Back in Abu Dhabi, MIT is helping to build the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology. It plans to be the “first institution dedicated to research-driven graduate programs in the region,” when it opens in the fall of 2009, according to an MIT press release.

Boston University, too, had hoped to launch its College of Communication in Qatar’s Education City, but lost a highly competitive race this past year to Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. It certainly wasn’t, however, the host nation’s academic culture that sparked such competition among premier US communication programs — Qatar formally lifted censorship just 13 years ago and continues to control most of its broadcast media. Nonetheless, the 39-student Class of 2012 at Northwestern University in Qatar began classes late this past month — nine time zones away from Evanston, Illinois.

Despite the setback, BU continued to push its international initiative. Just five months after losing the bid for a communications program, BU announced that Dubai Healthcare City would be welcoming its postdoctoral dental program the following summer. BU edged out an estimated 20 other schools’ applications to establish its dental program in Dubai’s 500-acre “free-trade zone,” joining the Harvard Medical program. And in July, the Boston University Institute of Dental Research and Education in Dubai welcomed its first class of 14 residents.

Yet the same enticements these local institutions saw in Dubai — namely, the economic-frontier mentality — has attracted a far less desirable crowd: counterfeit drug smugglers. In 2006, nearly one-third of all counterfeit pills confiscated in Europe came from the UAE, the New York Times reported. In a place where tariffs are nonexistent and regulatory oversight is at a minimum, both corporations and counterfeiters — and now universities — see dollar signs.

The symptoms of American universities behaving more like profit-making corporations than nonprofit institutions of higher learning have been evident since the mid 1980s, when campuses started to be run by administrators and lawyers more than by educators. The alliances between American universities and Persian Gulf sheikdoms, however, are relatively new. Certainly, these American schools have long had foreign-based programs in major learning centers around the world. But they’ve been adjunct programs, not entire campuses built and run in full collaboration with foreign governments. Furthermore, even these limited programs have generally been located in areas deemed part of the traditional world of learning — cities such as Paris, London, Moscow, Cairo, and Beirut. It makes perfect sense to locate an American educational program in such a place, given the critical mass of scholars, academic culture, and available research materials.

But a major liberal-arts university like NYU creating a new campus in the Gulf region — which has not only an authoritarian government but also the look and feel of a veritable Monopoly board plunked down in the middle of a desert, suddenly abloom with seven-star hotels and gaudy office spires — has raised eyebrows. To be sure, higher education is a relatively new endeavor for the Gulf; UAE University, the emirates’ oldest institution, is just 32 years old. Similar questions would be asked if a university were to open a campus at, say, a theme or amusement park. Indeed, the accommodations are comparable. The approximately 200 students at Virginia Commonwealth University Qatar, also part of Education City, enjoy both chauffeur and maid services. And their elite status is not forgotten; a sign on one university door reads: STUDENTS, PLEASE REMIND YOUR MAIDS THAT THEY ARE NOT ALLOWED BEYOND THE ENTRANCE.

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