When New York University (NYU) announced the completion of its US$1billion Abu Dhabi campus (NYUAD) in 2008, NYU’s president, John Sexton, called the project “an opportunity to transform the university and, frankly, the world.” While he was referring specifically to his own institution, his statement may well have been applied to the broad new vision of global education in which NYUAD was conceived. Indeed, in recent years, many US universities have expanded into foreign cities, including Singapore, Doha, and Shanghai. This far-flung proliferation of satellite campuses invites important, foundational questions about the role and responsibility of the university in today’s world.

In 1995, the Qatar Foundation, a semi-governmental development institution in the gulf country for which it’s named, founded “Education City,” a 2,500-acre district on the outskirts of Doha earmarked for foreign universities. Since then, six US universities, including Cornell University, Northwestern University, and Georgetown University, have accepted the invitation, opening up off shoot campuses specializing in selected disciplines (one Qatari University, the Qatar Faculty for Islamic Studies, also operates in Education City). Abu Dhabi did its gulf neighbors one better in 2008 when NYUAD, a comprehensive, degree-granting liberal arts and research institution, opened in the city. NYUAD was the flagship of NYU’s ambitious “Global Network” initiative, which has seen the opening of 11 international academic centers—formal, co-operational partnerships with local universities—in every continent but Antarctica, as well as another “home campus” in Shanghai (NYUSH), which joined its counterparts in New York and Abu Dhabi in 2008. Even Yale has not escaped the franchising trend, unveiling a somewhat ambiguous co-venture with the National University of Singapore in 2011 known as Yale-NUS, which accepted its inaugural class in 2013.

This fast-expanding panoply of partnerships, offices, and campuses is hard to keep track of. In some ways, it is almost reductive to speak of them together. While some, like NYU’s academic centers, serve to further the research agendas of the two universities and provide students and faculty the means to leverage new opportunities, others, like the universities of Education City and Yale-NUS, seem aimed primarily to strengthen post-secondary education within the countries they are built in. Still more, like NYUAD and NYUSH, synthesize the two models, conceiving of themselves, along with NYU in Manhattan, as a new paradigm for the university—a mutually enforcing network of fully self-sufficient institutions. Those that employ faculty draw from both local populations and affi liate US institutions, to differing proportions, and student bodies are likewise mixed and variable. More robust projects like Yale-NUS and the NYU off shoots receive most of their funding from regional power brokers, while smaller academic offices will tend to be financed by the universities they are connected with. No single strategy animates these diverse ventures; what connects them is a belief that there is something to gain from the globalization of higher education, both for the universities in question and the world at large.

This unsavory compromise invites deeper questions about the forces motivating these projects. Why are so many universities willing to betray foundational values for the purpose of expansion?


But while the opinions of globetrotting universities and the foreign elites that sponsor them might converge on this particular point, in many cases, this is as far as their agreement goes. In fact, on values like academic freedom, free speech, and respect for human dignity, there is often significant distance between the two. Construction workers at NYUAD and in Qatar’s Education City, like low-skilled laborers in many parts of the gulf, lead difficult lives. Workers are paid little, and many return to crowded, unsanitary group homes after clocking out at the end of the day. Worse still, concerned observers are constrained in their freedom to speak out. Andrew Ross, an NYU professor who has been an outspoken critic of labor standards in the United Arab Emirates, was denied entrance to Abu Dhabi in March 2015. Though NYU has been, at least nominally, granted extra-legal status by the government in Abu Dhabi that allows for expanded academic freedom, Marjorie Heins, a former adjunct professor at NYU and current member of the academic freedom and tenure committee of the American Association of Professors, has stated that “the lack of respect for freedom of speech permeates the entire enterprise.” Yale’s venture in Singapore has drawn similar criticism. According to Yale-NUS President Pericles Lewis, Yale-NUS students do not have the right to engage in political protest or form groups with any affiliation to political parties in Singapore out of respect for the laws of the city-state. These realities led Yale faculty to pass a resolution expressing concern over the project due to “the history of lack of respect for civil and political rights in the state of Singapore” and to two professors publishing an op-ed in the Yale Daily News bemoaning that “an institution bearing Yale’s name is [now officially] in the business of restricting the rights of students.”

Freedom of speech and open debate are bedrocks of the Western university, and crucial to their purpose as sources of new knowledge and ideas. It is difficult to imagine them functioning in an environment where these values are not upheld, but if their global franchising marches are to continue, it appears they must do so. As former president of Yale, Rick Levin, stated in his 2013 exit interview, students “will have to learn to adapt.”

This unsavory compromise invites deeper questions about the forces motivating these projects. Why are so many universities willing to betray foundational values for the purpose of expansion? Do they truly believe that the obvious benefits accrued to students and faculty justify, in some cases, the suspension of deeply-held principles of justice and the acceptance of something less than unquestioned academic freedom, or might these ventures have more to do with prestige? After all, as the market among elite schools for incoming college students becomes both more competitive and more lucrative with each passing year, a burgeoning global presence makes for seductive brochure fodder.

Furthermore, why are governments so keen to welcome foreign universities into their countries? Are their reputations for academic excellence worth the considerable expense of construction, the attention they will bring to social problems, the neglect of local institutions, and the cession of the knowledge-making vanguard to institutions with foreign pedigrees? Or again, might motivations be more superficial? Singapore, Qatar, Shanghai, and the UAE are, after all, all relatively new players on the global stage, which, to varying degrees, may be self-conscious about being seen as modern. The instant cachet of a famous western university,even when it means adopting foreign cultural brands as their own, reinforces their self-images. These answers are, no doubt, speculative, and these ventures may well have been embarked upon in good faith but, even so, they represent meaningful, potentially messy shifts for all parties involved, even at the level of core values. In this era of globalization, embracing the world can sometimes mean abandoning yourself.

These institutions are just beginning to make their mark, and more will surely follow in their footsteps. Sexton’s prediction may well be right, and the ambition of his statement is awe-inducing, inspiring visions of a day when no corner of the world will be invisible from the tops of the loftiest ivory towers of the United States. From heights like that, however, it can be difficult to tell exhilaration from vertigo.