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Two years ago, Yale University caused a stir with the announcement of an ambitious new project in Singapore—an undergraduate campus co-sponsored with National University of Singapore to be called Yale-NUS. Since then, Yale has been widely hailed as heralding a new era in education, as it is the first Ivy League institution to build an overseas campus for undergraduates bearing its name.
Soon after the announcement of Yale-NUS in September 2010, Harvard University President Drew G. Faust quietly formed a committee called the International Strategy Working Group. Its recommendations, finalized in October 2011, have remained confidential.
But Harvard’s stance on one front has become clear: At a time when some universities are expanding their physical footprint abroad, Harvard remains committed to keeping its undergraduate student body firmly rooted in Cambridge.
In an interview last week, Faust confirmed that Harvard will not look to establish undergraduate campuses abroad, a choice that some think is wise in light of the recent controversies surrounding Yale’s new venture.
“I’m not in the McDonald’s franchising business,” said Jorge I. Dominguez, Harvard’s vice provost for international affairs.
But the decision also raises questions about how Harvard should interact with the rest of the world and whether the University has a strategy behind its seemingly ad hoc approach to international engagement.
THE IVY LEAGUE, MADE IN SINGAPORE
In January 2009, President of Yale Richard C. Levin and President of the National University of Singapore Tan Chorh Chuan met for tea in Davos, Switzerland, during the World Economic Forum. During the meeting, they dreamed up a plan for a global college, planting the seeds of an idea that would one day grow into the Yale-NUS campus in Singapore.
About eighteen months later, Levin sent a prospectus outlining the plans to Yale faculty. He noted that NUS and Singapore’s Ministry of Education would “reimburse Yale for all costs incurred.” He also emphasized that graduates of the school would receive diplomas from Yale-NUS, not Yale College, and that Yale-NUS would hire its own faculty. While “there is no urgency for Yale to venture abroad with a new campus now,” Levin explained, “we do believe it is inevitable that the world’s leading universities by the middle of this century will have international campuses.”
Yale’s interest in Asia is part of a larger trend in higher education, according to Jason E. Lane, an expert on international education at the Institute for Global Education Policy Studies at State University of New York.
Cornell and Georgetown have established a Medical College and a School of Foreign Service, respectively, in Qatar. “For our leading universities, the world has become a much more important market,” said Lane.
New York University is largely credited with leading the way in undergraduate education abroad. The school opened NYU Abu Dhabi in 2010 and will open NYU Shanghai next year. Unlike Yale-NUS, NYU’s international campuses are fully integrated into the NYU system and grant true NYU degrees. For NYU President John Sexton, the motivation was to become “the world’s first global university” and to make bold moves to compete with the “holy trinity” of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton.
But the project has not been embraced by all. NYU has been accused of spreading itself too thin across its campuses and of “selling out” to the government of Abu Dhabi, which is underwriting the entire cost of the project.
Like Sexton, Levin has faced his fair share of criticism for Yale-NUS, indicating that there is a lack of consensus in the academic community about the future of global learning in higher education.
While some lauded Yale-NUS as a groundbreaking endeavor, many members of the Yale community expressed deep concerns that the liberal arts would be compromised on a campus overseen by a regime which severely limits freedom of speech and even criminalizes homosexuality.
Proponents of Yale-NUS are quick to note that Yale’s agreement with Singapore includes strict guarantees for free speech within the confines of the campus. But opponents insist that an environment of censorship off-campus is antithetical to the principles of liberal arts education.
In recent months, critics within the Yale faculty have gained support. In April—more than a year after the formal announcement of the project—Yale College faculty passed a controversial resolution expressing concern over the “history of a lack of respect for civil and political rights” in Singapore and urged that liberal arts values “not be compromised.”
Because the campus is a project of the Yale Corporation, it never required faculty consent, which surprised and upset some professors.
“The problem is that the places these universities have been going—the wealthy, undemocratic societies that are able to foot the bills—bring compromises as well as possibilities,” said Yale professor Christopher L. Miller. “Our name should not be sold without our consent.”
However, sociology professor Deborah S. Davis, who is co-chair of the Faculty Search Committee for the Social Sciences of Yale-NUS, emphasized that Yale-NUS is distinct from Yale in New Haven. “It has nothing to do with Yale. It’s not a branch campus. It’s not Yale College,” she said.
Indeed, Yale’s expansion abroad may be a way of marketing the university, according to Richard Edelstein, an expert on international education at the Center for Studies in Higher Education at the University of California, at Berkeley. “There is a business strategy dimension to this that is clearly at play,” he said. “The question is whether it really advances the institutions’ interests.”
Regardless of concern over the use of the Yale name, this question of how the new campus aligns with Yale’s mission remains the focus.
