South Korea Builds a Global University, With Help From the U.S.

Seok; Jae-hyun

Hee Yhon Song, one of the founders of Songdo Global University Campus: “Without this university, the Songdo project will not succeed.”
June 19, 2009

Take a man-made island, roughly twice the size of Central Park. Fill it with state-of-the-art schools, hospitals, apartments, cultural amenities, and universities.

Replicate architectural features from around the world, including Venice's canals and New York's parks. Make English the lingua franca and -- presto -- you have the world's newest city.

Built on 1,500 acres of land reclaimed from the Yellow Sea off Incheon, about 35 miles from South Korea's capital, New Songdo City is billed as the largest private real-estate development in history.

It is Korea's answer to Shanghai and Dubai. Estimates put the cost of the Songdo project, which is barely five years old, at up to $60-billion.

The city's centerpiece is Songdo Global University Campus, a collaborative attempt to blend Korean, American, and European academic strengths.

"I believe without this university, the Songdo project will not succeed," says Hee Yhon Song, senior education-policy adviser to the Incheon government, and the key broker between the Korean and American participants.

That's brave talk, considering that not a brick of the new campus has been laid.

But the founders, including Mr. Song, broke ground in May and at least two American partners, North Carolina State University and the State University New York at Stony Brook have each received $1-million in planning money to help develop undergraduate programs here.

Both colleges view Songdo as a local recruitment hub. SUNY at Stony Brook currently attracts 2,000 students from Asia.

The model for the Global University Campus is similar to Qatar's Education City, in which American universities will offer undergraduate programs inside a single campus, while administering them separately. Campus developers predict it will enroll 12,000 students by 2012.

More government money is expected as the project develops.

"We're going to have to entice faculty over there, and make packages attractive." says W. Brent Lindquist, a deputy provost at Stony Brook. "That will be expensive."

SUNY at Stony Brook will initially offer four undergraduate engineering programs, along with a business and a technology-management program. Students will be given an opportunity to study at the U.S. campus as well.

Mr. Lindquist says that although the Stony Brook campus at Songdo is scheduled for completion by next year, he anticipates a slow buildup to full-scale operations.

"We don't foresee hitting 1,500 students until 2016 or so," he says, "and we expect very few U.S. students, frankly."

Several more partners, including the University of Delaware, the University of Southern California, and George Mason University have signed agreements to start faculty and student exchanges, and, eventually, collaborative research projects.

Moscow State University, Glion Institute of Higher Education, in Switzerland; the University of Surrey, in England; and Monash University, in Australia, have also been linked by the Korean media to the project.

Korean University Participation

Government planners are hoping that this academic fledgling will be nurtured by a clutch of well-established local institutions, including Korea University, which is moving its entire operation to Songdo City, and Yonsei, which is opening a campus there.

The experience of similar ventures in Asia is mixed, however, points out Christopher Ziguras, who, as an associate professor of international studies at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, specializes in cross-border higher-education.

He cites Singapore and Japan. Japan's efforts to import branch campuses of American universities in the 1980s and 90s proved to be a spectacular failure.

Singapore has had greater success, but it too, has had some missteps.

The University of New South Wales, the only foreign institution to operate a full-fledged university in Singapore, closed in 2007, just five months after opening its doors.

"Where these colleges are setting up from scratch, it is a very difficult and risky thing," he says. "There is very little brand recognition. Some leave pretty quickly when the money dries up."

Songdo's American partners say that despite the potential difficulties, they are in for the long haul. "We have high hopes that we will make this work, because the Korean government is behind it," says Bailian Li, vice provost for international affairs at North Carolina State University. "It is part of the Korean government's long-term academic strategy; building this academic city."

The university plans to send dozens of its own students to Korea, until it can recruit enough undergraduates from South Korea, China, India, Taiwan, and Japan.

"It will be our Asian hub," says Mr. Li, who foresees enrolling 1,500 to 2,000 students.

But the Songdo project, which rests on a featherbed of recycled real-estate profits, government support, and debt, has not met everyone's approval.

"Nobody on the Yonsei campus wants to move to Incheon," says Horace Underwood, a professor emeritus at Yonsei, who says the move is part of a "sweetheart deal" between the university and the Incheon government. "Every department and organization is fighting against it."

The attempt to move the university's international program to Songdo will "destroy" it, he says by e-mail.

"When an international student (typically Korean-American) has to choose between Yonsei at Incheon and a Korea University program in Seoul," he says, "that student will go to the campus in the city."