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.”

It’s hard to blame Sexton. After all, he personally solicited a $50 million gift from the Abu Dhabi government, turning down other investors who couldn’t match the crown prince’s deep pockets. “It’s like earnest money: if you’re a $50 million donor, I’ll take you seriously,” Sexton unabashedly told the New York Times on February 10. “It’s a way to test their bona fides.” With such an investment of time, personnel, and credibility, NYU officials are obviously expecting great returns. The July press release terms the new campus “a key part of NYU’s extensive and expanding global network, which includes nine NYU academic facilities on five continents.”

But NYU is not alone. Technology powerhouse Carnegie Mellon University has set up a branch in Qatar, another of the Gulf emirates throwing in billions of petro-dollars to create what it has dubbed its “Education City.” Cornell has set up a branch of its medical school in Qatar. And 200 miles south of Qatar, the UAE’s educational future appears heavily dependent on Boston-based institutions. Harvard Medical School is preparing to launch a facility in Dubai for post-graduate medical education and fellowships in 2009. The school is located in Dubai’s “Healthcare City,” a government-backed initiative aimed at attracting world-class health-care and medical research by offering companies and universities tax-free benefits.

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