These are legitimate concerns. The Chronicle of Higher Education (CHE), considered the authoritative newspaper covering American university life, reports that even many Arab scholars from traditional ancient centers of learning “dismiss the Gulf as an artificial Disneyland in the desert that is using high-profile education projects to gain international prestige rather than establish anything of intellectual merit.” (Interestingly, the same government-owned company that runs Dubai’s Healthcare City — Tatweer — is also building Dubailand, a massive entertainment complex.)
“They have nice hotels, fine,” Egyptian Professor Osama El-Ghazali Harb, former president of the Arab Association of Political Scientists, told the CHE, “but if you want serious education, serious research, serious intellectual discourse, that’s another story.”
While the financial enticements may appear attractive, recent history has shown that finding other resources vital to a “serious education” in the region can be an insurmountable challenge.
In 2005, George Mason University arrived in Ras al Khaimah, one of the UAE’s seven emirates, with a language program to help students gain college-level English proficiency. This, in turn, aimed to raise Ras al Khaimah applicants to the same admission standards of the Virginia-based university. But by 2007, branch campus enrollment was well below their intended target. The biggest problem in retaining qualified scholars, administrators admit, is that many, even after a year of the remedial language program, are not fluent in English. Thus, George Mason finds itself in a desert, stuck between a rock and a hard place — either lower standards to increase enrollment (but devalue the degree), or maintain standards and risk failure of the branch campus.
In April, Yale chose to forego such a risk. Despite the Abu Dhabi government’s willingness to foot the bill, Yale officials decided against establishing branches of its art, music, architecture, and drama schools in the emirate. University officials cited a lack of quality professors and the difficulties attracting “students of the same caliber,” according to an April 12 New York Times article. They couldn’t justify giving the same Yale degree to those in Abu Dhabi as they do in New Haven, in view of the disparate standards. According to the school newspaper, the Daily Pennsylvanian, Penn also announced in April that “the University is not ready to open a degree-offering program on a satellite campus.”
Nonetheless, booming Gulf economies have continued to demand an educated workforce. “We need to quadruple our degree production,” Warren Fox, head of Dubai’s Higher Education Agency, told the CHE. Fox, who led the California Postsecondary Education Commission before going to Dubai in 2007, now regulates and encourages the growth of private and international institutions in the emirate. His priorities speak volumes to the goal of today’s corporate university — not education, but degree production.
Not all Emirati scholars sat idly by as foreign branches — with foreign priorities — came to their country. Mohammed al-Roken, a former UAE law professor, boldly criticized the Dubai government for encouraging not only satellite campuses, but also American officials to shape curricula at native Emirati institutions. For his outspoken dissent, he was banned from writing a newspaper column and stripped of his teaching position. Free speech, there is not.