Columbia's global center strategy prioritizes engagement over NYU's 'one-way exchange of knowledge'

Columbia and New York University may both lead the pack when it comes to developing a presence abroad, but they have markedly distinct ideologies that have informed their global campus footprints.

October 08, 2015

Read the full article at the Columbia Spectator here

By Adam Fasman

Columbia and New York University may both lead the pack when it comes to developing a presence abroad, but they have markedly distinct ideologies that have informed their global campus footprints.

NYU has established two large-scale and degree-conferring satellite campuses as well as a number of study abroad outposts for their students. But Columbia has explicitly rejected NYU's model, opting instead for eight global centers that they believe foster more meaningful connections with foreign institutions and communities than satellite campuses.

"We don't believe in that model," Executive Vice President for global centers Safwan Masri said, "We don't think it's sustainable."

University President Lee Bollinger has made the eight global centers, which span five of the seven continents, a key component of his presidency. The goal of the centers is to promote collaboration with the countries they are situated in and serve as portals for a more global academic experience.

"We contribute to the development of the world, and we encourage the exchange of knowledge and expertise," Masri said.

Of the eight Columbia global centers, six advertise programs specifically geared toward undergraduate students. Masri and other global center directors say that they expect to expand undergraduate offerings at the global centers in the future.

"We went into the global centers with the notion that, let's build these outposts for the University with the purpose of having that facility that promotes the collaborative engagement of our faculty and students with the world," Masri said.

Though Cornell recently opened Weill Cornell Medical College in Doha, Qatar, Columbia is the only Ivy League school to establish global centers accessible to undergraduates.

Masri said that the undergraduate offerings at global centers are markedly different from study abroad programs.

"Study abroad and exchange programs tend to be you go there, you study, you take courses, you come back. The programs for the global centers are innovatively created, delivered largely by Columbia faculty," Masri said. "You're taking your coursework and you're taking your classroom out into the world, as opposed to going somewhere and spending a semester and coming back."

While Columbia centers have a myriad of roles, including allowing students to take classes, providing faculty with opportunities to conduct research, and fostering academic collaboration with the country, NYU's global centers function, in contrast, as "study-away sites," according to Mattie Bekink, deputy director of Public Affairs for Global Programs and Sites at NYU.

"The main focus at all of the global academic centers is NYU-developed courses with faculty. You're taking NYU classes with NYU professors," Bekink said. "You're just in a different location."

NYU's programs are taught by the university's faculty or local faculty who have affiliations with other universities and are experts at living locally, Bekink said.

By contrast, Columbia faculty are able to travel to the global centers for research and to teach student programs, sometimes alongside faculty from foreign institutions.

"It's important to underscore that we always view collaboration with other institutions as a high priority," Ipek Cem-Taha, director of Columbia's global center in Istanbul, said. "We are not just shipping in Columbia talent, ideas, and students and having a one-way discussion."

Cem-Taha and Masri both cited a program in the Istanbul center that focused on the topic of engineering democracy, which brings together Columbia students and faculty with those in Tunis and Istanbul to forge a collaborative discussion between them.

While NYU students have the opportunity to learn from other professors around the world, their programs don't necessarily strive for the same level of foreign collaboration and exchange as Columbia's global centers.

"It is in my mind somewhat neocolonial, because it's really about one-way exchange of knowledge," Masri said of the NYU networks. "This is not about learning and engaging—it's about teaching and coming back over here."

One distinct feature of NYU's global network is that it features two additional university campuses: one in Abu Dhabi and another in Shanghai. Both of these campuses confer degrees, offer a full slate of NYU programming, and have full-time, tenure-track faculty from across the world.

Students have the option of applying directly to these campuses, which, upon acceptance, will serve as their home institution of study for the duration of their undergraduate careers.

"Both the campuses in Abu Dhabi and in Shanghai are distinct, full, four-year liberal arts and science research universities," Bekink said. "They're on a degree-granting track."

The point of undergraduate education is where Columbia's global model is most often criticized. The Santiago global center offers no programs for undergraduates.

"This is not study abroad—in Santiago, at least," Karen Poniachik, director of Columbia's global center in Santiago, said. "We don't have credit-bearing courses. Our focus isn't the same as other centers."

Instead, the Santiago global center focuses on research programs for faculty. The Columbia astronomy department sends faculty to study at Chilean observatories in partnership with local institutions and offer programs on water access and indigenous cultures.

Accessibility to undergraduates is the major advantage of the NYU model in comparison to Columbia's global centers, which still offer relatively few programs for undergraduates.

But Masri believes that Columbia's focus on building deep and sustained connections with the countries that host the global centers will both benefit students and faculty who can use the centers and make the University more globally-minded.

"It's really about being in the world in a meaningful way," Masri said of Columbia's global centers.