Six U.S. universities operate branches in Doha under contracts with the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development.
The foundation, created by Qatar’s ruling family, prefers to keep confidential its agreements with Cornell, Carnegie Mellon, Georgetown, Northwestern, Texas A&M and Virginia Commonwealth universities.
But the Washington Post obtained one. VCU, a public institution, provided a copy of its contract to The Post because it is a public record.
Here it is:
The agreement, signed by VCU President Michael Rao and the foundation’s then-President, Mohamad Fathy Saoud, spells out terms of operation for a branch that has been in the Qatar capital since 1998.
This contract took effect in July 2012 and expires in June 2022, with provisions for renewal. It makes plain that VCU has control over admissions and that the branch will maintain the same standards of academic freedom and quality observed at the main campus in Richmond.
The curriculum is focused on arts and design, and the degrees awarded are to be “identical in all material respects to the degrees and diplomas awarded to graduates of VCU at its main campus in Virginia.”
The foundation agrees to cover capital costs and operating expenses, at funding levels “sufficient to assure that VCUQ maintains the quality standards required.”
But the foundation also has certain prerogatives under the agreement:
- VCU is not entitled to open up a degree-granting arts or design arts program anywhere else in the Middle East.
- VCUQ administrators report to Richmond. But the foundation is entitled to be consulted on certain key administrative appointments, and its objections “if any, shall be given due consideration and shall not be rejected unless VCU decides that the choice is crucial to the proper performance of the program.”
- The foundation is entitled to annual review and approval of VCUQ’s operating budget.
- VCUQ research will be “based on Qatar and Qatar Foundation priorities, without violating the academic freedom policy of VCU, consistent with VCU’s strategic research agenda, and based on competitive approach and peer reviews for funding.”
- The foundation is entitled to a share of revenue from intellectual property developed at the branch, subject to certain terms and conditions. The inventor would get 33 percent of the revenue in these cases, VCU 17 percent, and the foundation the rest.
Rao, in an interview, said the branch has benefited VCU enormously, helping to establish a global brand for the state university. He said he personally visits Doha to bestow diplomas at commencement. Most of the graduates are women. In deference to customs in the predominantly Muslim country, he said, a presidential handshake is optional onstage. “If they offer their hand, I shake it,” he said. “But if they don’t offer their hand, I don’t.”
Rao said the branch doesn’t cost Virginia taxpayers any money. VCU, in fact, receives a management fee beyond operating expenses. The fee was set at $3.4 million in fiscal 2012-2013, with projected annual increases tied to a higher education price index.
The VCU president said the involvement of six U.S. universities in Qatar will have a huge impact on the region. “It is bearing leaders who are going to make a significant difference,” he said. “We want them to use their ideas to innovate.”
From time to time, Rao said, questions come up about how VCU can ensure its academic freedom in Doha.
“I’m not going to tell you we haven’t had concerns and we don’t have concerns,” he said. But he said those are worked out through discussions with the foundation. “We’ve found very good ways of communicating with each other,” he said.
Asked to provide an example, a VCU spokesman, Michael Porter, emailed this anecdote:
“In 2011, a recent [master of fine arts] graduate was working at VCUQ as an intern and displayed her abstract painting in a public place on campus. Some Qatar students found the artwork to be disrespectful to their culture and demanded it be removed. The issue was not so much the piece itself but where it was placed.
“It led to a larger discussion of academic and artistic freedom and boundaries, including issues such as artistic self-expression, what role an institution plays in determining boundaries and the impact on freedoms if we mediate. The artist chose to remove the painting on her own, but we brought in cultural experts to lead discussions about freedom and boundaries and we’ve taught classes around the issue. There are continuing conversations about those topics today.”
Texas A&M also is a public school. But to date, The Post has not been able to obtain a copy of its contract with the Qatar Foundation. A Post request for that agreement under Texas public records law is pending.
The four private universities declined to provide copies of their contracts.