WHEN 200 Japanese students arrive here later this month to begin college careers, it will mark the culmination of a merger between two unlikely partners, Japan's Teikyo University and tiny Salem College. It will also represent another step in a small but growing movement by Japanese universities to establish operations in the United States. In 1989 alone, Tokyo-based Teikyo negotiated less extensive agreements with two other private colleges in addition to its merger with Salem College. One is Westmar College of Iowa, which has been reorganized as Teikyo Westmar University. The other is Denver's Regis College.
Last year, Tokyo International University purchased land from Willamette University in Salem, Ore., to build its US campus. Elsewhere in Oregon, Japan's Waseda University is reportedly planning to establish a campus in Portland. And, in perhaps the most ambitious project of all, a Japanese corporation has announced it will build an entirely new university in suburban Washington, D.C.
According to Ronald Ohl, who headed Salem College and is president of the renamed Salem Teikyo University, the joint ventures could soon grow in popularity. Since the merger was made public last year, Dr. Ohl reports being ``overwhelmed'' with requests for information, mostly from small, private colleges.
This spate of activity has concerned some Japan watchers like former Commerce Department official Clyde Prestowitz. Mr. Prestowitz, who has warned of purchases of US institutions and companies by Japanese business, acknowledges the value of educational exchange programs. But, says Prestowitz referring specifically to the Salem merger, ``You don't have to buy a college to send students abroad.''
But several factors are driving the fledgling Japanese educational presence in the US. First, for more than a decade, Japan has pushed to internationalize its higher education programs. Developing connections with US colleges and institutions has been a primary goal. Second, the US offers the one thing - space to grow - unavailable to most private universities in Japan, especially those located in land-scarce Tokyo.
The benefits such arrangements bring to US colleges like Salem are fairly straightforward. The West Virginia school, which had no endowment, has hovered near bankruptcy in recent decades. The $20 million investment by Teikyo will enable Salem to pay debts and establish a $7.5 million endowment.
To rebut critics, proponents point out that more than a dozen US universities have had campuses in Japan for years. Only a handful of Japanese schools have set up US operations. Japanese educators and their US partners express unqualified optimism for the joint ventures. Teikyo University president Shoichi Okinaga, the cultural interaction will have ``positive effects in all areas of international cooperation.''
Officials with mainstream higher educational groups, like Richard Rosser, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, have praised the concept. ``It's a novel approach to international education,'' Dr. Rosser says.
Instead of focusing on the financial relationship, Dr. Ohl, of Salem Teikyo University, like Mr. Okinaga, prefers to focus on cultural exchange. Unlike a standard study-abroad program, where students might spend a semester in a foreign country, the goal of Salem Teikyo is to become ``a four-year, totally integrated baccalaureate program,'' Ohl says. He anticipates that by 1995 the student body will have grown (from 400 at present) to 1,000 equally divided between Japanese and American students.
So far the town of Salem (population: 2,200) seems to be taking the transition more comfortably than some students are. Many say they have been lost in the shuffle as the school revamps its curriculum and raises academic standards. Ohl says he anticipates problems during this ``incredibly rapid change,'' but expects future classes to adapt more easily.