It's a modern version of the quest for "gold, God and glory" that drove explorers overseas in centuries past. For the last decade, American college presidents have been obsessed with expanding abroad – looking to tap new markets, spread the gospel of American higher education and leave a glamorous global legacy.
But like most empire-builders, they've found the reality on the ground more challenging than expected.
High-profile and expensive failures of Middle East branch campuses run by Michigan State and George Mason were a wake-up call. Suffolk University recently closed a campus in Senegal after concluding it would be cheaper just to bring the students to Boston. The University of Connecticut dropped plans for a campus in Dubai amid criticism of the United Arab Emirates' policies toward Israel. Plans for a University of Montana campus in China never panned out, and Singapore's government shut down a Johns Hopkins University biomedical research center.
Even elite schools still pushing forward, like Duke, Yale and New York University, have faced resistance from faculty concerned about finances, quality and whether host countries like China, Singapore and the UAE will uphold academic freedom.
The result: a new era of caution, particularly toward a model that once looked like the wave of the future. Some experts say branch campuses – where a U.S. university "plants a flag," operates its own campus and awards degrees in its own name – are falling from favor.
Instead, schools like UCLA and the Universities of Michigan and North Carolina have opted for more of a soft-power approach – a range of partnerships often starting on the departmental or school level where the home university is less invested but also offering an easier exit strategy if things go south.
In short, befitting the financially turbulent times, more akin to renting than owning.
"The gold rush mentality of the 2000s is over," said Jason Lane, a professor and co-director of the cross-border education research team at the State University of New York-Albany. His data show 60 U.S. institutions with 83 overseas campuses in 39 countries. But the number of new international branch campuses peaked at 11 in 2008 – just before the financial crisis – and only four have opened since.
"We saw a leap-before-you-look mentality. Folks wanted to be first to enter the market," Lane said. Now, "there's a lot more caution from institutions about whether or not this is a worthwhile endeavor, and thinking about where they should go."
What isn't over is a commitment to internationalize, even at cash-strapped public universities. College presidents still punctuate their sentences with the word "global." An international presence is considered both noble public service and a valuable resource to students and researchers back home.
But beyond that, motivations vary. Some schools got into the overseas game for much the same reason a business would – hoping the huge global demand for higher education and the prestige of American universities will translate into new tuition revenue.
""What we do know is there is demand for Western education," said Ben Wildavsky, a senior scholar at the Kauffman Foundation. "It's really become the gold standard."
More prestigious universities were initially more reluctant to risk their reputations. But they were bombarded with proposals and eventually found some too good to resist.
When first approached by investors from the United Arab Emirates, NYU President John Sexton asked for a $50 million "earnest money" donation, just to show they were serious. They were, and wrote him a check. Now the government is covering all of NYU's costs there, including substantial student financial aid and airfare to fly in hundreds of student finalists for a candidates weekend.
What varies is the approach. One model is to operate a kind of branch of the home university itself (sometimes with local partners) and award degrees featuring at least some version of name of the home university. Advantages include control over finances and facilities. It's also a signal of ambition – that a school aims to play in a global league of super-universities whose reach isn't limited to a single campus or even continent.
Perhaps the most prominent example is Education City in Doha, Qatar, the now decade-old community of six U.S. branch campuses – Cornell Medical School, Texas A&M engineering, Northwestern journalism, and others. The project has been by most accounts a modest success, though enrollments in most programs still top out in the low hundreds.
But when George Mason closed a Middle East campus 2009 and Michigan State in 2010, due partly to lack of demand, many U.S. universities got cold feet. Administrators realized they may have misjudged the market. It's true foreign students have proved they want to attend universities in the United States, and may even pay U.S.-sized tuition. But it doesn't necessarily follow they'll pay that much to attend branch campuses elsewhere.
"Many (branch campuses) are under-enrolled," said Phillip Altbach, a leading scholar of international higher education at Boston College. "If they're not under-enrolled, they may be enrolled by people who will not fit the standards at the home campus. That happens quite a lot. Are you going to damage your brand name?"
During the 1980s, 30 U.S. branch campuses opened in Japan. Only two remain. The countries that U.S. universities are now pushing into are even more complex, with challenges ranging from currency fluctuations to protecting the rights of gay students.
Another obstacle is persuading home-campus faculty to move overseas to teach (though NYU, which has offered bonuses of up to 75 percent, says it's had no trouble).
Universities can hire locals to teach, said Mark Tessler, vice provost for international affairs at the University of Michigan, which has widespread global partnerships but has avoided branches. "But if we're not really delivering the instruction, it's not really a Michigan education," he said.
