China has long sent more young people to the U.S. to study than any other country, but not every family can afford to send a child abroad, and not every student wants to be so far from home. The prospect of elite American universities offering a premium product right in their backyard is an attractive one.

"The thought is we don't need to go abroad," says Jin. "We can just spend less money and get what we want here."

Professor Karl, however, is not convinced that the school will find enough students who can pay the tuition but don't want to study in the U.S. She worries that NYU's expansion into China will only worsen the country's economic and social divide. While NYU Shanghai may be more affordable and convenient for some Chinese families than NYU in New York, the student body could ultimately end up looking all too familiar—made up of affluent students with high test scores out of high school.

NYU President John Sexton attends the groundbreaking ceremony for NYU Shanghai's Pudong campus.
NYU President John Sexton attends the groundbreaking ceremony for NYU Shanghai's Pudong campus.

"The NYU Shanghai degree will be a far more valuable degree to have than some two-year technical unaccredited local school," Karl says. "However, of course, they are not attracting the same populations.

"As an educator, I don't believe it's harmful to educate people. Does it contribute ever more exponentially to the educational and class inequality in China and in the world? Yes, absolutely it does."

The leaders of NYU Shanghai, for their part, insist that concerns like Karl's are overblown. "My experience in China is so far so good," says Jeffrey Lehman, vice chancellor and chief executive of NYU Shanghai, who also served as president of Cornell University from 2003 to 2005 and was the founding dean of the Peking University of Transnational Law in Shenzhen, the first law school to offer a Western-style curriculum in China. (Li Keqiang, China's newly appointed prime minister, was educated there.)

"So far, it's been absolutely possible to do what we at NYU Shanghai intend to do," insists Lehman. "If that turns out not to be the case and we cannot operate the university there, then we leave. But my expectation is that we will be able to do exactly what we want to do."

What NYU intends to accomplish in China—and what Lehman says the university and the city of Shanghai explicitly agreed upon before moving forward with their plans—is to be able to offer classes where freedom of speech, freedom of expression, and creativity can abound without fear of government censorship. Lehman himself will teach a mandatory first-year course on "global intellectual history" that includes elements of humanities and social sciences.

Even so, it's hard to imagine that a graduate of NYU in China—a country where the Internet is closely monitored, books are banned, and discussing topics such as democracy and the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre can still land a person in jail—will reap the same educational benefits as a graduate of NYU in New York City.

"I think the government is probably going to get much more involved with what the curriculum is, and that brings up issues of freedom of speech and academic discourse," says Rein, whose own book has been banned in mainland China. "What happens when you start talking about philosophy and political theory? That's something that I don't know."

The concern is that the Chinese government might issue curriculum restrictions, dictating what can and cannot be discussed in politics, humanities, and social science-based courses. According to Rein, offering a program like science management is a safer bet for American universities in China because it's a field that the Chinese government greatly approves of.

Through CMR, Rein has done consulting for Duke University and New York's Juilliard School, two institutions that have recently set in motion their own China expansion plans. Unlike NYU Shanghai, neither Duke's new campus in the city of Kunshan nor Juilliard's planned facility in Yujiapu, Tianjin, will grant undergraduate degrees to Chinese students. Rather, the focus will be on graduate programs and pre-college instruction, respectively. Rein advises his clients against trying to duplicate degrees offered in their home nations for fear of diluting the schools' brands. It seems nearly impossible for an American institution to be able to provide an identical liberal arts education in a political system so very different from our own.

"A lot of people are asking, 'Is an NYU Shanghai degree as valuable as a New York one?'" he says. "So I think they're walking a very dangerous line."

Still, predicts Rein, "in the short term it's going to be a boon for the universities from an economic standpoint. But I think it also means that America has to adjust, because we're going to see far more competitive workers coming out of China than ever before."

Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C., agrees that more highly employable, bilingual Chinese college graduates could prove alluring to multinational employers. "I think it's only a matter of time until you really start to see businesses ramp up their efforts in a big way to take advantage of college-educated workers in the developing world, because there are a lot of opportunities," explains Baker. "I think you'll see many more cases where we have accounting, engineering, software, architecture—all of these things—being outsourced to China rather than these people actually coming to the United States and working here."

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