"That is something that we will not tolerate," Gatlin said last week. "We do not collect one cent in advance of a class being taught, and that's what we expect of them as well." Gatlin said his university's contract with STI was not commission-based because "we don't pay headhunter fees in the U.S., and we're not going to pay them internationally."
UMUC officials said they are evaluating all aspects of the Taiwan branch, "including the upfront payment of tuition," according to a spokesman.
A total of 69 UMUC doctoral students are now enrolled in Taiwan. An additional 189 U.S. students are studying for the Doctor of Management degree, which is marketed as a practical alternative to the traditional Ph.D. but confers the same honorific of "doctor."
Since the program's launch in 2000, about 30 students have earned a "D.M." from UMUC -- the only campus in the state to offer the degree. University officials hope that number will go up now that the program's requirements have been changed this year; a rigorous comprehensive examination has been essentially eliminated and the dissertation project has been split into three shorter papers.
Aldridge characterized the Taipei operation as a "pilot" but said UMUC believes it is part of its mission to expand across the world. She said she was "perplexed" at criticism of her arrangement with Sim's company.
"There are models like this is in Sri Lanka, in Hong Kong, in the United Arab Emirates, in Ecuador," Aldridge said. Sim "has the largest company in Taipei that is representing foreign universities and he is the most well known," she said.
While the establishment of branch campuses, especially in Asia and the Middle East, is a fast-growing trend among major U.S. colleges, most set up joint ventures with government education agencies or recognized foreign universities.
For example, the University of Maryland, College Park launched in 2002 an "executive" MBA program in China, in partnership with that country's University of International Business and Economics.
Critics of the branch-campus trend say that American colleges may become seduced by the prospect of full-paying students in new-money markets such as Asia and the Persian Gulf, and will ultimately lower academic standards or subvert their institutional mission in pursuit of revenue.
"The motive is income generation," said Cary Nelson, a University of Illinois English professor and president of the American Association of University Professors. "I haven't seen any other motive for establishing an overseas campus."
But Kirwan said there are compelling academic and cultural imperatives to exporting U.S. degrees, especially for UMUC, which is best known for educating tens of thousands of students every year at and around U.S. military bases across Europe and Asia.
"The university is mandated, chartered and in some sense expected by the state to be involved in international education and to foster education overseas," Kirwan said. "In this global economy, we're going to have a lot of U.S. companies operating in Taiwan and around the world, so having students over there who have been educated to U.S. standards and by U.S. universities is probably going to be an advantage to our global business operations."
Whether the motives are academic or economic, the expanding world of cross-border education is "not very heavily regulated at this point," said Peggy Blumenthal, executive vice president of the Institute of International Education, the organization that administers Fulbright scholarships.
Neither the university system's Board of Regents nor the Maryland Higher Education Commission was informed about the Taipei venture. UMUC is not required to gain approval before offering its programs overseas, officials said.
Moreover, UMUC's contract with STI did not require state approval, according to a university system spokesman. Contracts dealing with "procurement by a University for overseas programs" are specifically exempted from open-bidding rules or Board of Public Works approval, said spokesman John Buettner.