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U.S. Universities on the World Stage

More than a business plan
University Business, October 2012

While the role of international campuses of U.S. institutions of higher education has been much debated in recent years, their primary purpose and capacity for constructive, new developments is often overlooked. With much controversy over motives, money and visions of soft power, the critics rarely look at the realities that brought these overseas ventures to fruition in the first place—or the drive that keeps them operating and expanding. In my view, the real benefits of international campuses are more complicated, with the imaginative and entrepreneurial possibilities largely unexplored.

Without funding, no such enterprise could exist, but few that I know of are driven by financial incentives or educational get-rich schemes. Funding for international campuses comes from host governments, foundations, and other international organizations—and mostly in the past from the U.S. government. And, of course, there is the potential for modest tuition income. Revenue from overseas ventures pales in comparison to overhead paid to universities from various governmental and private sector grants. Such fees that cover costs are clearly warranted. In several institutions I know, universities invested considerable time and expertise before any funding materialized. Universities need the capacity to cover opportunity costs if they are going to be global players.

The legendary broadcaster Fred Friendly used to say, “When they say it is not about the money, it is about the money.” With all due respect to Mr. Friendly, when it involves overseas campuses, I would argue that it’s clearly otherwise.

With some exceptions, the core business of international campuses is teaching. This typically involves providing the fruits of curricula and courses developed in the U.S., with some local adaptation. Offerings range from undergraduate liberal arts instruction, a distinctly American invention, to business, engineering or science and other fields.

First and foremost, an overseas campus is about providing undergraduate and graduate students with unique learning experiences abroad, while at the same time serving the needs of students from the host country. A university can also enhance its reputation for academic excellence in other regions of the world. Naturally, international campuses need clear business plans to operate and cover the enormous infrastructure costs, especially funding a staff to help navigate the local environment, find housing, and provide all the operational services necessary for such an offsite enterprise. But for U.S. universities thinking about starting an overseas campus, they might wish to consider the following as a roadmap.

The Teaching Mission

How does an international campus deliver equivalent or comparable instruction without the benefit of the wide-ranging assets of the home institution? Simply transplant existing curricula and courses abroad? Adapt to suit local needs?

Some academics argue that a field or discipline has finite properties and a universal mandate, but can be calibrated for local customs and traditions, especially in regions like the Middle East and Asia. Teaching traditional American-style social sciences and humanities, or professional fields like journalism and communication, may differ in a Moslem country or in a controlled secular state like China. Although commitment to academic freedom is paramount, the delivery of course content may travel a nuanced and incremental route. Remaining true to the home campus’ central mission while listening to regional concerns is essential for success.

As for faculty, there is, in some instances, a commitment to recruiting talent from the home campus. This goal, which can be written into agreements with overseas funding agencies, foundations or governments, is often difficult to achieve, so commonly, people once associated with the home campus are sought, as well as other talented people from U.S. and international institutions. The ideal candidate would be someone with exemplary substantive knowledge, understanding of the regional culture, and ability to convey American educational values. Linguistic capacity is either a must or a plus.

Professors from the U.S. and around the world typically accept short term (one- to three-year) appointments, although some serve for considerably longer. Teaching in such a setting can be a challenging experience. Faculty must help U.S. students adjust to a new learning environment, while adapting instruction for students from the host country or region. What is to be taught— and who should teach it—are the key questions.

The Research Mission

As international campuses mature, the need to foster a congenial research setting becomes more important. This might involve a focused research agenda administered more like a think tank than a loose faculty effort. Such an effort would encourage collegiality and create a productive laboratory for research relevant to the local environment.

For example, MIT’s imaginative Masdar City campus in Abu Dhabi’s solar energy enclave draws top faculty and graduate students to a well-funded research center not found elsewhere. Similarly, Texas A&M’s Education City campus in Doha, Qatar receives hefty research funding for its engineering programs and has recently attracted a Nobel laureate to its faculty.

