said. “I think there was some confusion; people had thought we had already committed to something that we were just in conversations about.”

George Washington’s experience serves as a contrast to other universities that have developed outposts abroad – namely Yale University, which developed a liberal arts college in collaboration with the National University of Singapore, and Duke University, which has a new campus in Kunshan, China opening this fall. In both those cases pushback from faculty governing bodies came to the fore after plans were already well under way (though Duke did have to substantially rework its plans in order to gain faculty approval).

"I just think there was a reset button once we went to the second layer of investigating how we would engage China,” said Scheherazade S. Rehman, the chair of the Faculty Senate’s executive committee and a professor of international finance and business at George Washington.

“Moving in the direction that we’re moving in right now the administration is aware that without faculty support to deliver these programs, the programs are going to go nowhere.”

Anti-Branch Approaches

The number of overseas branch campuses has risen in recent years. Among the highest-profile examples, New York University opened a campus in Shanghai last fall, its second branch after one in Abu Dhabi. Just in the last few weeks, Arkansas State University broke ground on a new campus in Mexico and the University of Utah announced that it had secured approval from South Korea’s Ministry of Education to open a campus in Songdo, an aspiring educational hub: Utah will join George Mason University, which opens its campus in Songdo this month, and the State University of New York at Stony Brook, which has been operating there since 2012. Last fall, Texas A&M University made headlines when it announced its intention to build a branch campus in Israel, which, if realized, would be its second international campus after one in Qatar. 

But amid the branch campus building boom, plenty of universities are, like GW, deliberately saying no, at least not now, citing reasons ranging from finances to academic freedom to insufficient faculty interest.

Faculty are increasingly skeptical of these large-scale endeavors: as Shambaugh, of GW, said, at least in the case of China, "The jury is very much out on whether campuses in China can be successful, if by campus you mean what Duke and NYU are doing. I would advise any university that’s contemplating this to wait a minimum of five years and see how Duke and NYU do.”

For all the attention they get, international branch campuses like Duke's and NYU's are not the norm. Jason E. Lane and his colleagues at the State University of New York at Albany’s Cross-Border Education Research Team estimate that there are upward of 200 international branch campuses worldwide. “Relatively speaking, it’s a pretty minor form of higher ed provision,” said Lane. “But what is so fascinating is it has caught so much media attention and it has become this dominant form of internationalization in people’s minds, so they’re working against it.”

“As people position themselves, their international strategy, there’s a growing orientation around the branch campus model as a well-known approach: either you do it or you don’t,” Lane said.

Among those that don't, Columbia University has since 2009 created a network of eight Global Centers meant to promote faculty research and student exchange opportunities. (See sidebar.)  “The elevator pitch is that it’s not a branch campus,” said Safwan M. Masri, Columbia’s executive vice president for global centers and global development and the director of the Columbia Global Center in Amman.

The centers, which are locally staffed, function as hubs or home bases of sorts for Columbia’s research and educational activities abroad. Of the eight centers, which are located in Amman, Beijing, Istanbul, Mumbai, Nairobi, Paris, Rio de Janeiro, and Santiago, Columbia only owns the center in the case of the Paris location; elsewhere, it leases. “That’s strategic,” said Masri.

“We don’t invest in brick and mortar, we don’t hire faculty, we don’t recruit students and thus our exit strategy is an efficient one,” said Masri, who cited concerns about autonomy and academic freedom as one reason why Columbia has opted not to build a branch campus. (Many branch campuses are dependent upon local governments for funding, and they tend to be in locations – such as China or the Gulf countries – not known for sharing American values of academic freedom.)  Masri also cited concerns about the sustainability of faculty interest in a branch campus: perhaps Columbia faculty might like to go abroad to teach for a year or two but would a sufficient number choose to do so indefinitely?

“But finally and perhaps most importantly and most relevant to the global center approach, is the branch campus model is not about learning,” Masri said. “It’s more about imparting knowledge, so at the risk of oversimplification, you parachute in -- or in many cases you hire faculty specifically for that campus -- you teach, you impart knowledge and you get out. It’s not about your faculty engaging in research; it’s not about your students going over to learn.”

“We see the goal of engaging internationally as one of creating unique opportunities for faculty and students to do their scholarship and their learning,” said James Paul Holloway, the vice provost for global and engaged education at the University of Michigan, which recently won the Institute of International Education’s Andrew Heiskell Award for innovation in international education for a joint institute it established in partnership with Shanghai Jiao Tong University. (See sidebar.)

“Recreating what we have here abroad doesn’t actually provide those unique kinds of opportunities but partnering with partners overseas, be they educational organizations or NGOs or other kinds of companies, those provide us with unique kinds of platforms where faculty and students can do unique forms of teaching and scholarship," Holloway said.

