By David McNeill
The sea has been pushed back, the foundations laid, and cranes toil over the Songdo Global University Campus, a Promethean $1-billion attempt to do the impossible: bring thousands of students from around the world to what was once literally a Korean backwater.
But as its American partners survey the wreckage wrought by a two-year economic storm, several are drastically scaling back their commitments, putting a question mark over the entire project before a single student signs up for classes.
Warwick Arden, provost of North Carolina State University, one of five American colleges that have signed contracts to deliver education programs at the new campus, has announced an "indefinite hold" on North Carolina State's participation in the Songdo project. "At a time when there have been major changes in the world economy, we are not willing to put campus funds into this project," Mr. Arden said. "It has to be self-sustaining."
Enrollment is scheduled to start next summer. By the fall of 2011, this government-supported university by the Yellow Sea, about an hour from South Korea's capital, Seoul, will begin teaching undergraduates, insists its president, Hee Yhon Song.
"We have no past reference, but I think we can reach 10,000 to 12,000 students by the end of the decade," said Mr. Song. About a third of those are expected to come from America, another third from across Asia. "Eventually we aim to have 30,000 students here."
Skeptics call that a pipe dream, despite what Seung Joo Lee, a local Incheon government spokesman, calls "rock solid" financial support from the state. For now, however, nobody knows if students will come or if the U.S. partners are in for the long haul, as even the ebullient Mr. Song admits. "The danger is that they will come, have their little adventure, then leave."
That danger appears to have grown amid the fallout from the global economic recession, which has forced many U.S. colleges to circle their financial wagons and revise plans for foreign expansion.
The State University of New York at Stony Brook, which initially planned to open engineering and business programs with 250 to 300 students next fall and enroll 1,500 students by 2016, now says it is "suspending" undergraduate programs in Songdo. It will offer a "limited number" of graduate programs in wireless and information technology.
The University of Delaware, meanwhile, one of the five contracted partners, has commissioned a private marketing survey on the project's viability. That is not to be interpreted as sign that it intends to pull out, says Rodriquez Havidán, the university's deputy provost.
"We plan to move forward, but we need to make sure it is economically feasible," he says. "No commitment has been made until the financial package is secure and we're sure this is a financially viable project."
Local and central government agencies are splitting the expenses involved in developing the campus, so that U.S. institutions do not need to pay any upfront costs.
Mr. Lee acknowledges that the contracts make few formal demands on the U.S. colleges apart from that they turn up to what is essentially an empty shell and teach degree programs in engineering, languages, and business. "We respect their reputation and don't ask for legal guarantees," he says.
Mr. Lee, who is executive director of the Knowledge and Industry Division of Incheon's Free Economic Zone Authority, says he is "absolutely confident" about the university's success.
"It will take time to build up the student numbers—four to five years—but we'll get there, now that we have signed up the American universities."
George Mason University and the University of Southern California are the other two confirmed U.S. partners. Anne Schiller, George Mason's associate provost for international projects, says her university has "not scaled back" at all from its commitment to Songdo, and is planning programs in economics, public and international affairs, and management. She calls the university a singularly exciting project and says George Mason considers it "an innovative and promising model for academic collaboration."
The University of Missouri, the Georgia Institute of Technology, and the University of Surrey, in Britain, are also linked to the campus. Mr. Song has recently been stateside trying to bring the University of Florida on board.
Each college has received about $1-million in seed money and rent-free classrooms and accommodations, along with the offer of up to $9-million in interest-free loans. A 700-unit student dormitory is scheduled to open later this year.
"We don't want the U.S. universities to risk one penny of their own money," says Mr. Song. "In return, we ask that they don't repatriate profits and instead invest the surplus back into the campus."
Success or failure, the global campus is a "wake-up call" to U.S. higher education, says Steven Lee, director of USC's first office in Seoul. Mr. Lee acknowledges that American colleges still lead the world, but warns that 30 years ago, the U.S. car industry was king, too.
USC's Marshall School of Business will begin sending professors and undergraduates to the new campus next year, with other schools, including the undergraduate college and the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, "under examination." The university will immediately begin recruiting locally, aiming at an enrollment target of 30 percent from the United States, 40 percent from South Korea, and the rest from Asia.
"In addition to degree programs, through which students will be able to complete course work in Songdo and Los Angeles, we are considering offering certificate programs for the nontraditional students," says Mr. Lee. "All students will be admitted to USC and will be able to take courses in the two locations." He calls Songdo "an extension of the main campus."
USC's ambitious targets, including a "substantial yield" of students from its U.S. campus, remain the exception, however. Stony Brook forecasts "very few" U.S. students. North Carolina intends to "start small," says Mr. Arden. "We will see if it is successful and can always grow further up the line."
George Mason has commissioned its own marketing survey to identify demand, ahead of a pilot program next fall.
Critics say the new institution will struggle against the perception that its degrees won't be worth the same as their U.S., or even Korean, equivalent. Some are skeptical of the entire Songdo project, an eye-popping attempt to construct a new city on reclaimed land, hinged around high-tech industries, "hub" research facilities, and colleges, some of which have already moved into the area.
"Let's just say there are a lot of structural impediments to getting this thing up and running," says John M. Frankl, associate dean for international affairs at Yonsei University, South Korea's top private university. Yonsei is one of several Korean colleges that have built new facilities at Songdo in return for cheap land and other incentives.
Insiders say Yonsei's management faced stiff faculty opposition to the move: Its newest division, Underwood International College, was persuaded to leave Seoul only after a lot of arm-twisting. The university hopes that the division will lure the much bigger engineering and business faculties.
"Everyone else is taking a wait-and-see approach because they fear this degree will be devalued," says a Yonsei professor, speaking on condition of anonymity. "A lot of faculty and students don't want to go down there." Like many Songdo observers, he questions the chances of success for an entirely new college so far outside of South Korea's capital.
USC's Mr. Lee swats away such concerns. "We don't perceive this to be a weaker or lesser operation than our U.S. institution. We will have strict quality controls for teaching, research, and admissions, and keep standards high."
One possible indicator of Songdo's problems in winning credibility and attracting non-Korean students can be seen at the city's flagship International School, which has yet to teach a single student. Its state-of-the-art facilities and 21 teachers have been idle for over a year as they wait for the ministry of education to relax its requirement that 70 percent of all students be from outside South Korea. "If the government left us to ourselves we could open tomorrow," says the school's principal, Andy Valadka.
The global campus is also haunted by the failure of U.S. branch campuses to take root in neighboring Japan in the 1980s and 1990s, which Mr. Lee attributes to too little government support. "The difference here is that the Korean government is behind this project. The Japanese ministry of education didn't recognize the status of American institutions. Students weren't even entitled to transport passes because their universities weren't accredited."
If Mr. Song is worried by those problems, he isn't letting it show. "I didn't have a single penny or a piece of land when I started, and look where we are now," he says, in a restaurant overlooking his sprawling new campus. "People always think small, but I like to think big."