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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University May 7, 2007 | Vol. 36 No. 33
Thinking Out Loud

William R. Brody

By William R. Brody

Harvard, Beijing Call It Quits

Cambridge, Mass. (May 7, 2017)—
Harvard — America's oldest and the world's richest university — announced today it would close its Beijing campus, less than 10 years after opening the $1.2 billion state-of-the-art facility. A spokesperson for the university attributed the decision to disappointing enrollment, an inability to maintain academic standards and mounting financial problems.

The new campus was opened with great fanfare and high hopes at a time when it was thought all great universities should "globalize" their operations with overseas campuses.

With China's large population hungry for education and its emerging middle class the size of the entire United States population, Harvard officials were certain their planned expansion would reap sizable rewards for what is perhaps the world's most famous university. When the campus opened in 2007, a question often being posed in academia went something like this: "With American companies like Microsoft establishing very successful research centers in China, and more joining every day, why not Harvard Beijing?"

Why not, indeed?

The reputation of an august university is based, in no small measure, on the reputation of its individual faculty members. When considering the new Harvard Beijing campus, native Chinese students naturally expected to be taught by the famous names among the Harvard faculty ranks. While some leading Cambridge-based professors were willing to travel to Beijing for a few weeks a year, getting them to relocate permanently and work full time in a foreign country proved to be much more challenging.

Many senior faculty had no interest in moving from the start. Even those who were enthusiastic about the possibility found difficulties with changing schools for their children, finding appropriate jobs for their spouses and moving away from parents or grandchildren. And for scientists, leaving their graduate students, colleagues and laboratories were non-starters; the loss of productivity could not be mitigated by any other factors — including even the much higher salaries the university eventually offered to pay. In the end, fewer than a half-dozen faculty chose to move, and these were exclusively in the junior ranks.

What was perhaps more surprising was that the Admissions Office received only about one-tenth of the undergraduate applications it had expected. When polling prospective students, the staff heard, "Part of the reason to go to Harvard is to experience Harvard Yard, Harvard Square and Cambridge, to be among the ivy-covered buildings and to experience the ambience of a unique cultural environment. If I were to stay in China, I could go to Beijing University — the "Harvard of China" — for a lot less money. And besides, the faculty you have hired aren't really Harvard faculty."

Many prospects from China also noted they wanted to go to a school with an established alumni network, like Beijing University.

Harvard would have been willing to stay the course, but it found that running a second campus in Beijing was much more expensive than originally anticipated. Even with an enormous endowment, education at Harvard — or at any other research university — is a money-losing proposition, and without wealthy donors who wished to support the Beijing campus to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, the endeavor just was not sustainable. Unable to make a go of it, Harvard announced that it would sell its new facility to the University of Phoenix for an undisclosed sum.

OK, so by now you have probably guessed that this is some sort of late April Fool's joke. Harvard has not opened a campus in Beijing. But many other universities — Johns Hopkins among them — have opened or are contemplating opening undergraduate, graduate or professional programs in Asia and the Middle East. Is the globalization of higher education becoming a reality? Perhaps.

But consider what happens when the Swedish company IKEA opens a store in Beijing, as it has quite successfully done. First of all, local shoppers do not care who actually makes the IKEA furniture they buy (it might, in fact, be made in China — or in Europe or Malaysia, for that matter). They care only that it is essentially the same quality as that which IKEA markets in other countries, with some modification for local tastes and needs. IKEA may have to move a store manager or two from elsewhere to operate the store, but it largely hires local talent to staff the stores efficiently and effectively.

IKEA opens stores in China because it reasonably believes it can make a profit and recoup its investment in infrastructure. Not so with education, which, except for certain very specialized types of professional education like executive management courses, has negative margins and requires a subsidy, either from government or private philanthropy or, often, both.

Despite efforts to create cost-efficient, cookie-cutter education by the University of Phoenix and a few others, higher education remains hand tooled and intensely personal in its delivery. To date, no one has yet figured out a suitable alternative delivery method. Johns Hopkins operates a number of distance education programs, including a master's degree in public health, but even that program requires that 20 percent of credits be earned on our campuses in a personal, face-to-face format. We also have graduate programs in international relations in Bologna, Italy, and Nanjing, China. The latter program is partnered with the University of Nanjing, without which it would not be able to function. In its early years it received significant support from the U.S. government; today that support has been replaced by private philanthropy. Yet despite the great success of both programs, they remain a challenge to sustain financially.

Research, of course, has been global for many years now. It requires world-class expertise in which teams of researchers from around the world collaborate on important scientific problems. But education remains the province of individual faculty members. The best of them, like at Harvard and Johns Hopkins, deliver a highly sought-after product that has essentially retained the same method of delivery for more than 100 years. Economic factors may one day change this delivery mechanism. But for the near term, don't look for a Harvard Square next to Tiananmen Square anytime soon.


William R. Brody is president of The Johns Hopkins University.


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