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Northwestern professor raises questions about its branch in Qatar

Students cross a sky bridge in the temporary campus of Northwestern University in Qatar on the Education City campus in Doha. The school is currently housed in a building built for Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar. (Photo by Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)
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Northwestern University is one of six prominent U.S. schools operating branches in Qatar in a complex called Education City. The university, based in Illinois, has 207 students and 35 faculty members in Doha. Since the branch opened in 2008, specializing in journalism and communication, Northwestern has awarded 137 bachelor’s degrees in the Persian Gulf emirate. The university’s faculty in Doha includes a former managing editor of the Chicago Sun-Times.

[In Qatar’s Education City, U.S. colleges are building an academic oasis]

Stephen F. Eisenman, an art history professor at Northwestern’s home campus in Evanston, has some questions about all of this.

Eisenman served two stints as president of Northwestern’s faculty senate, from 2008-2010 and 2013-2015. Like others at the university in Evanston, Ill., he was curious about Education City. He went to Doha in January to take a look, and subsequently wrote a six-page report on what he saw. In it, he made several proposals intended to strengthen the faculty role in Doha and improve the branch’s scholarship. He also asserted that “the faculty at NUQ enjoy limited academic freedom,” in large part because most of the professors and instructors are untenured.

And he wrote:

“The ethics of establishing a campus in an authoritarian country are murky, especially when it inhibits free expression, and counts among its allies several oppressive regimes or groups.”

See also: Can U.S. universities thrive in Qatar? These professors say yes

Here is Eisenman’s report:

The Washington Post recently asked Eisenman a few follow-up questions by email.

Here is a slightly edited version of the exchange:

Post: How worried are you about censorship and limits on freedom of expression and inquiry in Qatar, and at what point would those issues make the operation of your university there –- or any U.S. university — untenable?

Eisenman: I am very worried about these things at NU! But yes, the threat is even greater and more pervasive at NUQ. I believe they make the operation of the university untenable now. Teaching journalism as an enterprise in which you must first learn what not to ask, is no kind of journalism instruction at all. (Of course, many reporters in the U.S. already do this!) This lesson at NUQ is never heavy-handed — it is likely a matter of encouraging some enquiries and making others strange, awkward, rude or unserious. Based upon my discussion with the students and faculty, it was clear that they were not interested in asking what are to me the most interesting questions about Qatar and Doha:

  1. What is going on in all those tall, half-empty office buildings? Is it all work related to gas and oil extraction? Is it part of the effort to make Qatar an international center for finance in anticipation of the time when carbon-based fuels are not longer wanted?
  2. What is the moral and ethical basis of a country 98 percent of whose economy is engaged in producing a commodity that is rapidly killing the planet? What is Qatar’s responsibility to the future?
  3. Why can’t Qatar be a normal country that produces goods and services and has a diverse, multi-ethnic population?
  4. What precisely is Qatar’s role in funding Sunni extremists (including ISIS) waging war against Syria as well as Russia, France, the U.S. etc?
  5. What is the significance of that Wikileaked memo about State Department funding of NUQ? That would appear to me to be news worth investigating. (For further explanation of this, see note below.)
  6. What are the living and working conditions of the vast majority of residents in Qatar who are migrant or guest workers? Are they improving, getting worse, what?

A journalist who can’t ask these questions in Qatar can’t ask anything.

Should we pull out? Yes, if we can’t be assured that students and faculty can investigate and report what they want without fear of arrest or expulsion. The education of Qatar women — the daughters of millionaires — and other Middle Eastern elites (worthwhile as it may be), is not an essential mission of Northwestern University.

If we do receive assurances of increasing freedom of thought and movement in Qatar, then NUQ should make sure the program there has value for [Northwestern in Evanston] and [Northwestern in Chicago] by creating a strong, innovative and well-funded program in Middle Eastern and North African Studies. Part of that program development has to include fully shared (between Evanston and Doha) faculty searches and the possibility of tenure at the Evanston campus. No faculty member at NUQ has academic freedom unless they have job security.

Post: At this point, do you view this as a defensible and legitimate enterprise for Northwestern? Could you explain why? (Bearing in mind that you do believe it could be improved in a number of ways, which are enumerated in your report.)

Eisenman: Really, no — in its current form, the program is not legitimate or defensible. If the Qatari government tendered greater assurances concerning expressive and journalistic freedom, then it would be if NU actually used the campus to establish a vital middle eastern and north African studies program that benefited students from the Middle East and from [Northwestern in Evanston and Chicago].

NOTE: Eisenman is referring to a portion of a September 2008 U.S. government cable from Doha published by The portion discusses the Doha-based Arabic television outlet Al Jazeera. It says: “In the longer run, Northwestern University School of Journalism campus in Qatar can act as resource and help professionalize Al Jazeera’s staff. We will devote time and resources to help Northwestern establish a strong and lasting working relationship with al-Jazeera.”

Northwestern University spokesman Alan K. Cubbage, asked about the Wikileaks cable, told The Post: “I can say that the university has not received any money from the State Department or instructions from the State Department in regard to Al-Jazeera.”

The Post also asked Cubbage whether Northwestern intends to renew its contract to operate in Qatar. “NU-Q has been very successful,” Cubbage said. “We look forward to concluding the negotiations with the Qatar Foundation soon so that our work there can continue.”

Read more:

Sheikha Moza: The woman behind Education City

Education City by the numbers: Enrollment, diplomas, faculty, finances

The Education City contracts: A case study from VCU in Qatar