Liberal education venturing abroad?: American universities in the Middle East

Note: GlobalHigherEd will post brief entries by guest contributors from time to time. This one is by Amy W. Newhall (newhall@u.arizona.edu) of the University of Arizona.

In late September yet another American university announced an agreement to set up educational and research programs in the Gulf. The ambitious agreement between Michigan State University and the Dubai governmental entity TECOM Investments will “mesh MSU’s academic strengths with regional needs. MSU in Dubai is planning initially to offer not-for profit bachelor’s and master’s degree programs.” The new programs will be located in Dubai International Academic City, a free trade zone which is in keeping with TECOM’s stated goal to “Establish, own and promote various ventures in affiliated free trade zones, including educational institutions and research centers; investment; telecommunication and telecommunication equipment and accessories; film festival; media and broadcasting.”

Just which programs will mesh with what regional needs have not yet been revealed but agreements in other Gulf states such as the UAE, Bahrain, Qatar and Kuwait suggest they all will be in technical fields: medicine, foreign service, business administration, computer science, and engineering.

While American technical education is widely admired, its tradition of liberal education is less highly regarded according to a recent (June 2007) report titled Studying the American Way: An Assessment of American-Style Higher Education in Arab Countries by Shafeeq Ghabra and Margreet Arnold. Link here or here for a PDF copy of the study. Elements of liberal education curricula are often deemed to be at odds with local religious, political and cultural traditions. In some countries, teaching materials have been censored or bowdlerized and teaching methods seriously circumscribed. The summary firing of an instructor who discussed the Danish cartoon controversy and showed some of the cartoons in class at Abu Dhabi’s Zayed University in March 2006 illustrates the gulf between local and American understandings of protected speech, legitimate classroom activities and academic freedom. No procedural safeguards or processes were in place to protect the teacher’s rights nor were any processes by which she could contest the allegations and actions taken against her, according to statements on the matter. Zayed is not a branch US campus; so far it is only a candidate for accreditation in the US. It is not clear whether accrediting agencies take into account the existence or the absence of standard professional policies, regulations and grievance procedures in their accreditation assessments.

MSU’s deal mirrors that of more narrowly focused single program branch campuses run in Qatar by five different American universities, Carnegie-Mellon, Georgetown, Virginia Commonwealth, Weill Medical College of Cornell and Texas A&M. [See today’s GlobalHigherEd entry on Qatar] They are operated by their home campuses with the same admissions standards and curriculum. Each home campus has “full academic authority and quality control over courses and programs.” Virginia Commonwealth University runs the School of the Arts in Qatar, one of the oldest of the branch institutions and their students receive a VCU degree . VCU maintains complete control over hiring and retention. However, all instructors require a visa to work in Qatar and that granting power remains in the hands of the state. Visas can be revoked at any time.

New York University (NYU) has been exploring the possibility of developing a mini-university in Abu Dhabi complete with programs in humanities, social sciences and natural sciences. Administrators envision a full undergraduate program and eventually some graduate ones. The new Abu Dhabi school would serve students from all over the region in addition to NYU study abroad students. Faculty from New York would supplement permanent faculty based in country. The proposal has generated considerable and sometimes contentious discussion on the NYU campus. Serious questions have been raised concerning “academic freedom, equal access and opportunities for women and Jews and human rights issues.” NYU prides itself on having one of the largest (if not the largest) study abroad program in the world. Just how this latest proposal fits in with its own educational program and overall objectives is not clear, nor is it clear how the proposed fields of study will appeal to the different sets of students.

Amy Newhall

One thought on “Liberal education venturing abroad?: American universities in the Middle East

  1. Pingback: Foreign university campuses and linkage schemes: opportunities and challenges in early 2008 « GlobalHigherEd

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s