Globalization in the 21st century provides fresh opportunities for new institutions to establish themselves. Through globalization, academic professionals, technological advancements, and capital can move across borders on a grand scale with greater ease. Many emerging societies have capitalized on this rapid economic development to build world-class, comprehensive research universities. Incidentally, these research universities often involve competing goals, such as the demand for practical labor market training, the need to incorporate the German research-university model, the desire for a liberal arts education, and the call for cultivating global-minded citizenship. With these goals posing distinctive demands, higher education institutions are often laden with tensions and contradictions. This paper conceptualizes the developmental process of higher education institutions by juxtaposing four sets of inter-related contradictions: research versus teaching; looking outward versus inward; quantity versus quality; and egalitarianism versus hierarchy. Such contradictions are examined in the context of higher education institution’s developmental priority to achieve world-class status. Our analysis raises questions about the long-term sustainability of such a strategy. Although the issues identified in this paper are prevalent in the global south, i.e. universities at the periphery of knowledge production vis-a-vis those in North America and Europe, we believe they are common themes with repercussions for institutions elsewhere.