The new issue of The Blue and White can be found around campus.  Today, Claire Sabel reviews the a book on how the global reach of universities is changing the world.

Ben Wildavsky
The Great Brain Race: How Global Universities are Reshaping the World
Princeton University Press
April 2010 / $26.95

Coming in fourth nationally, Columbia University achieved its highest ranking ever in this year’s U.S. News and World Report list of the nation’s best colleges and universities. The August publication of the list gave students, faculty, and administrators plenty of reason to celebrate, but the race to the top of these rankings is only one leg of a much larger, global race that is increasingly pitting American colleges and universities against their international peers.

Author Ben Wildavsky chronicles this growing globalized competition within higher education in his new book, The Great Brain Race: How Global Universities are Reshaping the World. Tracing key trends in education since World War II, Wildavsky argues that undergraduate and graduate institutions at home and abroad are escalating the same kind of consumer-driven race for global dominance that has characterized the corporate world for decades. Students are the new consumers, and academia is the latest commodity to be had.

The U.S. education sector is at the head of this Great Brain Race, in many ways, according to Wildavsky. Elite American research universities are the most desired destination among international students, and the U.S. attracts up to two-thirds of all the world’s graduate students. The U.S. also pumps more money into higher learning than any other country in the world, spending more than double the percentage of its GDP on post-secondary education that China, India, the European Union, and Japan do.

Columbia ought to come in near the head of the class by these measures—of the more than 2,000 U.S. colleges and universities reporting international student enrollment, Columbia ranks third in attracting the most students from abroad, and its sizable endowment enables it to finance one of the biggest annual university budgets in the nation.

But when it comes to naming the leaders of the Great Brain Race, Wildavsky skips Columbia and instead heads downtown to Washington Square Park. There, under the leadership of President John Sexton, New York University is pioneering the development of “satellite campuses,” off-shoot schools that seek to mirror in other countries the presence of the main university.

Unlike, say, Columbia’s French studies program at Reid Hall in Paris, a satellite campus is more than a single department with a branch housed overseas in a far-flung building or two. These are not simple study-abroad programs. Instead, a satellite campus is intended to be a self-contained college in its own right, operating separately in a host country while still maintaining close ties to its American counterpart. NYU’s Abu Dhabi campus, for instance, will have all “the research and creative power of a major research university” when it opens for classes this semester, the university has said. It will grant degrees indistinguishable from those of the Washington Square campus, and it will have its own faculty who can transfer to and from NYU’s main New York campus. Although the initial student body is expected to be almost entirely from the United Arab Emirates, the satellite campus hopes eventually local students will make up as little as 40 percent of the population, along with people from the rest of the Middle East, India, and the U.S.

If this satellite campus concept sounds familiar, that might be because it has much in common with commercial chains like McDonald’s and Hilton Hotels. Like any major corporation, NYU is seeking to establish itself as a worldwide brand—the dream is a “global network university,” where students can spend several semesters in New York and several in Abu Dhabi, or at another of the future locations in Europe and Asia envisioned by NYU administrators. But this trend goes beyond NYU, and is certainly not the one-off project of an ambitious university. Wildavsky cites a report identifying 162 such branch campuses around the world, primarily offshoots of universities in the U.S., U.K., and Australia.

This bold concept of a globe-trotting undergraduate career, however, is a far cry from a Columbia education, where a highly demanding Core Curriculum can make it difficult for students to go abroad. Kathleen McDermott, director of Columbia’s Office of Global Programs, defended the Core Curriculum in an e-mail interview as a way to prime students for study abroad, claiming that its linguistic requirement and Global Core classes offer insightful preparation, adding that students can earn credit toward senior projects while abroad. In comparison to other institutions, however, she acknowledged that “Columbia has decided an approach of leaving a small footprint” in other countries, recognition that Columbia’s firm roots in Morningside Heights create a different kind of university that prefers to limit its financial and physical commitments to bettering its core institutions at home.

How flexible Columbia’s course of study should be is another debate, but it seems that regardless of the university’s study-abroad policies, the depth of its coffers, and the size of its international student body, Columbia is bucking the trends Wildavsky discusses rather than embracing them. Students from around the world come to study within the 116th Street gates, but they don’t have the same opportunities to leave campus and learn abroad. Could Columbia soon fall behind in the Great Brain Race, then? Following Wildavsky’s logic, perhaps so: “All of these [international] trends are hugely beneficial to the entire world,” he writes. “Increasing knowledge is not a zero-sum game.”

But McDermott dismissed the idea that Columbia is ignoring the outside world. Along with new initiatives to increase international faculty and students, agreements are in the works to establish joint-degree programs, similar to the one that currently exists with France’s Paris Institute of Political Science. These joint degrees differ from study-abroad, allowing students to spend significant amounts of time enrolled at multiple institutions instead of just visiting another school for a semester. McDermott also highlighted Columbia’s Global Centers — outposts in Beijing, Paris, Mumbai, and Amman — as “the perfect example of how Columbia wishes to interact with our international partners.”

These Global Centers are not to be confused with NYU’s satellite campuses, however. Vice President for Global Centers Dr. Ken Prewitt makes the distinction clear on the Global Centers Web site: “They are not satellite campuses, overseas profit centers, or operations under the umbrella of a partner institution,” he writes. Instead, they act more as points of departure for locally based joint research and scholarship rather than an export of Morningside Heights. Columbia may not be resisting globalization, it seems, but it is resisting the transformation of education into the profit-driven, consumer commodity that Wildavsky describes.

Elsewhere, schools farther abroad than downtown Manhattan are also hoping to soon be nipping at Columbia’s heels in the Great Brain Race. Wildavsky addresses in his book the issues of creating new, world-class research universities from scratch, primarily the projects of governments in developing nations that want to compete internationally for the best research and attract the finest minds. China is a leader in this endeavor: between 1993 and 2004, the Chinese government identified 36 universities to develop into world-class institutions through immense funding and strategic development. These are massive developments in global academia on scales wholly unprecedented in the United States.

Columbia no doubt has played a crucial role in the history of American secondary education, but as Wildavsky’s book suggests, the future belongs to whoever can adapt and thrive in the increasingly globalized environment of academia. As students around the world act more and more like “intellectual shoppers” and as both governments and private companies make for-profit forays into education, Columbia will have to re-examine its own identity as an institution of higher learning to decide whether the Great Brain Race is a race worth winning.

Illustration by Stephen Davan