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Vice President for Global Engagement Ian Solomon’s office is lined with mementos of his time in Washington, including photos with some of his former bosses—among them, former Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and then-Senator Barack Obama. Directly prior to joining the University’s administration, Solomon served as the U.S. executive director of the World Bank. What made him pack his bags for Chicago?

“I think that we have a number of really important issues as a globe [that] we need to deal with…. Whether it’s issues of climate change, whether it’s issues of urbanization, how we deal with half the world’s population or two-thirds in the next few years living in cities…there are many really important global trends. And I think from a research and scholarship perspective, we need to tackle these in new and interdisciplinary international ways,” he said.

Although Solomon is the first person to fill the position of Vice President for Global Engagement, which he assumed in June 2013, it is not a unique position in higher education. Over the last few years, many universities have established administrative positions dedicated to global affairs and global engagement, with the end goal being greater international reach for their institutions.

Perhaps the most visible way in which the University has pursued a more global presence is through the establishment of global centers in Paris, Beijing, and most recently, Delhi. According to President Robert Zimmer, the reason to create the centers stemmed from a desire by faculty to build a physical location for coordinating research in parts of the world where many faculty were already working.

“The general approach we took…was based on the belief that our faculty and our students would increasingly want opportunities for research collaboration in many parts of the world,” Zimmer said. “Just as we have libraries for people who need libraries and…laboratories for people who need laboratories, having a facility to help people in their research work, with education opportunities [and] collaboration opportunities, when these facilities would prove to be very useful, was the motivation.”

In all three cases, but particularly with Beijing and Delhi, Zimmer emphasized that the faculty members who recommended the creation of the centers were instrumental in informing this particular approach.

Though much of the implementation of these ideas has ballooned over the last decade, with the Center in Paris opening in 2004, global networks in higher education are nothing new. University administrators frequently speak of UChicago’s rich history of academic engagement across continents and long-standing collaborations with scholars of many nations. The Oriental Institute established Chicago House, a research base in Luxor, Egypt, all the way back in 1924. But in an age when “globalization” has become a buzzword in nearly every field, universities are increasingly seeking ways to build a physical presence abroad.

Ben Wildavsky, the director of higher education studies at the State University of New York’s Rockefeller Institute of Government and author of The Great Brain Race: How Global Universities Are Reshaping the World, has written extensively about what has become known as the globalization of higher education. He said the creation of branch campuses and global outposts is just one part of a push among universities worldwide to become more internationally focused and to capitalize on the greater mobility that has emerged from globalization. Now, more than ever, research is being funded by multinational sources, and scholarly papers are frequently coauthored by academics of multiple nationalities.

“Everyone is aware of this global shift in academia, and I think people are trying to figure out how to be part of it, how not to get to left behind, how to take advantage of the benefits of this global marketplace, and how to do so in intelligent ways,” he said. “I think there are a lot of universities where they just want to do something. They don’t necessarily know what. They feel like they’ve got to just be part of the game.”

 

A brief history

The model for UChicago’s global centers began with the University’s flagship Center in Paris. Dean of the College John Boyer first proposed the idea during the 1998–99 school year. Boyer took into consideration the city’s central location in Europe and the fact that it was the home of the College’s first study abroad program, founded in 1983.

The Center in Paris was inaugurated ten years ago, in May 2004, kicking off what would later become the model for UChicago’s foray into global outreach. About 200 undergraduates take classes there annually as participants of the College’s Paris-based study abroad programs. The Center also hosts graduate students, faculty, and visiting scholars, as well as panels, conferences, and other events related to University research in Europe.

Around that time, the University began contemplating further centers. In 2008, a faculty committee recommended the creation of a Center in Beijing, which opened in September 2010. That same year, another faculty committee proposed a Center in India, which opened in Delhi on March 28 of this year.

 

A large spectrum of approaches

Among UChicago’s peers, there is a wide variety of approaches when it comes to pursuing the idea of a globalized education. Closest in design is Columbia University’s network of global centers. Much like UChicago, Columbia has opened centers meant to integrate faculty conducting research in a given country or region and to host study abroad programs for its students. However, Columbia’s network is much wider, with sites in Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East.

