Are universities selling out to oil nations?

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

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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.

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Related: Alumnus interruptus, Come out, come out, wherever you are, Crimson tied, More more >
  Topics: News Features , Science and Technology, Education, Carnegie Mellon University,  More more >
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