“[Yale’s] mission is not to educate the entire world. The mission is to turn out good scholars and citizens,” said Yale English professor Mark Oppenheimer.
DEFINING HARVARD’S BORDERS
Yale’s pioneering moves in Singapore have led to discussion in both New Haven and Cambridge about the benefits of establishing a physical presence abroad. But while Yale forges ahead with its new campus, Harvard plans to strengthen its existing framework and connections rather than build from scratch.
“We don’t want to just focus on one area of the world and put a disproportionate part of our attention on one location in which we invest a huge amount of our effort,” said Faust. “We would rather support activity much more broadly.”
Dominguez described the opening of campuses abroad a “fad,” and he said that Harvard is not interested in jumping on the bandwagon.
“It simply became clear that it was not just something that we didn’t want to do, but that there were a lot of other, better things we could do,” said Dominguez. He added that pouring resources into a single physical facility may actually limit the range of opportunities for students and faculty abroad.
According to Faust, Harvard’s goals are best achieved by connecting the Harvard community with programs, collaborations, and partnerships abroad. She specifically cited edX—Harvard’s new online learning tool created with MIT—as an example of using technology to cross borders. And while Faust does not support building a full-fledged campus abroad, she has been an advocate of tempered expansion overseas, noting Harvard’s international offices, which serve as a home base for students interns and faculty researchers.
Other University leaders and faculty members have expressed opposition to establishing a campus abroad, which they believe would diminish the meaning of “Harvard.”
Professor Harry R. Lewis, former dean of Harvard College, emphasized that some forms of expansion abroad could undercut the institution’s fundamental values. “I hope that [Harvard] would not follow Yale’s lead in creating a college campus with the Harvard name based in a country that does not hold to the standards of free speech and free inquiry,” he said.
“If you take Harvard out of Cambridge, it’s no longer Harvard,” said Lane. “You risk diluting what it means to be a Harvard undergraduate when you begin setting up campuses overseas.”
However, according to Fernando M. Reimers, a professor of international education at the Graduate School of Education, concerns about diluting the Harvard brand could impede necessary evolution. “Education can and should be reinvented,” Reimers said. “We don’t want people to look at us as the dinosaurs that never adapted.”
Indeed, some remain concerned that Harvard does not have the central infrastructure in place to craft a comprehensive international strategy given the University’s decentralized nature. William C. Kirby, chairman of the Harvard China Fund and former dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, noted that while other universities have large offices devoted to global strategy and planning, Harvard only has a small number of people in charge of determining the University’s international strategy.
Dominguez agreed, noting that the office of international affairs is comprised of just two other staff members aside from himself.
“To the extent that there is a legitimate criticism of what we’re doing,” he said, “it’s that we’re understaffed for the hopes that our undergraduates, our faculty, and our students have for the future of Harvard.”
Indeed, with the dissolution of the International Strategy Working Group, the fact that there is no centralized University body or forum for such discussion may be a cause for concern. “Unless there is some sense of where the University as a whole might be going, then you will see a proliferation of small Harvard offices all over the world, with potentially little communication between them, all of them reputationally carrying the Harvard name,” said Kirby. “You can already see that happening, and it’s worth contemplating whether that’s the future of our international strategy. I don’t think it will be.”
Like Yale, Harvard administrators also remain unsure to what extent the faculty will have a formal voice in any process of international expansion.
“It is always a smart thing to talk to faculty and to have formal processes to get their opinion,” said Kirby, “because you’re going to hear their opinion one way or another.”
A GREATER GLOBAL PRESENCE
At the heart of Harvard’s strategy is a philosophy of prudence—a conservative approach that recognizes potential opportunities without throwing caution to the wind. As Krishna G. Palepu, Faust’s senior adviser for global strategy said, “the most important thing we are doing is making sure that we understand our goals before we jump into any actions or initiatives.”
Some have urged Harvard to exercise caution in the wake of Yale’s gamble in Singapore.
“Harvard’s restraint strikes me as wise rather than backwards,” said Miller. “If Harvard can resist the Kool-Aid of empire-building...the institution will be much better off than Yale.”
Indeed, fundamental questions remain over the benefits of physical expansion abroad. According to Edelstein, Levin’s forecast that the world’s leading universities will all have international campuses by 2050 is “a bit unrealistic.”
“It’s not likely to happen in any large numbers, because I think the risks and costs are becoming more apparent,” he said. “You have to do something to be relevant, but what you do remains an open question.”
As the strategies of the nation’s top Universities diverge over the next few years, the advantages of each approach will soon become apparent.
“In the next five, 10, or 50 years, some of these decisions regarding internationalization will have a significant impact,” warned Edelstein. “If there are any leaders that ignore this at Harvard or Yale, they do so at their own peril.”
—Staff writer Michael C. George can be reached at email@example.com.
—Staff writer Alyza J. Sebenius can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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