“Columbia has focused on establishing smaller, flexible hubs for a wide range of activities and resources. Over time these are intended to enhance the quality of research and learning at the University, as well as to make a Columbia presence accessible to people and partners, including its own alumni, around the world,” according to a news release announcing its center in Nairobi, Kenya, which opened last January.

Solomon said that UChicago’s approach reflects specific institutional values: faculty-driven initiatives, academic inquiry, and a focus on interdisciplinary education.

One portion of the University’s global engagement that deviates from the model set by the centers is at the Booth School of Business, which has established campuses in London, Singapore, and soon in Hong Kong, that grant executive M.B.A. degrees. Zimmer said that this was a particular recommendation of its faculty.

Particularly in the College, faculty have felt that the model of the centers best suits their needs, and developing a degree-granting program abroad may compromise the quality of the education offered. Political Science Professor Dali Yang, the faculty director of the Center in Beijing and chair of the ad hoc faculty committee that made the initial recommendation to create the Center, noted that the committee never seriously considered the idea of a degree-granting program, in part because of these concerns.

“The University is very conscientious of the need to make sure our degrees, wherever they are offered, should be of a certain quality,” he said.

“It’s not about branding or painting our name on someone else’s program,” Solomon said. “It’s about having our own program that we think is actually of the quality and rigor that we associate with the University of Chicago.”

According to Wildavsky, other approaches to global engagement can range from building offices and outposts to harnessing alumni networks abroad. In some cases, universities have taken a reverse approach: They have developed exchange programs that invite foreign students and scholars to study at their domestic campuses. Another common method is building partnerships with one specific institution in a country or region of interest, like Dartmouth’s exchange programs with the American University of Kuwait and the American University in Kosovo or Stanford’s research and study abroad center on the campus of Peking University.

In UChicago’s case, faculty members felt that pursuing a partnership with one particular foreign university could be isolating and limiting. “We have faculty who already work with multiple institutions, and therefore it would be a step backward to try to develop an exclusive relationship with one institution,” Yang said. At the Center in Paris, for instance, University scholars collaborate with colleagues at a wide range of schools in Paris, including the Institut d’études politiques de Paris, the Paris-Sorbonne University, the Paris Diderot University, and the École normale supérieure.

An additional factor that can impact how an institution approaches the development of global branches is the policies governing foreign education in the host country. For example, according to Yang, Chinese regulations influenced the faculty committee’s decision to recommend an independent, non-degree-granting site, as opposed to offering degrees.

“It didn’t occur to the committee much that [offering degrees] was a serious option at that time. Part of the reason is that under Chinese law currently, you must have a partner [institution] in order to offer a degree, and that made it very difficult for us to even contemplate that option, so it’s not an option that was really on the agenda.”

In China and in India, the University claims to have achieved relative autonomy, and establishing these centers has been done on its own accord—and on its own dime. The University independently owns and operates the Center in Delhi. It has spent an estimated $3.45 million to build the center, which is housed in an existing office and retail building that the University is leasing.

Without a doubt, more and more schools are prioritizing global outposts, but given these varying models, Wildavsky said it is difficult to pin down exactly what this increased international focus means for each school. Though Solomon believes the University “has an opportunity to help define what global higher education can mean for the 21st century,” he admits that the definition is changing. “It’s certainly evolving and will continue to evolve, and I don’t think it ever reaches a point of stasis because I think the global environment in which we operate continues to evolve,” he said.

 

Who calls the shots?

Both Zimmer and Solomon emphasized that faculty decisions have primarily guided the centers’ mission and operations and that all three by and large were borne of faculty recommendations. In describing his role, Solomon said, “I don’t oversee very much at this university. Faculty run things here.”

For each center, the administration acted on the recommendations of an ad hoc faculty committee convened by the Provost, according to Director of International Communications Sarah Nolan.

“In these cases, the goal was to create committees that represent all relevant areas of the University and constitute all of the relevant areas of expertise. The provost does this by consulting with each of the cognizant deans to develop a list of likely faculty and then inviting representative subsets possessing the substantive expertise desired,” she said.

