The stumbling blocks of a university in Qatar revive questions about foreign universities

Just before Thanksgiving, Texas A&M University professors at Qatar received an email that was unexpected and troubling. The letter, from the campus dean, provided for a comprehensive reorganization of the liberal arts and sciences programs, merging them into a single unit focused on teaching the core curriculum. Professors’ contracts in these areas will be replaced by nine-month instruction — and service-focused appointments. Only engineering professors, as well as a handful in science, do research.

Changes will start on January 1.

The proposal was met with dismay and confusion in Qatar and on the campus of Texas A&M University, in College Station. The speed and apparent end of the plan’s implementation and the cancellation of contracts appear to conflict with shared governance. Although the campus was established nearly 20 years ago to offer engineering degrees, it has long had a strong and distinguished foundation in a liberal arts education, and critics fear that the quality of the degree — that of Texas A&M — will be eroded.

Adding to Uncertainty: Questions About Momentum for Changes. The proposal noted the need to “maximize the value and impact of Qatar Foundation’s investment in engineering” – verifying the name of the Qatar Foundation, the campus’ archaeological benefactor. Was this a case of a campus branch sponsor going definitively?

I started pulling out every fire alarm I could.

At the same time, rumors spread about a possible restructuring of the main campus, under the new president, M. Catherine Banks. Could Qatar be an experiment?

“I’ve started pulling every fire alarm I can do,” said Joseph Daniel Ora, a professor of political science on the main campus on a temporary assignment in Qatar.

The alarm has been withdrawn. At the December 12 Senate meeting, Timothy B. In a letter to record Last week, Scott said appointments to the commission are still final and its mission and timeline is formal.

However, the episode serves as a reminder of the complex relationship between American universities, their overseas hotspots, and the foreign countries that almost always host and sponsor them. Even on an international campus that has been largely mobile for the better part of two decades, questions about quality, governance and identity inevitably arise.

Ultimately, no matter what the institution promises or aims for, a university branch is not the university. Here are some other lessons:

Tensions between the ambitions of the host countries and Western universities are inevitable and ingrained when it comes to branch campuses. César Malavé, Qatar’s campus dean and chief administrator, and representatives of the Qatar Foundation said the nonprofit group focused on education and research, started by the former ruler of the Persian Gulf state, did not dictate the proposed changes. Francisco J. Marmolejo said Texas A&M and the six other foreign universities that make up Education City, the center of higher education in Qatar, “have complete freedom to determine the way they organize and the way they deliver their academic programs.” Head of the higher education arm of Qatar Foundation.

“I think it’s important to make clear that this is a proposal from the university,” he added of the Texas A&M plan.

The institution may not have dictated the changes, but it pushed them. Malave said that the restructuring, and the narrow window for achieving it, has precipitated a new 10-year contract between the partners, which defines a number of performance indicators linked to engineering research and local economic impact. While Malavé said the institution had “absolutely no interference” with the curriculum, it did set goals effectively and motivated Texas A&M to reach them.

Tracy Hammond, another professor at Texas A&M University and director of the Institute for Engineering Education and Innovation, said during a December faculty meeting that the Qatar Foundation “won’t budge” on its priorities. said Hammond, who refused to speak to record.

During the same meeting, Malafi said the Qatar campus received a “fail” in the local impact of his research, although in a later interview he retracted that statement as “perhaps too strong”. However, he believed the changes would make it easier for the campus to meet the new performance metrics. He said the shape of the proposal was also determined by his background in engineering education and his belief in integrating the humanities, sciences and engineering.

Chris Olds, a professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison who studies the globalization of higher education, notes that in almost all cases, branch campuses are funded by host countries, shifting the balance in determining the direction and agenda of the institution. Because they depend on their foreign sponsors, Olds said, Western universities do not have complete autonomy from their overseas campuses. Texas A&M and its campus in Qatar are “entirely dependent on the generosity of a foreign country.”

If these goals change or evolve, it may lead to a change or even termination of the partnership. Singapore, for example, has struck a deal with Yale University to start a small liberal arts college with a global focus. However, in August, the National University of Singapore, the Singaporean partner of Yale-NUS College, announced that it would terminate the institution over the next four years. Rather than run a stand-alone elite college, the NUS president said he wants to expose all university students to a liberal arts education.

But Jana M. Klebert, a researcher at Germany’s Leibniz Institute for Society and Space Research who studies international university branches, said Qatar has always looked to its foreign university partners “to cater to specific fields,” including Texas A&M University in engineering, Carnegie Mellon in science Computer, and Northwestern in Press.

