Another One Bites the Dust

Suffolk University in Boston recently closed its campus in Dakar, Senegal. The campus operated as a 2+2 arrangement with students pursuing their first two years of study in Senegal and completing their coursework at the Boston campus. It was designed to provide an American education in Africa and serve as a feeder into the Boston campus.
This obviously impacts students in Senegal who wanted to study at the campus. But does the closing matter to the home campus in Boston?

As we have often seen, finances must be considered. In reporting the closure, Suffolk’s president indicated that there was a lack of interest among Senegalese students and that the location was proving to be a drain on limited resources.  They found that many students preferred to pursue all four years of their undergraduate experience in the U.S., and those that did complete the two-year program at the Dakar campus found the cost of attending Suffolk’s Boston campus daunting.   As one university official reportedly stated, “We have been having a very difficult time with students being able to afford coming to study at Suffolk in Boston after finishing their two-year programs in Dakar. Many were finishing their two-year programs and then going to other universities in the United States where tuition costs were in the $10,000 – $15,000 per year range.” Basically, the business plan didn’t work as expected and money was lost. There is not much of a surprise in that.  Universities are still working to figure which financial models are best for branching out. Few campuses are willing to spend much of their own money to subsidize an off-campus operation.

But what about the reputational impact?

“Reputation” has been used by proponents and critics alike to argue simultaneously for and against the creation of overseas campuses. There is little doubt that the announcement of such endeavors can capture a great deal of attention. Who hasn’t read about New York University’s campus in Abu Dhabi? Last spring, The New York Times acknowledged the rising prevalence of these campuses when it ran a “Guide to (overseas) branch campuses.” The novelty of the concept seems to have captured the interest of both academics and the public.

But once the fanfare subsides, does the reputational effect continue to grow with the success of the branch? Because not many branches have enough history to tell, the answer to that remains unknown. But what happens when a foreign campus is shuttered? We’ve been tracking news stories related to overseas campuses for the last two years, and have identified numerous instances of branch campuses closing.

Recently we’ve seen George Mason and Michigan State close or significantly curtail, respectively, their presences in the Persian Gulf. Though there was much made of these two closures at the time, there seems to have been very little direct reputational effect back home.  Some readers may remember George Mason’s presence in the United Arab Emirates, but it is doubtful that they remember the circumstances of its closing. Even more doubtful is that knowledge of that affair has affected the reputation of George Mason’s campus in Washington. In the 1980s, more than 20 American institutions established a foreign presence in Japan. All but Temple closed their doors within a few years. Does anyone even remember which institutions failed in their Japanese endeavors?

This is not to say that there is no reputational risk associated with such endeavors.  The delivery of poor quality programs or some type of scandal could prove to have negative affects both abroad and at home. It is possible that closing an overseas branch could affect the interests of students from the region that the branch was serving to enroll in an overseas campus in the future. Or local word of mouth could taint the institutions reputation among other prospective students in the area. But, the act of actually closing campus seems to have very little effect on the reputation of the home campus. Even the closing of Suffolk’s Senegal campus, while attracting some very limited news-media interest both home and abroad, seems unlikely to have negative effects on the reputation of the home institution.

In fact, in announcing the closure last spring, Suffolk’s president reportedly stated that although the Dakar campus is closing, “Suffolk University has become better known in West Africa and the reputation we have built there will help us with our continued efforts to recruit talented students to our Boston campus.”

What may have begun with great fanfare, seems to slip away quietly. Why?

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