For example, the faculty committee in India consisted of a number of South Asian languages & civilizations professors, but also of other faculty with substantial ties to India, such as Booth Professor Raghuram Rajan and Law School Professor Martha Nussbaum. Similarly, the faculty committee in China contained many China scholars and faculty who have conducted research there, as well as members who could advise the process of creating the Center, such as Romance Languages Professor Robert Morrissey, who served as the first faculty director of the Center in Paris.

Time and again, administrators stressed how faculty are deeply involved in many of the University’s initiatives, but some faculty are skeptical of the exact extent of their input.

“It’s my sense the administration likes to consult those who are favorably disposed to what they want to do, and they choose very carefully,” said Divinity School Professor Bruce Lincoln (Ph.D. ’77).

In 2008, Lincoln led a group of 174 faculty members who signed a petition protesting the University’s handling of the initial decision to form what would become the Becker Friedman Institute. The faculty members felt the University did not make a concerted effort to seek feedback from a variety of faculty, which resulted in what they saw as a narrow mission for the Institute, one that would serve to merely espouse free-market values.

“The Friedman Institute was put together by a consortium [of] economists and people at the business school, that was presented to the faculty at large, basically fait accompli…. Faculty concerns were taken as an obstacle to be overcome, not as a motivation. I won’t say that’s typical, but it happens on occasion.”

In terms of the University’s global initiatives, Lincoln is concerned that they have been motivated by interests that are not purely academic.

“Prestige institutions are locked in competition in terms of this global vision. It [has] become fashionable. I honestly think the intellectual justification is pretty weak, though there are certainly benefits to having global outposts,” he said, adding that he has utilized the Center in Paris to connect with French scholars and attend meetings.

Solomon argued: “It’s not a place where the center directs things. It’s where the scholars and the deans and the individual schools drive the strategy. The College decided 10 years ago that a Center in Paris would really facilitate the College’s undergraduate education, so that’s been an important resource for College students and College faculty…. The business school decided that to be a top-tier business school, we should offer an executive education program, an EMBA degree…. I think it’s driven, again, by faculty and the leadership of the individual schools, more than a top-down or centrally driven strategy.”

 

No confidence

The level of faculty involvement in developing these global plans is certainly a cause for concern, especially when the plans are large-scale. “You cannot make this work unless you can get faculty to go there,” Wildavsky said.

The university with perhaps the most ambitious vision for a globalized education is New York University (NYU). Spearheaded by its president, John Sexton, NYU has opened two full-service, degree-granting campuses abroad, one in Abu Dhabi and one in Shanghai. Both campuses enroll students worldwide. An extension of its mantra of being “in and of the city,” NYU envisions the global network university as a system “in and of the world,” integrating the main campus in New York with the two “portal campuses” in Abu Dhabi and Shanghai and the school’s 11 study abroad centers around the world.

But as NYU’s global footprint rapidly expands, there have been growing tensions and pitched battles between administration and faculty over Sexton’s grandiose vision and what the faculty perceives as a top-down decision-making process. Rebecca Karl, professor of history and East Asian studies at NYU and a member of its Faculty Senators Council, was one of 569 faculty in the College of Arts & Science who participated in a no-confidence vote against Sexton last spring. Fifty-two percent voted that “the Faculty of Arts and Science has no confidence in John Sexton’s leadership.” Three other NYU schools joined the College of Arts & Science in the vote, sparked by widespread opposition to what faculty see as unbridled growth that excludes the input of representative faculty members. “While the rhetoric has always been that faculty is in charge of academics, it has now become quite clear that [the faculty] has no part in the academics and then [is] invited back in once it has become a juggernaut,” Karl said.

In developing the global campuses, only a select group of faculty close to Sexton was consulted, according to Karl.

“All of a sudden, we were informed that we were part of this global network university, and this was going to be our network, and we either bought into it and took ownership of it or not, and it was unclear what we were taking ownership of…. [It] was foisted upon us without any real consultation whatsoever in a broad and representative manner,” she said. “While many faculty have now tried to make their peace with it and make it work for them and their departments, it seems that the train has left the station, and if you don’t get on it, you get left behind.”

Faculty like Karl are concerned that NYU’s 11 study abroad centers are becoming increasingly controlled by the administration and deviating from their initial academic goals and site-specific programming.

