In late August, Duke University received approval from the Chinese government to start a branch campus in Kunshan, China. The controversial venture has caused a number of critics to question Duke’s rationale, as well as the rationale of other prominent American universities that have tried similar operations, with limited success.

International branch campuses are degree-granting institutions located in one country but governed by a primary institution located in a different country. The surge of universities building IBCs in recent years has garnered many headlines (in the Chronicle of Higher Education and The New York Times, among others).

Most IBCs are better thought of as outposts of a university rather than universities unto themselves, with graduating classes of several dozen students or fewer. Located in places like the United Arab Emirates, Singapore, or China, they usually offer only graduate degrees in one or two in-demand fields such as business or engineering. Duke’s Kunshan campus, set to open in fall 2014, will offer two degrees in business management.

In a January 2012 report, the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education, a research group, identified approximately 200 existing international branch campuses, with an additional 37 set to open in the next two years. About half of the home universities are in the United States, and they vary in size and stature — among them are City University of Seattle, Texas A&M University, and Yale University.

A campus like Duke-Kushan is meant to prepare students to work in a “globalized” economy. Duke University’s Strategic Plan says:

“No longer can we prepare our students as if they are likely to pursue careers based in the United States, without much international contact or experience, and with little contact with colleagues from other nations and cultures.”

Duke seems to be reaching out internationally with a kind of affirmative action, to provide more diverse interaction among different nationalities.

Another apparent reason behind Duke’s starting an IBC is that everyone else is, too. The Duke-Kunshan Planning Guide implies peer pressure with terms such as “our peer institutions are already ahead of Duke” and this is “an opportunity to … catch up”:

“Many of our peer institutions are already ahead of Duke in establishing operations in China. We believe that our model, both by establishing a joint-venture with Kunshan and Wuhan University and more broadly by envisioning ourselves as a globally networked university, offers an opportunity to both catch up and become a leader as a 21st century global university.”

Duke also wants to enhance its international reputation. According to Duke’s Strategic Plan, Duke-Kunshan University’s impact on Duke’s reputation will enhance its research and teaching by attracting talent from overseas.

A less-talked about reason that universities start IBCs is financial gain. Some schools hope to make a profit. Others, while not expecting to earn a profit, plan to collect subsidies from host countries. According to Nora Bynum, director for Global Strategy at Duke, the city of Kunshan already has spent more than $100 million on construction costs.

But the risks remain. Many international campuses have been shut down for financial and other reasons. For example, in the 1980s, 20 American schools started IBCs in Japan, and only two of them — Temple University Japan and Lakeland College Japan — remain.

The recent boom has had its share of casualties, too. Troy University has shuttered its IBCs in Guam, Sri Lanka, and Germany; George Mason University closed a campus in the United Arab Emirates; and Carnegie Mellon University closed a campus in Greece. Michigan State University tried to start an undergraduate campus in Dubai, but shut it down and now is focusing only on graduate programs.

Many IBCs fail because they don’t attract enough students who are willing to pay. Michigan State’s undergraduate Dubai campus, for example, attracted only about half of the expected number of students.

Another difficulty is faculty resistance. Nearly all IBCs have faced objections from professors at the main campus. At Duke, one of the most vocal critics has been English professor Thomas Pfau, who criticized the school’s “Kunshan adventure” for taking resources away from Duke’s core academic functions, such as the English department.

Duke Cheston is a writer for the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.