Some international campuses provide venues where visiting faculty, while mostly occupied with teaching, can also draw on local resources for independent research, learn the culture, travel widely, and gain international and global understanding. But long-term, to attract and retain high-quality faculty and scholars, research must be an essential consideration.

Outreach and Thought Leadership

An international campus’ survival can really depend on how it interacts with local institutions and leaders. Some programs operate like self-contained monasteries with little outside contact, except when their students take field trips. Others are more engaged with the population, learning about area concerns and needs, even engaging in listening tours. In Qatar, Northwestern University has set up meetings with institutions ranging from other educational enterprises to businesses to government ministries. Outreach can be utilitarian involving the promotion of one’s own program, relationship-building with institutional resources, internships and job placements—or a more visionary quest to develop innovative projects and programs that benefit from the values and rigor of American higher education.

The goal of outreach is to reiterate a school’s mission and purpose. It can also be both proactive in achieving mutual understanding, as well as advancing the institutional agenda. At our campus in Doha, a program in media, communication and journalism supported by the liberal arts is integrally associated with values of freedom of expression and an independent media, something that is uncommon in the Middle East. Our efforts include engaging local media and fostering student media enterprises, including news reporting, documentaries, and even dramatic productions, all of which are instruments that showcase values.

Our most ambitious undertaking to date occurred in December 2011. With a commitment to drawing on settled knowledge about media, NU-Q hosted a “good offices” conference during which representatives of the Libyan media and government developed a statement of principles for freedom of expression and an action plan for implementing them. Whether such efforts have any impact is less important than offering the university, without the self-interest of commercial or political gain, as a venue for discussion and debate. The diplomatic method of “good offices,” where the university offers itself as a convener, is worth further exploration—and clearly can be a channel for thought leadership.

Avoiding Co-optation

International campus critics usually assume that any institutional affiliation necessarily means buying into all aspects of the prevailing culture, practices and legal system of the host country.

There is rightfully a fear of co-optation. But the essential capacity to live with and navigate the local culture should not suggest agreement with all customs and practices. If concurrence with the traditions and practices of every destination were a prerequisite for international exchanges, virtually none would occur—and certainly not in such places as China and the Middle East.

It is unproductive to denigrate the deeply long-held beliefs of locals, even in a modern and postmodern world. If one is part of an international campus dedicated to understanding and creative change, it is naïve to think that a regional culture is simply a template for one’s own views or that American practices should be accepted uncritically. This goes hand in hand with the contentious notion that modernization is synonymous with westernization, a matter of deep disagreement, especially in the Middle East.

In short, showing respect for local customs while adhering to a school’s core mission can be a tough balancing act. That’s why it’s important to remember that an overseas campus’ goal is to offer a university’s unique disciplinary and professional know-how to students from the host country and beyond, not just to spread our country’s values.

Rationale for Global Campuses

U.S. universities need a clear and defensible rationale for opening an overseas campus and whether such a venture serves its global strategy. The true benefits of an overseas campus can be found in collaborative opportunities for training missions, joint research and other mutually beneficial and ethically acceptable agreements. A global campus can enhance regional studies, exposing students to regions experiencing dynamic change, such as India, China or the Gulf States. Sometimes students are able to tune in to the global aspirations of the host country’s residents and institutions, who are often far ahead of many Americans in their various entrepreneurial ventures.

If, however, one reason is to develop additional fundraising opportunities, it’s important to note that some regions require considerable cultivation, especially where there isn’t a tradition of philanthropy or charitable giving.

Finally, international campuses, with their truly global networks, can be gateways to jobs, business and educational opportunities for students and faculty from western economies. After all, the rationale for any university’s existence beyond social benefit is ultimately measured in graduation rates, job placement or graduate school matriculation.

It is my guess that when historians of education look back on global campuses of U.S. universities, they will find them to have been driven more by idealism and a desire to promote learning and the advancement of knowledge, rather than any necessary or collateral purposes.

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