This spring, as thousands of Portland State University students donned cap and gown on commencement day, 30 new grads were missing.
They were in Shanghai, China. In fact, they'd never set foot in Portland, much less PSU's downtown campus.
Sound strange? It is. Portland State's partnership with Shanghai's International Institute of Information Science and Technology marks a new twist on globalized education. Computer-science students watch videotaped lectures given by PSU professors, use PSU textbooks and earn PSU bachelor of science degrees without leaving China or meeting a Portland State prof face-to-face.
The program's impersonal nature leads some of the university's professors to doubt its rigor-and wonder if PSU, in its zeal to rake in tuition money from foreigners, is cheapening its degree.
"The notion that you have to have someone on the ground isn't universal," says computer-engineering professor Robert Daasch. "But in this case, you're talking about undergraduates, a pretty significant language and culture difference. You put check marks against all of those, and you come to the conclusion that you need people there." At least one other computer-science professor has declined to participate in the program.
Most U.S. universities' international programs primarily teach grad students on satellite campuses, complete with professors employed by the flagship school. Portland State established this program in 2002 after the University of Nebraska-Omaha severed its link to Shanghai in the face of harsh faculty criticism.
In Omaha, the program received university funding, but at PSU the program operates on its own money-about $250,000 a year paid in tuition by roughly 300 students. The Chinese students pay PSU's in-state tuition rate of $80 per credit-hour, a subsidized rate usually reserved for Oregon residents.
"There are people who have tried to do similar things which have basically crashed because they priced themselves out of the market," says Jim Morris, former chair of PSU's electrical and computer engineering school, who brought the program to Portland. Despite criticism, Morris thinks the program benefits PSU, in part because it funds internships in China for Portland-based students.
"The objective was for our students," he says. "That was always the primary objective."