Berkeley Plans to Build a Global Campus, 10 Miles From Home

January 22, 2015

The University of California at Berkeley plans to open a global campus, but it intends to do so without going very far from home. Under the plan, partner universities from around the world would set up shop at a new outpost just 10 miles from Berkeley’s main campus.

The Berkeley Global Campus at Richmond Bay, campus officials say, will offer a "global citizenship" curriculum—with a focus on topics like governance, ethics, health, and sustainability—for graduate students from the United States and abroad.

By situating the campus nearby—an unusual move in an era when many American institutions are building abroad—Berkeley hopes to establish partnerships with universities from around the world while preserving full academic freedom for its faculty.

It’s a hefty undertaking. The campus’s development manager, Terezia C. Nemeth, said it would take years—possibly decades—and hundreds of millions of dollars to fulfill the university’s vision. It’s unclear where the money will come from. Nils Gilman, an associate chancellor at Berkeley, said the university was pursuing a range of options, including philanthropic donations and federal and state funds. Partner universities would also bring their own money to the project.

Mr. Gilman said Berkeley officials were "quite far down the road" in talks with several potential partner universities in Europe and Asia. Those universities had been chosen, by and large, because of previous collaborations with Berkeley and its faculty, he said.

The university would not name any of those institutions. But Nicholas B. Dirks, Berkeley’s chancellor, said he hoped to announce the initial partner universities this year, if not this month.

After that, and once enough money is raised, the university will break ground on the global campus, which sits by the bay in Richmond, Calif., about an hour’s drive from Silicon Valley. Berkeley already maintains some research facilities on the site.

An Academic ‘Safe Harbor’

Berkeley’s branch-campus concept has international precedents, said Jason E. Lane, co-director of the Cross-Border Education Research Team at the State University of New York at Albany, but it hasn’t been seen before in the United States. Comparable education hubs in other nations, like Qatar’s Education City, have generally been sponsored by governments, not the institutions themselves.

"You’re bringing the world to you instead of being out in the world," Mr. Lane said.

That shift, he said, comes with a cost: American students and faculty members who participate might miss the broader experience of being immersed in a foreign culture and environment. "You’re losing out on all the experiences one gains from being embedded in a branch campus overseas," he said.

That could hold true for foreign students as well. Many of those students might not have the opportunity or resources to study in the United States, Mr. Lane said. They’d be more likely to enroll at a branch campus in their own country.

Still, Berkeley officials argue that there’s a compelling reason to put the global campus on American ground: the chance to create a true safe harbor with protections for academic freedom, human rights, political activism, and intellectual property.

Many overseas branch campuses have, in fact, been dogged by concerns over the academic freedom of their faculty members. In one high-profile example, professors at Yale University objected to an overseas partnership with the National University of Singapore, passing a resolution that expressed "concern regarding the history of lack of respect for civil and political rights" in Singapore.

"If you have a researcher who’s doing research on Country X and the government is not happy with it, what kinds of protections do you have as a faculty member working in that environment?," Mr. Gilman asked. "By doing it here, there’s no question about that. You’ll have all the benefits of working at Berkeley, and when their faculty come here, they’ll have all those protections as well."

Mr. Dirks said that when he pitched the idea of a global campus to university leaders in China, they brought up the safe-harbor issue before he did. "They said, ‘This would give our faculty an opportunity to engage in discussions about certain kinds of things in a context where academic freedom is ensured,’" he said.

The campus’s main goal, Mr. Dirks said, is to encourage an interdisciplinary approach to global problems like climate change, income inequality, epidemic diseases, and the need for new forms of sustainable energy.

Who will participate in that work may change over time. Initially, Mr. Gilman said, the branch campus will focus on graduate students. An early tenant of the campus will be a two-year, residential scholarship program, modeled on the University of Oxford’s prestigious Rhodes Scholarships.

Graduate students from around the world who receive the scholarships would spend their first year studying a general, interdisciplinary global-citizenship curriculum. In their second year, they would pursue an individual track, like sustainability or global health. (The program could start before buildings appear on the global campus, Mr. Gilman said.)

But Berkeley plans eventually to make the campus a home for undergraduate research as well.

It’s not yet certain how degrees would be administered. At first, Mr. Gilman said, students will probably earn dual degrees from Berkeley and a partner university. Eventually, they might receive stand-alone degrees from the Berkeley Global Campus.

Berkeley and its institutional partners will be equals in the project, collaborating to develop academic curricula and research plans, Mr. Gilman said.

"Berkeley, as a public university in the State of California, is absolutely committed to providing value to and access to Californians," he said, but "we also realize that being a great university has to involve going global."

"No university, not even Harvard with their huge endowment, has the resources to cover everything in all topics," he said. "You’re going to have to form alliances with other universities."