Northwestern was the latest U.S. school to establish a branch in Education City, a sprawling experiment on the desert’s edge that seeks to import major Western academic brands to a wealthy Arab nation that wants to boost its own system of higher education. The other participants are Cornell, Georgetown, Texas A&M, Carnegie Mellon and Virginia Commonwealth universities.
In all, the six schools enroll about 2,000 students in Doha. They come from the Middle East, South Asia and other regions. The students receive official degrees from the universities. Expenses are paid through tuition and direct funding from the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development. The foundation was established by the royal family of Qatar, a tiny nation on the Arabian Peninsula that has amassed great wealth from exports of natural gas and oil. The foundation has spent billions of dollars over the past 15 years on the project, and its estimated annual outlay exceeds $300 million.
The universities involved say the experiment has been worth it.
“The success of the graduates of NU-Q is a testament to the terrific work being done by our faculty and staff in Qatar,” Northwestern Provost Daniel Linzer said in a statement. “NU-Q has met and exceeded expectations as it has produced new talent for communication and media industries in Qatar and the region. We’re very pleased to continue this important academic enterprise.”
The statement said that Northwestern’s Qatar branch will continue its instructional programs, research and service activities. It also will develop mid-career and executive education and is considering offering master’s degrees.
Northwestern researchers in Qatar have undertaken studies of media use and its impact in the Middle East, among other topics.
Everette Dennis, dean of the branch in Qatar, said in a statement, “Although our campus may be halfway across the world, we very much feel that we are part of the Northwestern community.”
Qatari authorities have pledged to give the universities in Education City complete academic freedom. But some skeptics wonder about the trade-offs for universities operating in an Arab emirate that does not have the same traditions of freedom of expression and inquiry as schools in the United States.
“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,” Stephen F. Eisenman, an art history professor at Northwestern’s main campus in Evanston, wrote last year. Eisenman is a former president of the school’s Faculty Senate. He said Tuesday he has heard from present and former NU-Q faculty who have expressed “dissatisfaction with the academic and free speech protections” available at the branch campus.
There were few details about the agreement in the Northwestern statement this week. The universities and the foundation have generally kept the contracts confidential. An exception is Virginia Commonwealth, a public university, which provided a copy of its contract to The Washington Post because it is a public record. The Post also has requested a copy of Texas A&M’s agreement under Texas public records law.
U.S. government data show that Northwestern received $45,291,694 in contract revenue from the Qatar Foundation in 2014. There are 35 faculty members at the NU-Q branch, and it has awarded 137 degrees since 2008.
This item has been updated.