Temple U. Stands Tall in Japan

David McNeill

Bruce Stronach, dean of Temple U.'s Japan campus, was the first foreigner to head a public university in Japan and advises the government on education policy.
June 23, 2010

Bruce Stronach's résumé boasts two striking facts: He is the highest-ranking foreign academic in Japan, and he runs the biggest and oldest American university operation in the country.

As dean of Temple University's Japan campus, the former chief operating officer of Becker College is responsible for about 1,350 undergraduate and graduate students, and another 1,000 people enrolled in continuing-education courses. Not bad, considering his institution is lucky to be here at all.

Of the roughly 40 U.S. colleges that opened for business in Japan during the 1980s, Temple is the only one still running. Long after its competitors went home licking their wounds during the two-decade hangover from Japan's economic boom, the 28-year-old campus is surviving, and even thriving.

"We're the last one standing, the only institution, American or otherwise, that offers a full-service operation," said Mr. Stronach.

Not that it has been all smooth sailing. Temple set up the campus with lofty educational goals and a plan to be a bridge between the two countries, which were bickering over trade issues. The campus spent many years—Temple officials decline to say exactly how many—being propped up financially by its parent in Philadelphia during the lean 1990s and early 2000s.

Enrollment dropped to its lowest point in 2001, when the campus had 350 students. Mr. Stronach said the university's English-language program remained popular and helped saved it from going under.

Since joining Temple in 2008, Mr. Stronach has helped shore up the campus's finances and its "long string of deficits." He said, "Those years when the main campus carried us are over. The university has matured, and we're on a steady course of surpluses." Today the campus has a budget of roughly $25-million.

As he admits, some of Temple's success in Japan is because of decisions made before he arrived. For example, after nearly a decade of lobbying, the government granted Temple the same status as a Japanese university—a first by a government that until then had largely left foreign transplants to sink or swim.

The change allowed Temple to sponsor foreign-student visas in the same way as a Japanese university and "substantially" boosted direct enrollments from outside Japan, said Jeff Kingston, a professor of history and former acting dean at the university. "That influx of foreign students has turned things around," he said. Fifty-one percent of the campus's undergraduates and 58 percent of its graduate students are from outside Japan, and many are from the United States.

It also added heft to a Temple degree and gave its students official status, including ID cards allowing them to get discounts on public transportation, housing, and other services.

With its growing reputation, Mr. Stronach said, local students no longer used the college essentially as a portal to the main campus. "Less than 15 percent of our total student population studies abroad at any given point in time. We have become a destination campus. People who apply here want to go to Temple University Japan." About half of Temple's undergraduate degrees have been awarded to Japanese students.

Struggles Are Not Over

When the university began searching for someone to pull the campus out of the financial fire, Mr. Stronach, who was then president of Yokohama City University, was an obvious choice. The first foreigner to head a public university in Japan, he has spent a third of his life in the country and is an adviser on government education policy. Temple insiders say his background as a professional administrator is important and helped him improve the campus's organization and balance the books.

Temple's unique story is being scrutinized by other U.S. institutions looking to open branches in Asia and the Middle East.

Stamina, perseverance, and support from its U.S. parent are the secret to survival, Mr. Stronach said. "During the times when the campus was not paying for itself, our main campus had the commitment to international education that they were willing to carry on. Everybody else was getting out."

Mr. Stronach wondered whether the new wave of American institutions going abroad to Asia and elsewhere were prepared for the long haul. "A couple of years down the line, someone at the main university is going to ask: Why do we have this campus? And you have to be able to answer that question, including the issue of finances. A lot of people set up in Dubai on the promise of government money, and they're now sucking on wind."

To be sure, Temple's own struggles are not over. It is currently taxed as a company in Japan, despite the nonprofit status of its parent. The university recently ended two years of administrative debate when it decided to keep its local status as a limited company, concluding that becoming the Japanese equivalent of a nonprofit campus would cede too much control to the education ministry. But it is looking for concessions on tax issues.

To bolster its case with the government, Mr. Stronach emphasized that his campus does not provide revenue to its parent university, but instead pays a management fee. "We do not repatriate surpluses to the main campus; we pay it for the cost of operating us."

Given his long service to higher education in Japan, it's hardly surprising that the reformist Democrat government, which ended over half a century of conservative rule last fall, came calling on Mr. Stronach for advice.

The "elephant in the room," he said he has told government lawmakers, is the huge oversupply of private universities, about half of which are falling below government-set enrollment quotas.

"Some of these universities are going to have to die," he said. Japan's education ministry should get "out of the business of keeping these universities on life support and get them on quality control." He also believes the government should scrap its famously restrictive university entrance exams and focus on creating a real liberal-arts education that is truly global.

"Japan is attempting to open up and internationalize and that's laudable, but it's in a very incremental way," he said. "For whatever reason, Korea has agreed as a nation to a consensus and everybody is getting behind it—government, business, and universities. That's what Japan is not doing, and it needs to."