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University of Utah trustees signed off on a plan this week to open its first international branch campus in a project subsidized by the South Korean government.

"We see it as an opportunity for us to enhance our global footprint," said Michael Hardman, interim senior vice-president for academic affairs.

Planned as a campus for several Western universities located in a multibillion-dollar privately developed city, Songdo Global University has faltered somewhat in recent years as American universities dropped out of the project.

The University of Delaware ended its involvement after a survey found Korean students couldn't or wouldn't pay the tuition the school would need to offer classes there. "We just couldn't make it work," said spokeswoman Andrea Boyle Tippett.

North Carolina State also pulled out three years ago, and the University of Southern California halted its plans last year. Both schools cited tight budgets.

But four Western schools remain committed to the $350 million campus, and one, the State University of New York, opened its doors to 34 students last year. Along with the U., George Mason University in Virginia and Ghent University in Belgium plan to begin classes in March 2014.

The South Korean government will provide the U. at least $1.5 million a year to fund the first four years of operations, as well as an interest-free $10 million loan with no obligation to pay it back unless the campus is profitable. The U. will use the state-of-the-art Korean-built campus rent-free for at least five years.

"This is an opportunity that is about as risk-free as you can have," said Robert Muir, director of international operations and financial analytics. "We feel comfortable that we will be able to do this with no investment from the state."

The U. will do its own recruiting, and its studies show Korean families can afford the school's $20,000-a-year price tag, which is similar to what out-of-state and international students pay now. It's aiming to start with about 100 undergraduate and 25 graduate students studying social work, psychology, communications, writing and English language. Degrees in bioengineering and math teaching are planned for 2016.

Twenty percent of the students would be from Utah studying abroad in Songdo, which has easy access to the rest of Asia.

Ten percent of tuition money the U. makes at Songdo is planned for scholarships for Utah students, an amount the South Korean government has pledged to match.

The Korean subsidy would pay for set-up and travel expenses, though once the project is up and running, that money would come from Korean tuition. The U. will set curriculum, hire or bring over professors and handle admissions, and officials plan to make the campus profitable and self-sustaining.

"We start to look very carefully at making net gains at years four and five. If that's not happening ... we have an exit strategy," Hardman said.

The profits from the campus wouldn't come back to the main U. campus, though, except for increases in admissions and other staff added in Utah to service Songdo.

A team of lawyers, meanwhile, is exploring labor laws, intellectual property regulations and other legal ramifications for the university.

"Right now, what we want is for intellectual property law from Utah to apply to the campus," Hardman said. "We won't open the campus until that's resolved."

Some American universities have closed international campuses in other countries due to low enrollment and other troubles, but Hardman said this project is different because the U. isn't required to make an investment.

"[Koreans] have a sense of being somewhat of a stepchild in Asia," Hardman said. "They want to see themselves as being a major player globally. That's why they're making this investment."

The university is hoping to attract students from all over Asia to the campus, much of which is already built, including a guest house, library, performing arts center, a recreation room and a student life building.

"I think we could not ask for a better situation if we wanted to establish a global campus," said U. trustee Phil Clinger at a board meeting Tuesday. "In any venture, you can't guarantee success, but I think we've done about as much as we can to ensure success financially and academically."

Tuesday's vote allows the U. to make its final applications to the Korean government and opens up another $250,000 in funding. Recruiting is expected to begin in the fall.

The campus is approximately a 30-minute drive from the demilitarized zone that separates South Korea from the dictatorship to the north, but Hardman said U. officials are satisfied with security. "We would never even consider doing it if we weren't totally comfortable with the safety issue," he said.

Built on land reclaimed from the Yellow Sea, the city of Songdo boasts "the wide boulevards of Paris, a 100-acre Central Park reminiscent of New York City, a system of pocket parks similar to those in Savannah," according to its website. It is built in a free enterprise zone near Incheon International Airport and designed to be "the Asian Silicon Valley," as Hardman said, but progress has been slower than developers hoped.

"It's a developing city," Muir said, pointing to companies such as Samsung and Cisco, as well as the UN's Green Climate Fund, which have located or invested there. "Let's face it, they built this city from the ashes."

Twitter: @lwhitehurst