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Best of Boston 2009

Are universities selling out to oil nations?

As big bucks beckon, Gulf campuses of American universities are booming
By HARVEY SILVERGLATE  |  September 25, 2008


Oil's well: American universities with Persian Gulf campuses. By Harvey Silverglate and Kyle Smeallie. 

Old school? No way.
Dozens of elite American universities are establishing satellite campuses in the United Arab Emirates, a region with bottomless petro-dollars but — in the modern era — limited (if not restrictive) academic history and culture. Some of these campuses have the look and feel of an upscale theme park. The UAE University is the oldest institution in the country, established in 1976. Walt Disney World, in Florida, is five years older.

I arrived on the Princeton campus as a bewildered, Brooklyn-born-and-bred public-school product, suddenly thrust into the Class of 1964. The first week, at dinner in the freshman commons, I glanced across the 12-man table (it was only men in those days) to see two austere, well-dressed, neatly bearded undergrads. Overhearing their conversation with another student, I learned that the two fellows bore the last name al-Faisal. “Any relation,” I naively asked, “to the dictator of Saudi Arabia?” Promptly, both stood up and exited. It turned out that they were indeed members of the royal family; one, Prince Saud al-Faisal, would later become the long-serving minister of state for foreign affairs of Saudi Arabia.

For better or worse, this type of encounter will become increasingly more rare in the United States. That’s because foreign potentates, especially those from oil-rich sheikdoms, no longer need to send their children to this country to hobnob with the heathens (and boors) in order to acquire world-class degrees. Enticed by seemingly bottomless petro-dollars, American universities are flocking to the Persian Gulf to establish satellite campuses. And these aren’t the traditional study-abroad programs — they are, rather, elegantly designed campuses with state-of-the-art facilities that bear such prestigious names as Harvard, MIT, Boston University, Carnegie Mellon, and New York University. Now, the well-born-and-bred children of well-heeled oil billionaires no longer have to wander far from the royal palace to do some learning — they can get an American degree right at home.

This development raises questions for universities involved in exporting education — indeed, whole campuses — to far-off very wealthy lands: how will a foreign branch affect the home campus? Will Western educational values clash with the very different cultures of these foreign states? Will certain subjects, such as humanities courses that challenge traditional views about academic freedom or gender roles, be taboo? Will earning a Georgetown degree in Qatar — not DC — require the same intellectual rigor and hard work? And, most fundamental, what is motivating American academic institutions to set up remote campuses in such seemingly unlikely places where a culture of learning as we know it has not exactly taken root? The answer tells us much about the trend toward the corporatization of American higher education.

Testing the bona fides
Campus culture since the mid 1980s has looked increasingly like that of the profit-making corporation, and this dash to the Gulf sheikdoms — where the cash currently is piled up — is but one example. (As notorious bank robber Willie Sutton is claimed to have said, when asked why he robbed banks, “That’s where the money is.”) No one seriously argues that higher education should not be competitive, nor that American academic institutions should not continue a long history of hosting programs in some of the world’s major centers of learning — many far older than anything found in the United States. But we have entered an era when “the business of higher education” is more business than education. And the trend is likely to pick up as the length and breadth of America’s economic difficulties become more apparent — and the Persian Gulf remains awash in oil wealth.

This July, New York University’s Office of Public Affairs announced that 17 students from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) had been chosen “as the inaugural class of the ‘Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed University Scholars Program,’ ” described as “a major initiative of the NYU Abu Dhabi Institute, which will be established in the fall of 2008 to jump-start academic and intellectual activities while the NYU Abu Dhabi campus is being developed.” Remarkably, the first course for these select scholars — on the subject of religion and government — will be taught this semester by none other than NYU president John Sexton, a lawyer who also holds a doctorate in comparative religion. Sexton will absent himself from his day-to-day duties in Manhattan to teach once every two weeks, entailing over a half-day of travel in each direction. Presumably, it will be worth it, since the press release dubs the new campus, aimed at “enhancing the intellectual and scholarly culture of Abu Dhabi,” as “the first comprehensive liberal arts campus to be operated abroad by a major American university.”

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Related: Alumnus interruptus, Books tour, Crimson tied, More more >
  Topics: News Features , Boston College, Boston University, Carnegie Mellon University,  More more >
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