How Risk-Averse Universities Take Chances with Satellite Campuses Abroad

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How Risk-Averse Universities Take Chances with Satellite Campuses Abroad

By Robert Ubell (Columnist)     May 15, 2018

How Risk-Averse Universities Take Chances with Satellite Campuses Abroad
Texas A&M University is among the many U.S. colleges opening campuses in Qatar.

Like airline pilots, college leaders aren’t known for risky behavior. On the contrary, they’re a pretty cautious bunch. But when it comes to launching satellite campuses abroad, some have been flying blind.

Negotiating deals with foreign institutions, mostly in the Middle East and Asia, where 51 U.S. universities have planted college banners at 83 foreign campuses, you’d often think they lost their judgement.

In their rush to embrace globalization—newly in vogue in higher ed—they often turn a blind eye or retreat in shrouded silence when facing serious impediments; ignoring such inconvenient troubles as suppression of academic or religious freedom or accepting Communist Party officials in academic policy roles. Blown away by the hot Eastern winds of academic fashion, many lose their heads. In a recent report, the U.S. Government Accountability Office noted, for example, that while American universities operating in China say they generally experience academic freedom, they nonetheless contend with Internet censorship. Some colleges end up practicing self-censorship so as not to offend their hosts.

Senior university officials can lose a sense of their cherished defense of liberal democracy, forgetting their commitments to academic freedom to keep partnerships going. They can look the other way out of reluctance to confront their generous partners, for instance, when visas are denied, or when Party officials demand a seat the academic table.

A handful of British and Australian universities have been successful in generating sizeable enrollments at their branch campuses than U.S. institutions have. The University of Liverpool’s Xi’an Jiaotong University, for example, has more than 7,000 students.

But for most U.S. colleges that have circled the globe to touch down in exotic places, meaningful financial rewards have been illusory. Of the nearly 250 international branch campuses listed on the website of the Cross-Border Education Research Team at the State University of New York at Albany, average enrollment abroad is merely 500, a very modest showing after a median age of 10 years. It’s unlikely that the tuition they generate is deep enough to make it financially worthwhile or provide enough of a serious surplus to send back home. A good reason why 42 satellites have failed.

The invasion of American schools in the Middle East echoes eighteenth and nineteenth century economic imperialism. Today, with our professors lecturing in satellite campuses across Asia—from the Pacific to the ancient Biblical lands—we have entered a new age of U.S. academic colonialism.

Of course, colleges claim plenty of high-minded reasons for launching satellite campuses abroad. Chief among them is the recognition that the modern world is tightly interconnected, a global jigsaw puzzle that requires students to understand how pieces fit—or don’t fit—together. Universities can no longer remain locked behind their charming iron gates, shut off from intellectual and cultural ferment elsewhere. Active learning about the world demands that students not only absorb global lessons from books and lectures, but they must go out and experience what’s happening elsewhere. Study-abroad programs have long addressed the need, but remote branches are far more aligned academically with the home campus.

My China Satellite Experience

My own experience in China is instructive. Unexpectedly, just over a decade ago at Stevens Institute of Technology, a small engineering school in Hoboken, NJ, a noted Chinese-American professor approached me to help him launch several online Master’s degrees in technical fields in Beijing.

“But I know nothing about China,” I confessed. “Not sure I can be very useful.”

Dismissing my ignorance, the faculty member insisted that my knowledge of online learning would be the key to unlocking what he had in mind. Aware of the enormous investment it would take to lift Stevens’ academic infrastructure nearly 7,000 miles away in Beijing, he proposed an innovative, high-quality, cost-saving alternative.

A third of the courses in the program, he imagined, would be taught online by Stevens faculty; another third would be delivered in English in Beijing by Chinese faculty who had been educated in the U.S. and elsewhere outside of China. A final third would be given by Stevens faculty in brief, intensive courses in China. Like a satisfying cocktail, it was a finely blended solution. I was in.
But I initially worried how my boss would react. Would she go for it, especially since she had just that week been appointed vice president of my unit? I fretted for days over how to approach her—until I met over drinks with an old friend one evening.

“What should I say to her?” I asked him.

As if his entire career had been in preparation for my question, he responded with a brilliant suggestion, “Ask her to head your delegation to China.”

In the vice president’s office the next day, I expressed my misgivings about our proposed China adventure. “I’m not senior enough to negotiate with the Chinese,” I ventured. “But if you join me as head of our delegation…”

First silence; then a glow of satisfaction radiated from her smile. “I always wanted to go to China,” she beamed.

Our Chinese students did very well. Nearly all succeeded in capturing high-profile jobs at domestic and foreign high-tech companies. One young student, shy and hesitant in English when she was first admitted, delivered the valedictory address at graduation two years later in sophisticated, nearly flawless English. With her Stevens degree in hand, she landed a brilliant job—in Paris.

Of course, it didn’t all go so swimmingly. We had to contend with Party functionaries who intimidated our Chinese faculty with tedious, bureaucratic trivia. Luckily, our clever Chinese students knew how to do an end-run around government Internet censorship by accessing sites out of reach of the Chinese.

Assessing Risks

Colleges need to do some careful risk assessment before setting up branch campuses abroad. On the positive side, colleges stand to gain prestige, beat the competition, achieve global cultural awareness, realize new sources of revenue and enter into new research collaborations. The dangers include the risks of undermining academic and religious freedom, potential loss of investment funds, waste of human capital and confrontations with autocratic states—and most troubling to some administrators, damaging the university’s prestige when things don’t go well.

The University of Groningen, in Holland, must have performed a similar assessment when it canceled plans to open a branch campus in China recently, concluding that “there were a number of risks that have not been sufficiently thought through,” while noting that the benefits were “difficult to quantify.”

Writing in the online journal, The Conversation, Gavin Moodie, at RMIT University in Australia, an institution with nearly 7,000 students at a branch campus in Vietnam, said that “international branch campuses are one of the biggest reputational and financial risks universities take.”

Not listed among the pluses and minuses are all sorts of unspoken motivations—especially the personal drama of senior faculty and staff flying off to remote spots around the globe to fall in with exotic counterparts wearing long white Emirati robes, returning triumphant with a lavish contract.

Now let’s imagine a senior U.S. university official, sitting at a conference table in a sparkling glass office tower, with a gloriously undulating desert stretching far off. Across the table sits a Near Eastern government official. They are close to signing an agreement to set a U.S. satellite campus on a piece of land nearby.

But the test comes when facing the document in front of them, the government official on the other side hesitates before initialling one last paragraph, permitting faculty and students from all religions and all nations to travel freely in and out of the country to study or perform research at the new campus.

In that fraught situation, I urge the campus leader to say that unless they come to an agreement on this point, the administrator should slip the unsigned document embossed with the U.S. university’s prestigious name into a briefcase, latch it, and fly home.

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