Columbia University is launching its first two "Global Centers" in Beijing, China and Amman, Jordan this weekend. These centers—hubs meant to foster interdisciplinary research on global topics—are part of Columbia's response to the internationalization of higher education.
The University plans to expand on these two centers in coming years via the construction of low-budget regional offices that bring University resources face-to-face with problems around the world. The inaugurations of the first offices, which occurred in China on Friday and will take place in Jordan's Middle East Research Center on Sunday, aim to concretize the “global university” rhetoric often touted by administrators, and are a shift from the expensive satellite campus model—for example, New York University has campuses in Florence, Madrid, and Abu Dhabi—implemented by peer institutions.
These offices “are to make for Columbia an interconnected global presence,” University President Lee Bollinger said in an interview in February.
The development seeks to surpass the confines of academic research constrained to a Hamilton Hall office or a SIPA institute. The two ceremonies this weekend, which feature talks about sustainable development in the Middle East and the global economy, promote the strengths of a global vantage point.
“This will add to the possibility of courses,” Kenneth Prewitt, director of the newly-created Office of Global Centers and Carnegie professor of public policy at SIPA, said in a phone interview from Beijing before the event. Centers will aid in connecting Columbians “to more than one part of world, with students in Morningside Heights interacting with students” in China and Jordan on any particular question, he continued.
Attendees of the international openings consist of a slew of top administrators, representing the project's far reach across the Universitty. In Beijing, Bollinger, University provost Alan Brinkley, Teachers College president Susan Fuhrman, Barnard president Debora Spar, and University Professor Joseph Stiglitz made appearances among Chinese university presidents. Bollinger and Brinkley will travel to Jordan, appearing alongside Jordanian Queen Rania al Abdullah, Jordanian prime minister Nader Dahabi, American University in Cairo provost and former SIPA dean Lisa Anderson, Earth Institute Director Jeffrey Sachs, and Rashid Khalidi, Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies and Literature.
Despite potential curricular enhancements, the Centers exist chiefly for research purposes. "The Center is not a teaching place,” said Barnard political science professor Xiaobo Lü in an interview online. Lü, formerly chair of Morningside’s Weatherhead East Asian Institute, is heading Columbia's office in Beijing. “It is important to emphasize that the Center’s main mission is on research,” he added.
Activities at both the Beijing and Amman centers strive to tackle regional conflicts, diving head first into environmental issues, natural disaster response, and education with the aid of diverse Columbia schools and local private and public agencies.
Much of the hype surrounding Beijing and Amman derives from the presence of up-and-running Columbia programs already there. The Columbia-China bond, for instance, goes back 100 years, dating back to the time when Columbia became one of the first American universities to accept students from China. “Certainly a major goal of the Center is to continue and expand the strong ties and add to the illustrious history between Columbia and China,” Lü said.
As a result, funding mostly comes from alumni donations and government grants—linkages Columbia has established overseas. "The research model is very different. We’re not out there to make money and we don’t want these centers to be a drain on Columbia resources," said Safwan Masri, head of the Amman Center and former vice dean of the Business School, as he compared this approach to that of other universities like Cornell and Carnegie Mellon, which have accepted hundreds of millions from oil-rich Gulf governments to construct degree-granting campuses in those countries. "Ideally, the centers should not cost the University anything."
Prewitt said that the next global centers will open in India and Paris, the latter likely in conjunction with Columbia’s Reid Hall for the study of French language and culture.
CORRECTION APPENDED: This article originally stated that Rashid Khalidi is director of the Middle East Institute. Khalidi ended his tenure as director in July, and now General Studies Dean Peter Awn heads the Institute. Spectator regrets the error.