However, Klebert said that partners’ goals at overseas universities can vary, even when they believe they are compatible — for example, Western universities may see “knowledge generation” as producing high-level research, while foreign governments may measure it in terms of capital development. human being and its extension to the local economy. “They might think they’re on the same page when they’re not,” she said.

Maintaining a university’s DNA in an external branch campus is challenging. The Texas A&M campus in Qatar awards Texas A&M degrees (“we don’t write ‘in Qatar’ on our diploma,” as one professor pointed out at a Senate meeting) and has sought to preserve the traditions of universities in the Middle East, such as distributing rings AGI for graduates. While the curriculum does not have to be identical, it should be equivalent.

For critics like Ora, a professor of political science, the under-emphasis on liberal arts in the restructuring plan is at odds with Texas A&M’s campus in Qatar. The university’s engineering degree is distinguished by its roots in the humanities, sciences, and social sciences. In fact, the core curriculum is partly mandated by Texas law.

Ora said that many students — six out of ten women — are drawn to Texas A&M because they want to become experienced engineers. The proposal, he said, “cuts at what our students want. It goes against our identity.”

However, as Klebert noted, Qatar Foundation was deliberately importing select programs from its partners, rather than seeking to replicate entire universities on its home soil. In fact, she suggested it was particularly American to offer a full liberal arts curriculum at overseas universities—by contrast, she pointed to a German campus in Amman that offers a narrow engineering education.

For the Qatar Foundation, Klippart asks, does it make sense to have political science classes at Texas A&M when Georgetown runs the Foreign Service Program in Education City? “It goes against the liberal arts paradigm in the American context, but it makes sense from the country side.”

She said that many international branches are also very focused on teaching, without significant research profiles.

Under Marmolejo’s leadership, the Qatar Foundation has pushed the idea of ​​a “multi-university”, seeking to encourage its foreign university partners to “collaborate to compete” through co-teaching, joint academic programs, mutual enrollment and, perhaps in the future, joint appointments. The goal is “to combine our capabilities in order to make sure that one plus one is not two, but more than two,” Marmolego said.

Professors were also upset by one aspect of the proposal that would remove oversight and promotion for Qatar’s faculty positions in the liberal sciences and arts, said Dale Rice, assistant professor of educational journalism and Senate speaker at Texas A&M College. Corresponding departments on the main campus. Cutting those ties, he said, will erode a key connection back to College Station and could undermine quality.

“If we’re not careful, it’s easy to see universities abroad as stepchildren,” Rice said. “They are not. They are part of our family.”

But Malafi said some faculty members in Qatar have been annoyed by the reliance of their performance reviews on department heads thousands of miles away, with whom they do not interact on a daily basis. “Although we were mature enough to do it on our own,” he said.

It is inevitable that a branch campus, particularly one approaching its third decade, will evolve from the parent institution, said Jason Lin, dean of education at Miami University in Ohio. An external campus must operate in two different cultural and organizational environments, but it is also likely to become more locally cohesive over time.

“I’ve always looked at undergraduate campuses as a kind of ‘other Janus looking locally’,” said Lane, co-founder of the Cross-Border Education Research Team, which is now at Penn State University in University Park.

Judgment is messy. Throw out the international item, and it will get more and more messy. Growing pains may be inevitable as university branches mature. At Texas A&M, the standoff around the campus in Qatar also came amid broader clashes between faculty and management over leadership changes and Covid-19 policies. The proposal probably wouldn’t have exploded the way it would if tensions weren’t already high at College Station between the professors and the new president.

In particular, the Qatar proposal alarmed faculty members because banks were already considering recommendations from a consulting firm to restructure on campus, including a proposal to merge three colleges into the College of Arts and Sciences.

According to Mallavi, Qatar’s plans were developed separately from the reorganization of the main campus. While he said he did not believe his proposal violated any university policies on shared governance, he wished it had been more consultative and not given the impression it was a done deal. He promised to work with the committee of administrators and faculty members. “We’ll do it right,” he said.

But Rice, a former journalist, said the incident exposed the extent to which Texas A&M faculty were separated from the Qatar campus and the decisions involved. For example, he asked why faculty leaders were not involved in the protracted negotiations over the last contract with the Qatar Foundation.

This is not unusual, Klebert said. Branch and campus agreements are often concluded without much fanfare by top administrative officials, and when faculty objections do occur, they often focus on issues such as freedom of speech, rather than day-to-day governance.

Rice said he hopes that approach will change at Texas A&M University. “I find it really frustrating that the negotiations go on for two years, that decisions are made, but no one comes, say, to the Senate and says, ‘What do you think about continuing our relationship with Qatar?’” He said. “It could be a great relationship or it might be worth revisiting. The point is, in true shared governance, someone was going to have that conversation.”

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