18 October 2017 Register to receive our free newsletter by email each week
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GLOBAL: Columbia opens global centres

Beijing in China and Amman in Jordan are the sites of the first two Columbia Global Centers, a markedly different departure from the standard branch campuses built by many universities around the world to promote exchanges and attract foreign students.

Columbia University President Lee C Bollinger opened the Beijing centre last Friday week while the Middle East Research Center in Amman opened two days later.

The private, 250-year-old New York-based Columbia University is one of America's elite Ivy League institutions and is one of only two in the US to have been founded by Royal Charter under King George II.

Kenneth Prewitt, Vice-president of Columbia Global Centers and Carnegie Professor of Public Affairs, describes the creation of the global centres as the "next stage in the long evolution of international study".

This is not taking the Columbia campus abroad, he explains, nor is it an attempt to establish Columbia's presence internationally. The university, top ranked for research and its teaching college, has a long history of involvement in international studies as well as of international students on its campus.

While the centres will include teaching, they are focused on research collaboration, conferences and seminars, and are not intended to be degree-granting. Evolving from the regional studies programmes that originated in the 1930-40s, the global centres are the next stage in international collaboration and academic research.

This new model, according to Prewitt, is to "bring together some of the world's finest scholars to address some of the world's most pressing problems".

"When social challenges are global in their consequences, the intellectual firepower of the world's great universities must be global in its reach," he says.

One example of this collaborative model is the China 2049 programme that brings together China's National Development and Reform Commission, Columbia's Earth Institute, and the Brookings Institution of Washington, DC to develop policies for China's development that are also economical and environmentally sustainable.

Another collaboration is Studio-X Beijing, an industrial loft near the Forbidden City where students, scholars and designers from China and Columbia's Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation can collaborate in research, projects and exhibits.

"Our centres are not designed around one policy or programme," says Prewitt. He points to the recent major earthquake in China as an example of where the value of worldwide collaboration is obvious. The centre will bring together experts in the sciences and engineering, public health, and relief efforts from the US and China to prepare strategies for such major disasters.

The Middle East Research Center in Amman will focus on policies and programmes in social work as well as improving secondary teacher preparation, both building on several years of prior collaboration. The new global centre is housed in a modern facility made available by Jordan's King Abdullah and Queen Rania. Additional global centres are planned for France and India, with the intent to establish them in capitals on each continent.

According to President Bollinger, funding for the centres is from private donations. Columbia's ability to pursue the development of such a heavily intellectual enterprise without primary concern for generating student enrolments is a luxury only a limited number of prestigious institutions can afford.

With the economic downturn causing a mass migration of students to community colleges, less selective tuition-driven state universities are shifting resources solely to ventures that can be justified by their student numbers.

If the Columbia Global Centers, serving as regional centres for project-based collaboration, are a new model that will replace the regional studies programmes anchored at parent institutions, will this become the road to the future for other elite universities seeking global outreach?

With the endowments of many elite universities suffering a major drawdown, the timing of these global centres may see Columbia in the lead for a few years to come.
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