In 2007, Michigan State University announced to great fanfare a new branch campus in Dubai. It was the first U.S. institution to do so, and it began an elaborate process to transform one of the central buildings at Dubai International Academic City into a foreign outpost. The school colors, green and white, guided the decorations of the space. There were classrooms, computer labs, study spaces, lounges, and a small library. During basketball season, televisions were brought in so the Spartans of the desert could cheer on the home team back in the United States. A photo of the president, Lou Anna Simon, even hung near those of Sheikh Khalifa said Sheik Mohammed, UAE’s leadership, in the atrium.
In 2010, though, MSU made a sudden and unexpected announcement: they were shutting down their campus. News stories from The Chronicle of Higher Education to NPR covered the closing. To many, the announcement, which came in the midst of the Great Recession, served as a warning cry for the critics of cross-border education activities and yet another indicator of the worsening economic times. The grand experiment to replicate the Michigan State experience in Dubai ended before it could even graduate any of its students.
Or, so most of the world thought.
After Michigan State-Dubai closed all of its undergraduate programs and shuttered its campus at Dubai International Academic City (DIAC), it quietly relocated to a smaller space at Dubai Knowledge Village, a sister site to DIAC, and continued to offer a single master’s program in human resources and labor relations. MSU did not completely abandon its Dubai presence – it just scaled it back significantly.
And now it is scaling back up. Last year it added a program in public health. A recent article from the The National, reports that two additional programs will be added in the coming year: a master’s of law and master’s of jurisprudence.
It seems the reports of MSU-Dubai’s death have been greatly exaggerated.
Perhaps MSU has learned a thing or two from their near death experience. When they first entered the Dubai market, they rushed in to make sure they were the first to offer an American degree in the emirate. The programs they selected seemed to be based more on which faculties expressed interest (e.g., family studies and psychology) rather than what the local student-demand dictated. In addition, the offering of undergraduate programs required an expansive infrastructure, support services, and numerous faculty to provide both general education and disciplinary courses. And, outreach to and engagement with the local communities was almost non-existent.
Those in charge of the rebuilding process, however, appear more patient. The renewed MSU-Dubai seems to be growing carefully, responding to local demand, and extending its reach into the community. The National article reported that MSU-Dubai is only offering a very small number of programs and only adding those that appear to meet a clear local demand. The new legal programs meet the needs of those in the local workforce who need an advanced understanding of U.S. and international legal issues because of their work with multinational corporations. The renewed campus is also making community engagement a priority – offering health seminars, professional trainings, and, next January, an international conference on higher education. There is speculation that they may have to add course section next year to respond to the growing demand for their master’s programs.
Among international branch campuses, several famous failures have been documented. University of South Queensland closed its Dubai campus in 2005; George Mason pulled out of Ras Al Khaimah (an emirate near Dubai) in 2009; University of LaVerne ended its presence in Greece in 2004 (after nearly 30 years of operation), and the RMIT (Australia) presence in Malaysia went belly up in 1999. This is the first time, however, we have seen a campus reemerge from what seemed to be a fatal blow.
One can raise all sorts of objections to the way MSU went into Dubai in the first place. And their current efforts are a far cry from what they envisioned at the beginning. But a branch campus is not built by a press release or MOU. On the ground reality is the only measure of success. We are curious to see what happens next.
(Jason was a Fulbright New Century Scholar at the MSU-Dubai in 2009-2010, while studying the development of cross-border higher education in the UAE.)