Friday, October 4, 2013

America's Collegiate Brands Learning a Lesson

There's a big difference between intelligence and wisdom.

Intelligence involves the accumulation of knowledge.  Wisdom, on the other hand, effectively deploys however much knowledge you may have.

In other words, you don't need to be particularly intelligent to be wise.  And just because you are extraordinarily intelligent, you're not necessarily wise.

According to, some of our nation's top universities haven't figured out those facts yet.

For the past decade, it's been almost amusing to watch as schools like NYU, MIT, Yale, and others have been falling over themselves, scrambling to set up satellite campuses in popular emerging markets across the globe.  Places like suburban Moscow, and China, and the United Arab Emirates.  Back in the day, America's Ivy League and Ivy League wannabe schools built their empires in a specific location, such as Durham, North Carolina, Chicago, or Ithaca, New York.  If you wanted their educational pedigree, you had to trek to them, no matter what country you lived in.

Then, suddenly, it seemed as though the trend reversed itself, and these colleges decided that in order to maintain their prestige, they needed to colonize and extend their empires abroad.  They could kill two birds with one stone:  build their brand, and appear to be earnestly international in scope.

Ostensibly, these institutes of higher learning have sought to parlay their expertise in training bright young students in areas of the world where new generations of ideas and economic development are taking hold. What's less obvious are the massive financial subsidies with which these American universities were being lured by governments in these foreign countries, looking to secure a big-name educational institution to help secure their own international reputations. 

It's also funny how one develops an appreciation for America when you try to set up any kind of enterprise in an emerging market.  Intellect will tell you that you have the tools to do it.  Wisdom, however, will tell you it's not as easy as it looks.  And the two tend to run on parallel tracks until one peters out.

At the time, such hubris struck some observers as a bit ironic, considering how the history departments in many of these schools likely vilified Europe's centuries-old empire-building tactics.  But then again, their business schools were likely preaching the merits of off-shoring and globalization.  And with what was then a heady assessment by fashionably educated elites of unlimited growth potential in every country but the United States, all the pros seemed to outweigh the cons.  At least to them.  To others, however, watching the burgeoning demand for education online made some question the increasingly dated brick-and-mortar rationale.  Why the rush to build new campuses - even in countries with explosive population growth - when schooling via the Internet will be so much cheaper, flexible, and accessible?

Well, it appears the dubious, skeptical, and cynical were right, yet again.  You know them - the people Type-A firebrands castigate as being drags on progress.  According to Bloomberg, a host of problems with this new global model have begun to tarnish the trend, from government corruption overseas which American schools may have too optimistically underestimated, construction delays, conflicting views over social issues like homosexuality and media censorship, and plain old lack of actual demand.  While some American universities have managed to execute their international expansions with relatively little conflict, others have encountered enough challenges to their ambitions to become far less enthusiastic about them.

Yale University is second-guessing an expansion into China, after their rocky experience in Singapore, and a demand from professors back in Connecticut that Singapore's government officially respect the human rights of Yale's students there.  George Mason University even pulled out of the United Arab Emirates after students in an oil-rich state complained that its tuition - $8,500 per year - was too high!

Not that wanting to offer higher education to people living outside of America's geopolitical borders is a bad thing.  And to a certain extent, the offshoring of this country's biggest educational brands likely stems from ever-growing logistical burdens of bricks-and-mortar expansions here at home.  NYU, for example, is currently waging a bruising battle over a new campus tower with its Greenwich Village neighbors in the heart of Manhattan.  Plus, with the persistent uncertainty over student visas discouraging some foreign nationals from venturing over here to study, taking college to them helps take partisan American politics out of the picture.

Still, for all of the education these institutions supposedly represent, isn't it a bit sobering to see how a few common, lowly, and unwise human traits can lead even intellectuals into questionable decisions?  Things like arrogance, pride, the love of money, the need for affirmation, and even an unwillingness to consider emerging trends, like online schooling.  Sure, there is a valid point to the argument that better learning takes place in the physical dynamics between a teacher, a student, and their respective peer groups.  If we take the human element out of education, we likely end up learning a lot of facts, without developing the expertise to deploy those facts effectively.

Hmm... sounds like the difference between intelligence and wisdom, doesn't it?

In its article, Bloomberg points out that some schools, like Harvard and Penn State, have opted to develop their international presence on a far smaller scale, creating study centers instead of conventional campuses.  This approach incorporates more of a reliance on communication technology while creating a more intimate setting for the human educational process.  Considering all of the problems other universities are having with setting up shop overseas, these less flamboyant schools - like Harvard, who'd have thunk it?! - may be charting a more prudent course.

Then again, Harvard is the alma mater of both Republican Senator Ted Cruz and Democratic President Barak Obama, two of the key players in this week's stalemate on Capitol Hill over the budget and Obamacare.  Two Harvard-trained lawyers duking it out, and both of them relying on too much partisanship and too little logic.

Talk about the difference between intelligence and wisdom!

If Cruz and Obama are representative of the type of people Harvard is churning out, maybe it's the school that should be trying to educate China's future leaders on a far broader scale than it is.  What patriotic American could have a problem with that?

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