The campus of New York University Shanghai. (Courtesy of NYU)

New York University has built one of the most significant American outposts of higher education in the world’s most populous country.

NYU Shanghai, based in the crucial Chinese port and financial hub, expects to award its first four-year undergraduate degrees next May. The inaugural class of 300 entered in fall 2013, half drawn from China, half from the rest of the world. All are candidates for a full diploma from a private university that aims to create a new global model for higher ed.

The Shanghai campus is NYU’s third to grant degrees, after the Abu Dhabi campus in the United Arab Emirates (launched in 2010) and the university’s flagship in New York (founded in 1831).

Jeffrey Lehman, vice chancellor of NYU Shanghai (courtesy NYU) Jeffrey Lehman, vice chancellor of NYU Shanghai (courtesy NYU)

Jeffrey Lehman, vice chancellor of NYU Shanghai and a former president of Cornell University, told The Washington Post in an interview that he is “thrilled beyond words” with how the project has unfolded. He is well aware of the skeptics who wonder how academic freedoms taken for granted in the West can be upheld in a country where the ruling Communist Party maintains tight restrictions on the flow of information and political activity.

Lehman said Internet service on the Shanghai campus is part of the NYU system, linked through a virtual private network, and is not curtailed in any way.

“You can Google at will,” he said. “Facebook, Twitter, YouTube — all of it,” he said, noting that NYU was guaranteed academic freedom when it launched the initiative with East China Normal University and Chinese government support. “That was promised. That promise has been kept.”

He acknowledged that operating a campus in China is “complicated.” Foreigners must keep a healthy respect for Chinese customs and laws. “We are inside China,” he said. “So our students are not given some kind of cloak of invisibility or invulnerability.”

Lehman’s tenure at the helm of Cornell, from 2003 to 2005, gave him experience in the complexities of launching a degree-granting campus in a foreign country. In 2002, Cornell opened the Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar, part of a multi-university complex in the Persian Gulf nation called Education City.

Other universities from the United States and elsewhere have ventures in China. For 30 years, Johns Hopkins and Nanjing universities have collaborated on a graduate center for international studies. Duke and Wuhan universities recently teamed on a university called Duke Kunshan.

NYU — with a big push from its previous president, John Sexton — has aggressively expanded its global footprint during the past decade. With more than 49,000 students total, the university has academic centers and research programs in more than 25 countries.

NYU Shanghai is the “first Sino-American joint university” authorized under Chinese law, Lehman said. It is viewed as a significant experiment in a country that has relatively little familiarity with the concept of liberal arts education as practiced in the United States. “We have legions of visitors from other Chinese universities who come to see how we do things,” Lehman said.

The school, which had about 900 undergraduates as of last fall, aims to foster a multicultural educational environment. Classes are taught in English, except that non-Chinese students are also to become proficient in Chinese. Chinese students are paired with non-Chinese roommates. Students are required to spend at least one semester (and often they spend two) at another NYU campus. Lehman said the school goes to great lengths to ensure that students from various nationalities mix with each other. Too often, he said, students who study abroad fail to fully immerse themselves in a foreign country. That is often true of Chinese students who go to college in the United States.

With a student to faculty ratio of about to 8 to 1, the school offers 16 majors in subjects such as biology, electrical engineering, humanities and physics. Lehman described admissions as “extremely selective.”

Tuition and fees are essentially the same in Shanghai as in New York — about $49,000 a year. That doesn’t count food, housing, travel and other expenses that push the estimated cost of attendance in Shanghai to nearly $65,000 a year. But Lehman said many students receive significant financial aid.

Plans call for the school to grow to 500 students per class and expand its graduate programs. Lehman said the school’s pitch to Chinese parents is this: If you want your children to have a fully international education experience, “Don’t send them to America. Send them to NYU Shanghai.”

The pitch to Americans and other non-Chinese families is to bear in mind the rising clout of China in the 21st century. For those who want to understand that phenomenon, he said, “This is the place to go.”