In marketing materials, Michigan explicitly frames the joint institute with Shanghai Jiao Tong as not a branch campus: rather it is an English-medium engineering college within Shanghai Jiao Tong that Michigan has collaborated with on curriculum and academic development and research. Michigan’s engineering school sends its own students to study abroad there and also sees the Joint Institute as a pipeline through which it can attract top students from China to Ann Arbor.

“We’ve got an Ann Arbor, we don’t need another one, and even if we did create something in China that had the University of Michigan name on it, it wouldn’t be the University of Michigan,” Holloway said. “A lot of schools create branch campuses overseas and they’re really just another kind of institution. They’re affiliated with the home institution, they have the home institution’s name on the door but they’re always situated in the local context, they have a different faculty; they’re really not the same place. We don’t want to confuse that fact. This is really part of SJTU.”

There is also the issue of protecting the value of your degree. The president of the University of Southern California has stated unequivocally that he is not interested in developing either a branch campus or online programs at the undergraduate level (the graduate level is another story).  At one point, the university was reported to be building a campus in Songdo, South Korea, but the president, C. L. Max Nikias, said those plans were always limited to a continuing education program in aviation safety (and USC has withdrawn from the Songdo project in any case).

“We have come to the conclusion that for USC and the value and quality of our degree, if you want to get an undergraduate degree from this university you must be a full-time student right here on this campus,” Nikias said. “If we set up a campus somewhere else and we start offering a degree in one discipline or another it’s not going to be the same. As a student if you’re somewhere else on a remote campus you don’t have access to the diversity of the disciplines and the breadth and depth of the curriculum and the kind of elective courses you may take or the kinds of minors you might take.”

Further, he said of the residential campus environment – which in USC’s case boasts a larger number of international students than any other U.S. university -- “there’s no way you can replicate this environment anywhere else. It is not going to be the same. It is easy for Starbucks, Burger King, Pizza Hut, McDonalds; it is easy to franchise that around the world, because Starbucks or McDonalds will taste the same. But the experience you can get on an American campus like USC, right here, is unique.”

In Defense of the Branch Campus Concept

Lane, of SUNY Albany, said that universities are right to be somewhat skeptical of the branch campus model, which can incur significant short-term and long-term costs. (Some such enterprises – among them George Mason’s campus in the United Arab Emirates and Michigan State University’s in Dubai – have gone belly-up for reasons related to under-enrollment and finances. Michigan State continues to offer graduate programs in Dubai but ceased enrollments in its undergraduate programs in 2010 due to enrollment shortfalls.) (This paragraph has been updated from an earlier version to reflect Michigan State's current programs in Dubai.)

Indeed, Lane has observed what seems to him a healthy increase in caution: “The [early] 2000s really were a bit of a gold rush mentality. People were rushing in as quickly as possible, to be the first one in, to make a quick buck, to get the media attention. Now people are being a little more strategic about it, thinking about it, being more careful,” he said.

That said, in the growing anti-branch rhetoric Lane has detected something of a straw-man argument. “They’re playing off this idea -- and I think it’s an incorrect one -- that branch campuses are just teaching outposts or they have very little engagement overseas. There are examples of that, but so many branch campuses that we’ve encountered, the longer they’re there, the more engaged they are in their communities and in the higher ed community and the research community.” He cited as one example the University of Nottingham’s campus in Malaysia, which is eligible for governmental research grants.

Christine Ennew, the provost and pro vice chancellor of Nottingham’s Malaysia campus, recently penned an article for The Conversation, titled, somewhat defensively, “It Still Makes Sense to Build an Overseas Campus.” In an interview she argued that branch campuses can open up mobility opportunities for students and staff, as well as new or enhanced research opportunities: in Nottingham’s case, in fields like tropical crops, Southeast Asian culture and economy, and Asian elephants. 

“I do think there’s often a misunderstanding of what ‘branch campuses’ are,’” Ennew said. “They’re often seen as small in scale, teaching-only, limited student experience and so on, and there’s actually quite a message that some of what people are doing -- and New York University is an example of this – is trying to reproduce a full campus albeit on a small scale. In our case, we’re the scale of a North American liberal arts college” (5,000 students).

The key question, Ennew said, is not whether a branch campus is a particular type of entity but, rather, "how a university uses a physical development overseas to align with its educational vision."

Guthrie, of George Washington, said he believes the university made the wrong decision in backing off of its plans for a possible China campus. He argued -- ironically given the concerns about academic freedom and branch campuses – that it’s only by attaining independent degree-granting status, rather than through partnerships, that a university operating overseas stands to have full control over its curriculum (even so, he acknowledged, the threat of government intervention in China is always present). And he added that it’s only by building a full-fledged campus that universities can start to have a real stake in Chinese society and to gain the respect of the government and the country’s elite.

“There are lots of American institutions that have very famous names that have some kind of operation in China but far and away the entity that is taken most seriously in China and has the most status is NYU,” said Guthrie, who previously worked there.

“I think if you want to have an impact in important countries like China you have to put all your chips on the table and decide you want to go deep.”

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