Sellout U?

Article excerpt

Byline: Anya Kamenetz

Leave the tuition on the dresser.

Sometime next week, New York University's president, John Sexton, will face a no-confidence vote by his faculty. The affable Sexton has led an ambitious expansion campaign during his 11 years at the helm of the most expensive university in the country, unveiling a "NYU 2031" plan to build 2.8 million square feet of new construction in its home base of Greenwich Village, and building what is called the "Global Network University" overseas with a new campus in Abu Dhabi, one under construction in Shanghai, and 16 others planned on six continents.

Students and faculty are crying foul, saying this plan represents the utmost in hubris, an imperial grab for cash and glory at the expense of liberal values, academic integrity, and educational quality. And NYU is not alone. Some of our nation's most prestigious private universities are reaching miles beyond the traditional study-abroad program, building entire branch campuses around the world. And as they do, students and faculty associated with those schools are asking a key question: can an ivory-tower education really be exported around the world like McDonald's or Hollywood, without destroying the original mission?

The new educational sites are often located in the Middle East and East Asia, where governments offer generous funding to import a bit of American prestige. The arrangements--millions of dollars in direct foreign investment plus more in tuition--represent a desperately needed infusion of cash to American colleges, which have been cranking up tuition two or three times faster than inflation for three decades while still failing to keep up with their rising costs. Most of these foreign programs charge students similar tuition as the mother schools do back at home, while controlling costs with fewer educational offerings and lower overhead.

This may explain why questions about quality control don't seem to be slowing the expansion. Right now there are 200 international branch campuses, a 23 percent increase from just three years ago. Within the next two years, a total of 37 more such branches are expected to open, stamping some of the most highly selective brands in American academia over a wider-than-ever range of classrooms, settings, and countries.

NYU Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) is in its third year of classes, offering 22 undergraduate majors, and NYU Shanghai is under construction. A single, 2,500-acre complex, Education City in Doha, Qatar, funded with billions from the oil-rich monarchy, hosts mini-branches of Weill Cornell Medical College, Georgetown, Northwestern, Texas A&M, Carnegie Mellon, and several more universities. Duke University is building a campus in Kunshan, China, and Yale University is cofounding Yale-NUS College, positioned as "an autonomous liberal-arts college" (rather than a branch campus) with the National University of Singapore. (Singapore's national university has also had joint ventures with Duke, NYU, and Johns Hopkins.) The Emirates, with 39, hosts more foreign university branches than any other country.

The leaders of this growing trend argue that any world-class university in the 21st century requires a global footprint to fulfill its historic mission. "Over millennia, thinkers from Confucius to Socrates to Ibn al'Arabi to Petrarch to Kant have invoked cosmopolitanism as fundamental to society--even more so in a global society," wrote NYU's Sexton in his 18,000-word "reflection" on his expansion plan, prepared as part of a 2010 international barnstorming tour. "A global network university is designed to accommodate, nurture and incarnate particularly well the interdependent nature of the emerging global society." Surveys show that students abroad are satisfied with their experiences as well.

But for nearly every university branching out overseas, there are faculty and students raising alarms--on discrimination, educational quality, civil liberties, academic freedom, financial motivations, and the political implications of trying to establish such a core democratic institution on nondemocratic soil. …