“Originally, the study abroad sites had been outgrowths of programs at the university. They were small-scale yet very vibrant centers of intellectual work that were run out of departments and programs and collaborations—for instance, the Florence program with art history. But slowly, they have been taken over by administration and detached from their original intellectual homes,” she said. “There’s just been a real, from the faculty point of view, devolution of the intellectual quality of education. Rather than enhance the academic program, it has been a real drag on it, from our perspective.”

Given that the no-confidence vote was a non-binding resolution that does not require any response from NYU’s administration, Karl fears that one year after the vote, there is no turning back, and the exclusion that she and her colleagues feel is here to stay.

“We’ve been steamrolled. With the no-confidence vote, we’ve won the battle but not the war.”

While Lincoln is skeptical of whether or not UChicago’s faculty is fully integrated into the process, worrying that the University excludes faculty who might raise questions about proposed initiatives, he does not see the same battle lines being drawn.

“I don’t get the sense that’s happening here,” he said.

 

An uncertain future

“This is a global marketplace, so by definition, this is all [a] kind of academic entrepreneurship. One thing that happens is people try different things, and there’s different sort of slices of the market that people may find work for them. And there are people who just flame out, and that’s OK. And then maybe they try something different. Maybe the third or fourth time, it works,” Wildavsky said.

For the time being, the University of Chicago seems to have found a model that works. According to Zimmer, as the University opens its third center abroad, its main focus will be finding ways to integrate the three centers, both with each other and with Hyde Park and Chicago, forming a network spanning three continents.

“I think even a lot of the people in India have already brought up to us the question, ‘OK, we have this presence in China. It will be extremely interesting to use this as a way of looking at problems that have commonalities in India and in China and how one would think about differences and similarities,’” he said. “It’s not just plopping these down one by one, but then they become a network, and how do you actually use the network? There’s a lot of opportunity there in thinking about that.”

But as more and more universities consider how to expand their global reach, could this model of the global center change? Solomon was cautious in predicting the future, maintaining that the current approach is the status quo for the University. “There could come a time when there’s a different model that we deem is important to change the world, but right now, I think, this is the model we have…. We like our model. It’s fairly focused and it really serves our community. Now, that doesn’t mean it can’t evolve over time.”

Zimmer is fairly certain that the University will not pursue any branch campuses, he said.

He suspects that future University centers abroad will take on a similar form, though no definite plans have been made for more sites as of yet.

“We’ve thought about Latin America, but we haven’t put together a faculty committee yet to actually think that through, and it’s not clear that the situation is exactly the same. It just needs to be thought through,” Zimmer said. “It takes a lot of work to get this done. It’s a lot of work by faculty. After faculty kind of lay out the overall scope of the plans, there’s a lot of administrative work to be done. They’re a big deal to do, so you can’t do too many of them.”

Solomon is open to new sites but emphasized that it is dependent upon where faculty believe they require a physical location.

“We are engaged around the world in many more places than we have physical buildings…we have faculty engaged all across Africa, in many different countries, without having a center, we have faculty engaged in Latin America without having a center,” he said. “I would expect that we will continue to learn from our experience in Beijing and our experience in Delhi and our experience in Hong Kong and continue to evaluate and reassess and see where else a physical presence may be helpful, where our faculty think they would most be benefitted by having a staff and a center on the ground for their work, but we also may decide in some places, we don’t need a physical center.”

Regardless of the approach, anything that takes on a global dimension entails an element of risk, especially for elite schools, according to Wildavsky. “There’s a lot of risk that comes with them. Some of it is financial risk, but there’s also a brand risk,” he said. “Your brand is hugely valuable.” While many schools are pursuing overseas outposts, many others have not done much in the way of global engagement because it can be a gamble—and if it fails, the school’s brand might take a hit.

Branch campuses and partnerships with overseas institutions are particularly risky, as they involve many variables. In that sense, UChicago’s centers, owned and independently operated by the University, with their fairly focused missions and programs, might be a way of mitigating risk. “You could say that this is a dipping-your-toes-in-the-water approach,” he said. “The risks are lower, you’re not spending as much money, it’s not building a campus and recruiting a bunch of foreign students. It’s a more conservative approach, but it’s doing something important…. Universities want to walk before they can run.”

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