Becoming A Global University: Is Our Expansion Happening Too Fast?

Charles Eliot, the 40-year president of Harvard on whom I wrote my doctoral dissertation, said, if you want immortality, attach yourself to a great institution and leverage your effect through it.” – NYU President John Sexton, speaking with Bill Moyers last month.

John Sexton has changed. In 2007 and 2008, he couldn’t stop talking about NYU as a “glocal” university. Only 3 years later, local isn’t a big part of his vocabulary.

Despite all the recent buzz over NYU’s 2031 plans for major growth in New York City, the real story behind the University’s expansion is found far from its Greenwich Village roots. According to Sexton himself, NYU isn’t “in and of the city” anymore, it’s “in and of the world.”

And it’s true. Just look at this from the NYU Global site (my emphasis): “No university has a greater global presence. NYU leads all universities in students studying abroad; over 40 percent of our undergraduates now study abroad, and each year the number increases.” And we haven’t even launched Abu Dhabi yet.

Relatively quietly, the University has pursued aggressive growth in its study abroad program and encouraged more and more students to head overseas to study. It’s been a successful and industry-leading expansion. But, as with many Sexton initiatives, two big questions come up: are we moving forward too quickly? And who’s paying?

In 2004, NYU had five study abroad sites. Since then that number has doubled. And Sexton suggested recently that new sites in Australia, Latin America, and Africa will likely open within five years. The Washington, DC campus will also open within the next two years.

This all, of course, runs parallel with the fall opening of Abu Dhabi, which will position NYU as the first major US research university to open a comprehensive liberal-arts college out of the country.

Jaci Czarnecki, Associate Director of Study Abroad’s Student Services Department, has mixed feelings about the rapid growth of the program.

She noted that more sites are making it easier to get students abroad. She said, “The way that we are working with different academic departments and establishing new academic tracks…is a really good way for students who may not see study abroad as an option to build it into their curriculum.”

Gene Murphy, Senior Director of Academics of Global Programs, who calls Sexton’s plans “visionary,” coordinates those academic tracks. He works with academic departments in New York to form the curriculum abroad to help fit classes into majors and minors, making it possible for more students to spend time away from New York. He explained that there is often tension felt there, as departments often fear study abroad courses may lack the rigor necessary for major credit.

Czarnecki is also concerned about quality control. “Because we’ve grown so much so quickly, we’re always working on something new without a lot of time to reflect on how to make it better,” she explained. “I think it’s awesome that we’re offering all the study abroad opportunities that we are offering, but I’m very, very happy that for fall 2010 we’re not opening a new location…I think having some time to sort of reflect and get things going is helpful.”

But the growth doesn’t show signs of stopping. Sexton calls NYU a “global network University,” and envisions it using its two “anchor” campuses in New York and Abu Dhabi as hubs for study around the world.

In some ways, it’s already working. According to Czarnecki, around 25% of students in NYU sites abroad are not NYU students. And the money is rolling in.

This is part 1 of 2 in a series on NYU’s study abroad and global initiatives.

UPDATE: Title changed for clarity.



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