05/30/2012 06:03 pm ET Updated Jul 30, 2012

Imperial University

Commencement season is upon us, and like thousands of other college teachers, I will be saying goodbye to the seniors I know. But I will be saying goodbye worried about the increasing threat to higher education that I see coming from a growing phenomenon--- the imperial university.

What the imperial nations of Europe were to the international order of the 19th century, imperial universities, as a consequence of their competitive search for overseas campuses, are to higher education in 2012. They reflect a desire for new academic markets. The days when American universities were content to sponsor a series of modest foreign language programs abroad are quickly passing.

In today's higher-education world, the imperial university can be an established Ivy League school such as Yale, which under its president, Richard C. Levin, has committed itself to a campus in Singapore, but the imperial university can also be a second-tier state school anxious to improve its reputation. A 2010 survey reported 38 American schools had 65 branches in 34 countries, all with mandates to grant a degree.

In an era in which university endowments are still recovering from the 2008 financial meltdown and tuition is reaching the breaking point for more American families, it is not surprising that universities should search for new sources of revenue. The question their imperial pursuit raises is: what is the cost to the university's values and its students?

The two best-known imperial university foreign campuses -- Yale's in the city-state of Singapore and New York University's in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates -- are in authoritarian countries (Human Rights Watch has labeled Singapore a "textbook example of a politically repressive state") in which civil liberties are sharply circumscribed. The location of these campuses feeds the suspicion that Yale and NYU simply went where the money is.

"Expansion is everything," Cecil Rhodes, the English diamond mogul from whom Rhodesia took its name, declared more than a century ago, and in defending New York University's "global university," NYU president John Sexton has updated Rhodes's message by declaring, "Our mission is spreading our education and knowledge."

The religiosity of Sexton's language is no accident. For him and those who share his faith in the global university, having students and faculty who are comfortable moving between continents is by itself a worthy accomplishment. As university leaders, they are, moreover, prepared to carry out their imperial mission with the academic equivalent of the British foreign service -- top down administration.

For years America's colleges and universities have been increasing their use of administrators. Between 1998 and 2008, America's private colleges raised their spending on instruction by 22 percent, but during this same period they increased their spending on administration and support staff by a 36 percent. The imperial university, which requires numerous layers of officials to do everything from negotiate with foreign governments to supervise building plans, promises to further this trend as it turns students into exports and imports.

Especially for universities worried about their competitive standing, the upside of empire is that establishing a foreign campus creates the opportunity to get a jump on rivals. For decades gaining a top rating in the U. S. News's annual higher education issue has been a goal of colleges and universities. Universities with an international footprint now have another way to improve their status.

As critics have pointed out, these same universities could, if they just wished to expand, build a junior college or community college near their campus. The trouble is such a step would not improve their prestige.

A college -- as opposed to a language center -- on foreign soil is, on the other hand, a different matter. As the provost of Michigan State University observed in defending MSU's decision to start a university in Dubai, "The financial side is only a small part. The biggest return is the visibility. We want to be associated with a winner, and Dubai is a winner."

Opposition to academic empire building is bound to take a while to become effective, but the good news is that the rise of the imperial university comes at a time when there is also a concerted effort under way to make American higher education more affordable and more humane.

President Obama is in the midst of a campaign to prevent the interest rate on students loans from increasing, and in his influential new book, College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be, Columbia University professor Andrew Delbanco has pointed out how frequently the expansion of our major universities has marginalized their undergraduates.

Nicolaus Mills is professor of American Studies at Sarah Lawrence College and author of Winning the Peace: The Marshall Plan and America's Coming of Age as a Superpower.