Faculty have also objected to the partnerships between U.S. universities and authoritarian governments that branch campuses entail. They argue it's morally preferable to work across a lower level, directly with academics and universities. NYU Professor Andrew Ross says the university has failed to speak out against human rights abuses by its government partners in Abu Dhabi. Carnegie-Mellon's recently announced Rwanda campus will be paid for by the Rwandan government, whose human rights record has been attacked, and the African Development Bank.
That may be one reason "branch campus" has become something of a dirty word. Vanderbilt, facing some student criticism over negotiations to build an education school in Abu Dhabi, emphatically avoids using the term for the proposed arrangement. Carnegie-Mellon University does the same for its Rwanda campus, even though it will be run by CMU and award CMU degrees.
Carnegie-Mellon says accreditation issues require it to call the arrangement an "additional campus," not a branch. Engineering dean Pradeep Khosla says he is comfortable with the Rwandan government's record and the partnership, and that such criticism misses the greater good.
"If there's one thing that part of the world needs right now, it is access to high-quality education," he said.
It's too early to say whether one model will win out. And in fact, the experiments don't fit neatly into categories.
Still, the divergent approaches are apparent in three pairs of elite, competitive and neighboring institutions.
No university has been more ambitious than NYU, which has already opened essentially a large outpost of itself in Abu Dhabi and plans something similar in China. (NYU also rejects the term "branch campus." It favors "portal campuses" of a globally networked university). The early results are impressive: In the second class of its new World Honors College, median SAT math and reading scores were 1,460 out of 1,600. Nearly 6,000 students applied for admission to just 195 slots. About 20 percent of students come from the United States.
But Columbia University, just over 100 blocks north, has gone a different route: opening essentially regional embassies in France, Jordan, India and China. The facilities coordinate activities there but aren't true branch campuses offering Columbia degrees.
Something similar has played out in Chicago, with Northwestern University opening a campus in Qatar and the University of Chicago generally favoring the "embassy" model.
In North Carolina, Duke University, which already has numerous global partnerships including a medical school in Singapore, will be flying its flag along with a local university over a new campus in Kunshan, China, scheduled for a delayed opening in 2013. The university says it will be a separate entity called Duke Kunshan University, though some faculty feel it raises many of the same issues as a branch campus. The nearby University of North Carolina, meanwhile, has purposefully steered clear of anything like a branch campus.
Duke's plans haven't gone as smoothly as hoped. Planning documents show the estimate for Duke's share of the initial costs has increased from $11 million to $37 million by 2016. (Duke's administration says only about one-quarter of that will be "new" expenses, factoring in ways the new campus will save money Duke currently has to spend in China on things like facility rentals).
Such amounts may be small change for elite universities, but "their brand, their reputation is hugely important to them," said Wildavsky. "A high-profile failure in a foreign country could be very damaging."
At Duke, the concern was, will the expansion compromise Duke's name? When the first proposal for a degree program emerged, faculty at Duke's Fuqua School of Business raised so many concerns that curriculum planners went back to the drawing boards. Administrators recently brought in three high-profile China experts, including former Harvard dean William Kirby, which appears to have assuaged some but not all worries.
. "People just need to go in with their eyes wide open in terms of how hard this is," said Fuqua professor John Payne. "It's going to take more time and more resources than we probably initially expected to do it right."
Michael Schoenfeld, Duke's vice president for public affairs, says Duke's strategy is to partner with a Chinese city and university to create something none could create alone. Having a physical presence will help Duke capitalize on teaching and research opportunities that will emerge over the long run and "that you can't get through a rental facility or a hotel room."
"We're finding every day faculty and students and others who are coming up with interesting ideas and want to be a part of the enterprise," he said. "We never expected nor would we want it to be fully baked the day it starts."
Ron Strauss, UNC's executive associate provost and chief international officer, calls Duke "our good friend," the schools' epic basketball rivalry notwithstanding. But Duke's struggles to bring faculty on board validated his skepticism about establishing some version of the home school overseas. UNC, which has extensive partnerships in places like Ecuador and Malawi, considered a branch in the Middle East but rejected the idea.
"It was almost impossible to take the qualities we admire in Chapel Hill and our university and take them off the shelf and move them to the Persian Gulf and expect that they are going to be of the same character and value as they are in North Carolina," he said.
Branch campuses, he added, haven't proved they can endure, and can foment distrust about motives.
"To be blunt, Ivy League universities or private institutions that are building campuses abroad are not being charitable institutions," he said. "They are building branch campuses with the expectations that they will generate revenue and reputation."
Then he dropped what is a very bad word indeed among international educators, saying he's learned the need for "caution about replicating colonial structures in how we build universities."
Duke's Schoenfeld said the university isn't in this to make money. "This is an investment in the long-term future of the educational enterprise," he said.
Justin Pope covers higher education for The Associated Press. You can reach him at twitter.com/jnn_pope97